Thursday, November 28, 2013

A True Friend

Pope Francis & the Chief Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein has a wonderful post at CrossCurrents about the current Pope. And I could not agree more with him.

I have noted the change in the Church’s relationship for a long time… and have had the same reaction from some of my fellow Orthodox Jews that he mentioned in his opening words. 

I think it is imperative that we see this new reality of our time and address it more publicly. Perhaps the members of the Agudah Moetzes can make some positive and warm pubic statements about the Catholic Church (and even Evangelical Christians like Pastor John Hagee) that will get us beyond the no longer valid hatreds of old.

I should add that a lot of credit goes to Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein who has pioneered good relations with Evangelical Christians. Although he is very controversial (to say the least) and I disagree with some of what he does, you cannot take this achievement away from him. His words follow:

Many Jews are so scarred (rightfully so!) by stories of horrors perpetrated upon us in the name of Christianity, that those stories become a defining part of their reality. Christian hatred of Jews is a given, as real and permanent as gravity. They cannot imagine a world without it. If you are one of those, please stop reading. The rest is not for you.

If you have room in your world view for change in the way some people relate to us, and we to them, you might be interested in learning about salient points of the major document (officially called an apostolic exhortation) that Pope Francis released a short while ago.

Overall, the document is extremely warm and accommodating to Jews and Judaism. It speaks of friendship for a Jewish people that enjoys significance in an irrevocable covenantal relationship with G-d. It owns up to the debt owed to them, and apologizes for their past persecution when done by Christians.

The document includes language important to supporters of Israel looking to defeat the Palestinian and BDS wars against her legitimacy. As I generally eschew political commentary in these pages, I will not write here about that part of the story. BE”H, I hope to publish on it in the general media. I will bring one point, however, to the attention of our readers. I believe it presents an important compliment – and challenge – to frum Jews.

The Vatican regards itself as a sovereign state. It has conducted its own foreign affairs for centuries. Nothing gets out with the imprimatur of the Church without every word and nuance being weighed and measured. There are no haphazard or casual expressions, unless multiple people have blundered. Those people are expert in diplomacy, and assessing the impact their words will have on those who scrutinize them.

This makes it interesting to compare what the document says about Muslims (to whom the Pope also extends the olive branch) with what it says concerning Jews.

Here, in part, is what the document says about Muslims and Islam:
Our relationship with the followers of Islam has taken on great importance, since they are now significantly present in many traditionally Christian countries, where they can freely worship and become fully a part of society. We must never forget that they “profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, who will judge humanity on the last day”… It is admirable to see how Muslims both young and old, men and women, make time for daily prayer and faithfully take part in religious services. 
In order to sustain dialogue with Islam, suitable training is essential for all involved, not only so that they can be solidly and joyfully grounded in their own identity, but so that they can also acknowledge the values of others, appreciate the concerns underlying their demands and shed light on shared beliefs. We Christians should embrace with affection and respect Muslim immigrants to our countries in the same way that we hope and ask to be received and respected in countries of Islamic tradition. I ask and I humbly entreat those countries to grant Christians freedom to worship and to practice their faith, in light of the freedom which followers of Islam enjoy in Western countries! 
The interest in Muslims is magnified by their immigration to Christian countries. There is some sharing of values. Many take G-d seriously. Francis gives them not so subtle mussar about the importance of learning to respect others, and asks for reciprocity of the freedoms and privileges that Christians have given them.

All of this is absent in his treatment of Jews. The connection of Christianity to Judaism is organic, not accidental. He does not ask anything of them, but talks of friendship and a special relationship.

But most important, at least in my reading, are some key words in Section 249: “G-d continues to work among the people of the Old Covenant and to bring forth treasures of wisdom which flow from their encounter with his word.” In other words, there is recognition and expectation that Jews remain an עם חכם ונבון/ a wise and comprehending people. They possess Divine wisdom, and those who seek deeper understanding of His ways ought to listen to what they have to say, when they speak in the name of the Torah.

Some of us – myself included – have witnessed this thirst for Jewish insight again and again, from people light-years away from converting. Some of us realize that we are in the first generation in many centuries that we can even think of trying to apply the Torah’s wisdom to the questions that trouble general society – not as part of a polemic, but simply to enhance the good of humanity, and Hashem’s glory.

It is quite a challenge. How much are we doing to own up to it, and to equip ourselves and our children with the tools to create a kind of Kiddush Hashem that was unthinkable for centuries?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A KIddush HaShem Goes Viral

We need more Isaac Theils. From Tablet - an article by Tova Ross
In a long life of quiet good deeds that generally go unnoticed except by the individuals on the receiving end, Isaac Theil, 65, had no hidden agenda last Thursday when he felt his neighbor on the Brooklyn-bound Q train nod off on his shoulder, and then let him sleep soundly there for the better part of the next hour.
A fellow passenger, taken by this scene, was further struck when Theil politely declined his offer to rouse the dozing straphanger. “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?” said Theil. The astounded passenger took a furtive photograph, posted itwith an accompanying caption on Reddit, and the rest, as they say, is social media history: the photo quickly made its way through the blogosphere and garnered over one million “likes” and nearly 200,000 shares on Facebook.
“The whole thing was happenstance, and I simply remembered the times my own head would bop on someone’s shoulder because I was so tired after a long day,” Theil recounted, sounding bewildered by his sudden catapult into viral Internet fame. The still-unidentified young man remained fast asleep as the train pulled into Newkirk Avenue, Theil’s usual point of departure, and Theil gently eased him off his shoulder before exiting. “When I got off the subway, I didn’t give it a second thought.”
It was Theil’s sister in Montreal, Pam Russ, who called him early the next morning to let him know he appeared in an online photo; her eagle-eyed son had spotted his uncle and quickly alerted family members. Before long, the phone calls poured in from family and friends who were seeing it everywhere. When Theil arrived at shul for Shabbat the next day, the rabbi gave him a huge smile and two thumbs up before making his way over to praise his Kiddush Hashem.
“Who lets a random stranger sleep on his shoulder in germ-filled New York City?” asked Theil’s 32-year-old daughter Helah. “But this is just typical of Dad.”
Other family members, friends, and neighbors corroborated Helah’s observation of her father’s penchant for doing good deeds in his typically unassuming manner; many shared their experiences with these acts of kindness online. Yehuda Jason Schupper, a neighbor of Theil’s younger daughter Shira, 27, shared the time his wife was waiting outside for an ambulance to take their daughter to the emergency room after an accidental injury. “Mr. Thiel observed my frantic wife and though he knew her only in passing, immediately offered to drive her to the hospital and then did so,” he wrote.
“Isaac’s lovely act of graciousness towards a stranger on the train is emblematic of the life that he leads and behavior that he strives for,” said Orlee Zorbaron, a close relative. “He is a kind and generous person who takes to heart the Jewish tenet of ‘do unto others,’” she added.
Pnina Rudy, a longtime family friend, said that in the 20-plus years she’s known him, “Mr. Theil has always taken a genuine interest in people and asks how they’re doing because he really wants to know, and not because he’s fulfilling some pat obligation to make small talk.”
Even Helah’s ex-husband, Yehuda Feldman, speaks kindly of him; maintaining warm relationships to ex in-laws might be the most irrefutable evidence to Theil’s all-around likeability factor.
“Despite the fact that I am no longer married to his daughter, Isaac made sure to let me know that he would always be there for me if I ever needed anything,” Feldman said. “Needless to say, this attitude is not very common in cases of divorce.”
Elad Nehorai, a popular blogger who runs Pop Chassid, was the one who pulled the photo from Reddit and first posted it on Facebook. As the director of marketing for Charidy, a startup dedicated to reinventing the way people support charities, Nehorai is always on the lookout for things to post on social media that foster communal goodwill. “I thought the photo was a perfect fit as soon as I saw it, though I had no way of knowing if it would take off,” he explained. “Clearly, people have responded, and I think it’s small moments like this one, which are easily captured and spread across the Internet, that help to restore people’s faith in humanity amid the terrible news stories that we’re bombarded with on a frequent basis.”
Of course, the Internet also invites remarks from those who are more small-minded, and several commentators have offered up their worst racial assumptions about the image. Others have taken offense to the photo caption’s references to the religion and race of the two men, as though that was what made the story so compelling.
“Maybe the photo wouldn’t have become so popular if people weren’t seeing a Jewish man with a yarmulke and a black man in a hood, and because they might not necessarily correlate the two,” theorized Theil. “But there is only one reason that I didn’t move, and let him continue sleeping, and that has nothing to do with race. He was simply a human being who was exhausted, and I knew it and happened to be there and have a big shoulder to offer him.”
Theil jokes that his 15 minutes of viral fame are almost up, but he gets serious when he says that what he hopes people remember is not him so much as the opportunity to help the next person out, whether it’s on the subway or elsewhere. “I would love for people to use this as a lesson to just be good to each other.”
Tova Ross is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Huffington Post. She is a contributing blogger at