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