Over the past ten months that we’ve lived in Charleston, SC, I’ve written about a number of reasons why we love living here: the beautiful downtown, the warm and embracing Jewish community, the amazing people we have met, and, of course, the dolphins.
Those are all true. But I’ve avoided writing about one reason, the main reason that I feel I’ve found a haven in this beautiful city: I rarely hear the words “modern Orthodox.” Nor do I hear the word “yeshivish.” People here do not know about, nor participate in what I non-affectionately call “the hashkafa (religious worldview) wars.”
I used to work in a school where the question often arose as to whether I am yeshivish or modern Orthodox. My students would analyze my practices to decide which camp I fall into. No TV – must be yeshivish. But she teaches oral law to women and loves learning halacha – modern Orthodox. Wears a sheitel without leaving out a lot of hair – yeshivish. Does not accept the concept that rabbis are infallible – modern Orthodox. Back and forth they would go, trying to neatly stack me and my husband in one of the two boxes that they knew.
I loved those kids, I loved the school, and I loved the community. And I would excuse these questions as coming from kids who have limited experience with different hashkafot. But the truth is, these questions are not limited to high school students. I’ve been asked by adults—very knowledgeable adults at that—from New York and from smaller communities, and even by friends. “I just don’t get you,” they’ll say, “What are you?”
And at moments like these, I feel bad for God.
Modern Orthodoxy is not a religion, although, quite honestly, I sometimes believe that people lose sight of what it’s all about and prioritize their hashkafa over God Himself. The words “modern Orthodoxy” mean, and should mean, something different to each person. There is no one modern Orthodox model, nor is there is one yeshivish model, and a person shouldn’t have to belong inside boxes.
The Talmud mentions a number of questions that God will ask us after 120 years. Among them are: Did you deal ethically in business? and Did you set aside time for Torah study?
I don’t profess to know it all, and I’ve never been dead before, but I can promise you: God will not ask if you stood rigorously on the principles of modern Orthodoxy. Nor will He ask if you followed the community’s standards of what is considered to be “yeshivish enough.”
We just enjoyed a fantastic Shavuot retreat in Charleston. Our committee worked incredibly hard on the program, ensuring that every detail would go well. The food, the decorations, the accommodations, the welcome bags… But what we realized is that there are two details (probably more) that you have no control over. The weather (which was, baruch Hashem, amazing) and the kind of people who attend your program. If people are complainers, or unfriendly, and refuse to mingle—you have a disaster of a program, no matter how well you planned.
When I first saw our participants on Friday night, I admit I was a little nervous. It was a real mix: some women wore sheitels and had husbands with beards, other couples appeared more “modern.” Would they mingle, I wondered, or stick to their hashkafa groups? Would our Charleston Jews see an example of the religious divide that often exists “up North?”
I feel so blessed to report that throughout the entire program, our participants were warm and friendly to each other and to our local Charlestonians (and amazingly, did not complain at all! Not only that, several sent donations and letters of appreciation!!!).
Hashkafa was not an issue. People mingled, they made new friends and it did not seem to matter if you came from Teaneck, Monsey or Los Angeles. It was fascinating, because while they came to absorb Charleston culture, they actually got a glimpse of what Charleston is all about without realizing it: there is no hashkafic divide in Charleston. There are no separate communities of yeshivish and modern Orthodox and shomer Shabbat and not-Shomer Shabbat. We are all one people.
About the Author: Ariela Davis is a native New Yorker, and the Rebbetzin of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel. A veteran educato, she in New York, Israel and Houston, and was recently hired as the Judaic Studies Coordinator of Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school. She writes a blog called Constant Comments, which includes meaningful and often humorous perspectives on her life as a Rebbbetzin in the deep South.
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