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