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Respect or Ridicule?

David Zwiebel

In early April, more than 700 people attended a dinner in the New York Marriott Marquis sponsored by Hillel, the national Jewish campus organization. They came to pay tribute to Hillel's outgoing president, Richard Joel, who is leaving the organization -- after more than 14 years at its helm -- to become the new president of Yeshiva University.

As one might expect at a tribute dinner like this, speaker after speaker told of Mr. Joel's sterling character and exemplary achievements. But one speaker broke the mold. Let's pick up the narrative -- or as much of it as I feel comfortable repeating -- from the report that appeared in The New York Jewish Week:

"When mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, a professed and outspoken atheist, took the stage dressed as a Chassidic rebbe, complete with caftan, streimel and payot, the audience roared. There was much laughter when he peppered his remarks with 'baruch HaShems' and other Hebrew words. When he went on to praise Joel for leaving 'the world of goyim,' with its [here Mr. Steinhardt is quoted as using unbecoming imagery to describe immoral gatherings and immodest women] -- 'and that was just at last weekend's Shabbaton' -- many guffawed.

"Steinhardt stayed in character throughout his brief performance, welcoming Joel to 'the world of the tzadiks' and noting 'I used to be a [I delete an epithet here]' but 'I spit on my old self. The days of moshiach must be near.'"

The uncontrollable convulsions that the last knee-slapper must have generated are left to the Jewish Week reader's imagination.

Alas, there were some old fuddy-duds in the audience who didn't get the joke. "Attending officials from Yeshiva University seemed embarrassed," wrote the Jewish Week, "at least one Reform rabbi told friends he was offended, and a Hillel official privately bemoaned the fact that the organization's reputation for inclusion, tolerance and respect was misrepresented."

Told the following day that some had failed to appreciate his humor, Mr. Steinhardt seemed surprised. His presentation, he explained to the reporter, was "intended as a little bit of a spoof of the Orthodox, it's true," but he used the caricature of a Chassidic rebbe to "be amusing to just about the full range of Jews."


As one who read the account and was not amused, I wrote Mr. Steinhardt a letter objecting to his tasteless mimicry and mockery, and suggested that an apology was in order. He respectfully declined my suggestion, and offered one of his own in return: "Perhaps instead you might see your way clear to do something to help your fellow Jews, but I suspect that is beyond both your ability and your interest."

Michael Steinhardt is a very wealthy man. He is one of the most prominent Jewish philanthropists in the United States. Much of his philanthropic energy is devoted to causes designed to preserve Jewish identity and promote Jewish continuity, such as Project Birthright, Hillel and the Jewish Life Network -- this despite his self-identification as an unabashed atheist.

I leave it to wiser others to ponder the bizarre spectacle of a man deeply committed to combating American Jewish apathy and assimilation, while at the same time professing disbelief in G-d and the Jewish faith. Perhaps they will understand the mindset of a champion of Jewish continuity who sees fit to publicly mock the dress, language, lifestyle and beliefs of a sector of the American Jewish community that has faithfully and successfully transmitted authoritative Jewish identity and pride to future generations. Perhaps they will comprehend the thought process that leads an obviously intelligent man to conclude that one who tills in the fields of Agudath Israel has no interest in helping fellow Jews. These are things beyond my meager comprehension.

The Jewish Week recently carried another story that caught my attention as well. It was about a Shabbaton in Boro Park, sponsored jointly by Agudath Israel and the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals, at which 150 "newly observant Jews and interested secular Jews" enjoyed home hospitality, visited with prominent rabbis, attended Shabbat services, shopped and toured a matzah factory.

A letter from William Russman and his family, addressed to Agudath Israel, is eloquent testimony to the power and beauty of the Shabbaton:

"We enjoyed every minute of it -- we only wish we had more time there! It was very worthwhile for our whole family to attend and we have very special impressions and memories to share with our friends here in Chicago. Our Belz family hosts, the Sanders, made us feel very much at home. Thank you again for the opportunity to experience so much Torah and Jewish life in one weekend."

At midnight Friday night, reports the Jewish Week, Suzanne Helfand of Dallas "awoke and looked out her window to see the street filled with chasidim leaving an event at their nearby synagogue. 'I was like, wow where's my camera, but it was Shabbos! But I have a picture in my head of all the different streimels.'"

The 700 Hillel dinner guests also have a picture of a shtreimel in their heads.

Which shtreimel image, one wonders, will ultimately prevail in the battle for the hearts and minds of our dear Jewish brothers and sisters? That of a wealthy philanthropist, for whom the Jewish future will be built by holding up classical Judaism as an object of caricature and scorn? Or that of a young woman for whom a Shabbos in Boro Park is a revelation of faith?

I'll put my money -- paltry as it may be next to Michael Steinhardt's -- on the latter.


David Zwiebel is executive vice president for government and public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. As a lawyer, he almost certainly sacrificed far more lucrative opportunities in order to work on behalf of the Jewish Community.



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