Us and Us — A Community Conversation

Growing up in Rockland County, I remember my religious school’s class trip to New Square back in 1976. It was like a trip to Museum Village, a journey back in time, a glimpse into the world of Fiddler on the Roof. We walked through the dusty village square, gawking at the black-clad men and the long-skirted girls, shopping in the grocery store for kosher snacks. It was a museum trip–souvenirs and all–to witness a Jewish community frozen in time. Thirty-eight years later, the community is far from little frozen Anatevka. It has grown exponentially in population and geography, and it has developed into a powerful and well-organized entity. Sadly, religious and political leaders of this insular Jewish community have earned a reputation of hiding social ills, coercing those who dare dissent, engaging in questionable politics, and dismantling a public school system for its own benefit.

When it comes to Jewish law, truly pious Jews have always believed in living beyond the letter of the law. “Fences” are erected around the law to make sure that core principles are not violated. While the Sabbath technically begins at sundown on Friday, we bring in the Sabbath with candle lighting 18 minutes before sundown so as not to encroach on the boundary and possibly err. Religiously observant Jews have similarly tried to abide by the spirit of the law. While I would be within the law to leave a television on in order to watch a Friday night playoff game, I would certainly be violating the spirit of Sabbath rest. Another fact to consider is that, wherever Jews have lived in the world, we have always lived by the principle that the law of the land is the law, so long as it doesn’t demand that we violate our religious law.

It is so disappointing, therefore, whenever we see religiously observant Jews engaged in questionable ethical and legal behavior. To hide behind the legality of one’s actions, knowing that one is in violation of the spirit of the law, is unethical conduct whether the law is of a religious or secular nature. And to ignore that reality is to ignore the Divine calls to the Jewish people: “Be holy because I am holy” and “I shall be sanctified by those who draw near to me.” Finally, such bad behavior falls far short of the prophet Isaiah’s expectation that we would be a “light unto the nations.”

As Jews we are obligated to recognize that we are all responsible for one another; therefore the unethical and possibly illegal actions of our brothers in the East Ramapo School District-whether they involve the use of school funds, the hiding of domestic or sexual abuses, or the corruption of public officials-must be exposed and investigated. If there are ways to bring state and federal powers to bear and to trump local interests, we must advocate to that end. We are further obligated as Jews to value every person as having been created in the image of God and to strive for good relationships with our neighbors. By Jewish law, if we stand idly by the wrongdoing of another, we inherit that sin as our own.

As Jews-and as Americans-we are obligated to wear our Jewishness with pride. We must continue to advocate for the rich diversity of a society that has been such a haven for the Jewish people, and for others who have come here with a dream to live free and succeed by individual aspirations and efforts. We should tout our historic and ongoing charitable support for the public, cultural and social institutions that define this great country.

Join Rabbi Drill, our Rabbinic intern Ariella Rosen, Rabbi Adam Baldachin of the Montebello Jewish Center, and me in a “Community Conversation with Clergy” on Thursday night at 7:30pm at the OJC. Together we will explore the difficult issues confronting the East Ramapo school district and its predominantly Orthodox school board. We will discuss the ethical obligations that shape our private and public response to these events, and learn about an interfaith clergy effort that is currently taking shape.
Rabbi Craig Scheff

7 responses to “Us and Us — A Community Conversation”

  1. Anita Gottlieb says :

    Very well said!

  2. Joel Scott Strauss says :

    The problem with religion is the people themselves. In order to spirituality elevate ourselves, is to first recognize our human weaknesses and face them. We should not hide from those weaknesses in to save face. It is very sad that those so-called observant people think themselves to be higher than others, even to hide their sins. One may hide his/her wrongdoings from others, but not from HaShem who see all.

  3. Esther Schulman says :

    Dear Rabbis Scheff and Drill;

    Todah Rabah for organizing tonight’s discussion, which is on a vital issue that impacts every Jew in Rockland and beyond. I’m so sorry that I can’t participate tonight; I wanted to be there and hope that you discuss it during your sermon this Shabbat morning.

    Yasher Koach,

    Esther Schulman

  4. Miriam &Milton Rosenstock says :

    as residents for many years of East Ramapo,, we look forward to this very important discussion tonight. Thank you for arranging it. Mimi & Mel Rosenstock

  5. Miriam &Milton Rosenstock says :

    As long time residents of East Ramapo and its formerly superior school district, we look forward to this very important and urgent discussion. Mimi & Mel Rosenstock ,

  6. Leslie Cooper says :

    Hallelujah and Amen! We are creating community with our neighbors, people who want and need who We are and what We stand for. Tonight’s discussion brought a little light to the dark road E Ramapo families are traveling to obtain justice and a quality education for their children. I look forward to supporting all your endeavors on the part of E Ramapo and their families. Gd willing “we will Overcome”! May this Intiative Be Blessed and May our voices be Heard!
    Nurse Leslie

  7. Sally Kagan says :

    My sincere thanks and appreciation to the clergy involved in organizing last evening’s meeting. It was a very powerful moment for me, personally, in helping me find a way to “not stand idly by”. As a school nurse in East Ramapo for the past 20 years, I have witnessed first hand the destructive changes that have caused our public school children to lose out on many programs and opportunities that could enhance their education and feelings of self-worth. To think that it is “my people” who are powerful enough to create this schism is abhorrent to me! At the same time, I struggle with the anti-Semitism that has resulted, both from within the non-Hasidic Jewish community and the non-Jewish community.
    The take-away I got from last evening’s meeting was for me, a bit shocking. You proposed that rather than try to engage the Hasidic community into building a bridge to understanding and change, we will simply by-pass them. By organizing the moderate voices of Jewish community, to join with other community groups, we can show the school district, the community, the county and the state, that we will not stand idly by while an extreme group rides rough-shod over our moral and ethical values…values of Torah, as well as the values we hold dear as Americans. Powerful words and action that I am still trying to absorb this morning!
    What was not answered for me last night was this…How do I, as a Jew, as a daughter of Holocaust survivors, respond to sometimes venomous anti-Semitic rants? There is no defending the actions of the Hasidic community, but my fear is that by not responding, this hatred continues to grow until it encompasses all Jews.
    Any advice for me???

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