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Message in a Bottle

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Too often, Jews are taught to view Jews of other stripes as people on "the other side of the fence." Though it is not the habit or intent of to entertain inter-denominational Jewish squabbles, this piece is worth reading - because whatever your own view, you are probably familiar with the pain and disillusionment reflected in this article.
When the oddly shaped package arrived in the mail, several of my colleagues at Agudath Israel happened to be in my office. I took the cylindrical 20-inch mailing container in hand and looked at the return address. It was from Mr. Blue*, an older gentleman in Northern California with whom I have been corresponding for several months.

Mr. Blue, who had first contacted me to take rather strong issue with something I had written in a national Jewish magazine, had never made a secret of his negative feelings for Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Judaism, to which I personally adhere. We argued back and forth in letters over those months, he quoting news reports and enclosing press clippings and I responding with protestations, corrections and explanations.

"It's from someone not exactly enamored of us 'Ultras'," I told my friends with a laugh. After making a lame joke about the package ticking, I tore off the wrapping and unveiled a two piece Styrofoam container which, when taken apart, yielded... a bottle of fine kosher Cabernet.

All of us smiled, and I put the cherished gift on my desk, where it stayed for most of the day, a reminder of one Jew's gesture of good will toward another - and a spur to thought.

There are no Orthodox Jews where Mr. Blue lives. He had formed his opinion of the Jewish religious heritage and those dedicated to it from the only sources available to him: the pages of newspapers and word of less-than-friendly mouths - some, no doubt, speaking stridently from pulpits. And so his first missive had been accusatory and indignant in tone. All the same, though, I realized from the start, he had bothered to write, and that says he cares. And so I had written him back in a friendly tone, expressing the hurt rather than the anger that his words -- a hodgepodge of common misconceptions and overheard half-truths -- had caused me. And so it was that our extended correspondence began.

Now, many months later, Mr. Blue still sends me press reports of outrageous statements by some Orthodox rabbis (often misquoted, still more often misunderstood), displays biases, and misconstrues things he reads; he may never fully accept my point of view. Yet he has, I think, come to realize that Orthodox Jews are not the shallow caricatures he once assumed, and that we consider all Jews to be parts of the Jewish people. He has been forced to concede, to boot, that we are real people, people from whom he can elicit a reasoned response, people with whom he can have a good argument, people whose day he can brighten with a bottle of wine.

And even as he has, I hope, learned a bit from me; I know I have learned much from him. Not only about the depth of misconception that some Jews, sadly, harbor about the Orthodox world, but also about how deeply caring and serious about Judaism a self-described non-observant Jew can be, about how hurtful and harmful unwisely chosen Orthodox words and deeds can be to our precious fellow Jews -- and, most important, about the holy bond of Jewish peoplehood that transcends levels of observance.

Over the course of the day, the bottle of wine on my desk jogged my memory and brought back another recent interaction I had with someone not well disposed toward Orthodoxy.

A letter to the editor had appeared in a Jewish magazine. The letter, written by a teen-aged girl, had apparently been inspired by an article in an earlier issue of the periodical, in which a liberal rabbi had contended that Orthodox Jews have contempt for Jews who are not like themselves. "Why," wrote the young woman, "when there is so much anti-Semitism in the world, must fellow Jews hate us as well?"

I was greatly agitated after reading the letter, deeply pained that anyone - not to mention a "Jewish leader" -- could so outrageously slander other Jews and bring such needless anguish to an innocent young Jewish soul. I simply couldn't concentrate, and so I picked up the phone and dialed information for the girl's New Jersey town.

There would probably be many listings for her last name, I told myself, too many to sift through.

There was only one; I wrote it down.

Taking a deep breath, I dialed the number and asked for Michelle*. She came to the phone and, after apologizing profusely for calling her out of the blue and promising that I would not call her again unless she asked me to, I spoke my piece:

"G-d forbid! Orthodox Jews don't hate you! We may have serious disagreements with the philosophy of the movement with which your family is affiliated. As you get older and learn more, you will be able to evaluate those concerns for yourself. But you and your family are precious Jewish brothers and sisters to us!"

A pause, and then she responded.

"You sound like a nice person," she said, "but I'm sorry. I can't accept the truth of what you're saying."

I was stunned. "But why not?" I asked.

"Because I've been taught otherwise. For years."

"But what you've been taught simply isn't true!"

"That might be so, but we've spent many classes in my Temple school discussing the Orthodox attitude, and I can't just suddenly take your word against all that I've been taught by my teachers."

I was dumbfounded and deeply hurt, but realized that there was nothing to gain by pestering the clearly intelligent and honest but resolute young woman. I begged her to take down my number in case she ever wanted to talk further but promised not to call her again. Though the memory of our conversation remains a deeply painful one, I have kept my word.

As I gazed at the bottle of wine on my desk, though, and endured the odd looks cast by those who passed by my open door, I offered a silent prayer.

Even if we Jews continue, tragically, to grow apart, I prayed, even if we insist on following divergent paths into what we dare to trust will be the Jewish future, may we all endeavor to emulate Mr. Blue - disagreeing if we must, even vehemently if it's warranted. And reject, emphatically, resolutely and entirely, the path chosen by Michelle's teachers.

* Names have been changed


Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

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