Note – this post deals with a current event here in NJ. I’m not linking to any of the many news stories – you can google this all and see it if you would like.
The people of Mahwah, New Jersey don’t want me to live near them. I have been wrestling with this truth for a while now. I don’t know what I did to deserve their scorn. Maybe they don’t like that I like walking around in jeans and a t-shirt. Maybe they are afraid that my knowledge of classic rock trivia will negatively influence their children. Could it be that they don’t want empty pizza boxes in the paper recycling bin outside my house? I don’t know. But they have gone on record as saying that they don’t want “the Orthodox” to move in and take over.
Take over. Like I have any interest in anything outside my house.
But they are afraid of me and my dog Sparky. The Jewish community in that area has been working to put up an eiruv – a series of PVC pipes attached to utility poles which creates a legal fiction, an area surrounded by these poles and their wires which can then be treated as a single “private” domain so that those Jews who observe a certain understanding of Jewish law and limitation of behavior on the Sabbath can carry necessary items outside of their houses. An eiruv is what allows Orthodox Jews to push babies in strollers on the Sabbath, to carry house keys, to take a bottle of wine to a friend’s house. It doesn’t actually change anything in the nature of the area enclosed except shift its status under Jewish law. Many, many communities have eiruvs and I have no doubt that a bunch of you readers have traveled within the bounds of one in the past. You wouldn’t have noticed. The markers are not recognizable as anything. In fact, Jews living in neighborhoods surrounded by an eiruv often can’t see it – we rely on a map, and the inspection report of the small group of experts who know what to look for.
But in Mahwah, as has been the case in other areas within the last few years, residents are afraid that this accommodation will attract Orthodox Jews who would then want to move in to the area. Which is true. When looking for someplace to buy a house and raise a family, an Orthodox Jew would look for a house of worship within walking distance, schools close by, stores which carry Kosher food and, very often, an eiruv. So its presence would certainly be a lure for Orthodox Jews. And apparently, that’s bad. We are, I have heard, dirty, cheap, criminals on welfare who want to exclude everyone else from our neighborhoods and force others to abide by our rules. I didn’t know this and I have been Orthodox for a bunch of years. Was there a memo to this effect? I didn’t get it.
In Mahwah, they claim to love diversity and are afraid that letting Orthodox Jews move in will change the nature of the entire town. We will lower their housing values. We won’t send our kids to the local public school, but we will demand a say on the board of education that uses our tax money. We are clearly a feisty bunch.
And I have no doubt that if I were to meet face to face with a resident, he would size me up and say something to the effect of “Oh, we don’t mean you, just the other kind of Orthodox Jew, the Hassidics.” As if that clears everything up. Here’s some news – I need the eiruv as much as any other Orthodox Jew. You can’t claim to want to keep only certain types of Orthodox Jews out and still embrace others. You are rejecting a whole range of people. There is no “them” that doesn’t include “me.” When you are afraid of them, you are afraid of me.
I think that what this situation has done is highlighted that we, as Jews can’t afford to buy into this game of subdividing our religion. We, as “modern Orthodox” Jews, can’t say “those right wing, ultra-Orthodox ones are crazy and I wouldn’t want them to move in, either.” Yes, I know that it seems that some groups on the right look at us as lesser, not even really Jewish. I have seen it and heard it from their mouths (until they meet us as individuals and realize that we aren’t that different). Jews further to the right DO live in smaller, insular groups, because that's part of their understanding of Jewish life. And I DO send my kids to private school, but still feel that if the town government is going to spend my tax money, I should be represented in that process. And we do the same thing when we look at groups to the left of US. They are not really being the right kind of Jews. Well, you know what? We should all, collectively and as a single religion, just shut up about anyone else’s practice of Judaism for a short while and try, just try, to accept others and work together as a single entity, not a fractured one. There are criminals in every subgroup. None is immune to the evils that beset us through our human nature. When we put blinders on and try to find fault only in those others, we feed into the general anti-somebody tenor which puts hate above loving your neighbor.
I know – naïve, idealistic and ultimately impossible, right? I am not advocating giving up our beliefs or even compromising them. I am pushing for practicing what we practice and recognizing that others understand the laws differently and act in accordance with that different take on things. Their practice doesn’t invalidate who I happen to be, and mine shouldn’t attempt to squelch theirs. And when particular practices cause some form of conflict, we can work it out coming from a place of mutual respect, not disdain. Is it impossible? I don’t know, but we won’t ever find out if we don’t try. If the residents of Mahwah see that we fight amongst ourselves, why should they worry when they pick on one group or another? We do the same thing!
Tisha B’Av, the ninth of Av, is coming. This saddest of days reminds us of what we lost because we couldn’t stand together as a people – we gave in to partisan bickering and infighting. Supposedly, we pray each day, week, and year for an end to this exile. And yet we are still fighting. What change have we made to address the specific problems of the Second Temple era? Why should we deserve any divine mercy when we look down on “them” because their practice of Judaism isn’t “right”? We should be inspiring others by our own integrity and not trying to dismiss others because of what label has been slapped on them. And I am speaking to Jews of all stripes, across the continuum that is today's religion.
I don’t have all the answers, and, truth be told, I have no interest in moving to Mahwah. But when they paint all of US with a single brush, our response shouldn’t be to distance ourselves and allow their offensive attitude and exclusionary attitude to be valid as it applies to some phantom “them.” Their hate won’t be solved by a court decision favorable to the eiruv’s exponents. But maybe, our goal shouldn’t be to fix their hate until we have fixed our own.
May we all take a moment this Tisha B’Av to look inward and resolve to act in a way which allows us to be one people. May our fasting, our prayers and our expression of our religion, in whatever way we find meaningful bring us closer to deserving to be treated with respect as we respect others.