In last week’s column I published a letter from a young woman who was raised in an assimilated, Reform home, but something in her soul always yearned to make a connection with Hashem and her Jewish roots. Unfortunately however, despite the fact that she grew up in a predominantly Orthodox community in New York, no one reached out to her. None of her neighbors ever thought of inviting her for a Shabbos meal, to shul, or their sukkah, and the yearning in her heart remained unfulfilled. And so it was that she became easy prey for an evangelical missionary who enticed her into being baptized and joining a Messianic Christian sect.
For 13 long years she was a member of this group. However, she could find no peace and yearned for “Emes.” Then, one day, while visiting her parents [back in the Orthodox community where she grew up], she stopped in at the local public library where she discovered my first book, Jewish Soul On Fire. The book pierced her neshamah and her tears just flowed. At the same time, she bought an ArtScroll Chumash and read Parshas Ha’azinu. Thus, her journey home began. Today, Baruch Hashem, she is married, has two little children, and is blessed with a true Torah home.
She wrote to me to express her appreciation, and although I already responded to her privately, I felt it was important to share her experiences with you, my dear readers, so that we might learn from them and rectify the painful vacuum in our community. Her letter compelled us to ask “How?” Yes, how could it happen that a child, growing up in an Orthodox neighborhood in which Torah values prevail, could fall victim to missionaries?
How could it have happened that no one invited her for Shabbos? Where was Ahavas Yisroel (love of one’s fellow Jew)? Where was areivus – mutual responsibility? Where were these pillars of Jewish life? Why could they not protect her from those tragic 13 years?
Our Torah teaches that if a dead body is found abandoned, then the sages, the leaders of the nearest town, must make atonement and declare, “Our hands did not spill this blood” (Deut. 21: 6-7).
Could anyone in his right mind imagine that the sages would be guilty of such a heinous crime? Of course not. Nevertheless, if a man’s body is found on the road, forsaken, then the leaders of the nearest community must assume responsibility for this terrible neglect. Now if this holds true in regard to a forsaken body, we must ask ourselves how the Torah would view the abandonment of Yiddishe neshamos? The young woman’s question, “Why didn’t anyone reach out to me? Why didn’t any of my Orthodox neighbors invite me to their shul, Shabbos lunch, or their sukkah?” These are the questions that cut to the heart of the problem.
And if I may, I would like to add my own question. “How is it that no one even thought of giving this girl a book that would connect her to her Jewish faith – to Torah? Why did she have to discover my book by chance in the public library after 13 years of groping in darkness?” Who knows how many more innocent Yiddishe neshamos are being lost daily before our very eyes in our own neighborhoods?
It is for this reason that I decided to publish her letter, so that all of us might re-think and re-examine our relationship with our more secular, assimilated Jewish brethren, be they neighbors, fellow students or co-workers. The very least we can do (even if for some personal reason we cannot invite them for a Shabbos) is to offer them the gift of friendship, a book, or invitation to a Torah class.
Nowadays, Baruch Hashem, there are numerous such classes in every Jewish community. My own Torah classes take place every Tuesday evening at Kehilath Jeshurun at 125 East 85 Street at 7:30 p.m. and on Thursday evenings at the Hineni Center at 232 West End Avenue at 8:30 p.m. And if you e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org) to alert me that you are bringing others I will be happy to welcome and speak to them privately.
At this point, I would like to make a disclaimer in defense of the beautiful Torah communities in New York and all over the United States. In all fairness, I believe that we can be justifiably proud of the incredible chesed in the Torah world nowadays. I know for a fact that every Shabbos, there are families hosting people who come from varied backgrounds in their homes. But, and here is the big but, this does not mean that there may not be someone who is totally disconnected to Torah residing on the very same block as an Orthodox person, without the two ever meeting.
Our 21st-century culture has conditioned us to believe that if we want to maintain peace, we have to “mind our own business” and not “meddle” in other people’s lives. So, while we may be very receptive to saying “yes” to hosting a group visiting our homes for Shabbos, we are hesitant to approach a neighbor lest we be accused of invading his or her privacy.
Thus it can happen that secular Jews living in religious neighborhoods may never experience the majesty of Shabbos, although its radiance can be glimpsed right next door. Similarly, the neighbors of this young woman may have been hesitant to approach her lest they be accused of “missionizing” or invading her privacy. Sadly, I have seen a number of examples of such incidents. Shamefully, the tensions between the religious and the irreligious living side-by-side can at times be very fierce and even ugly.
Secular Jews may feel that the Orthodox look askance at their life styles and have a holier-than-thou attitude. While in some cases, this may be valid, more often than not, these feelings are misread. Just the same, many sincere people are reluctant to reach out lest their gestures be misinterpreted.
To be sure, there are other difficulties as well. There are those in the Orthodox community who fear that the secular influence of the non-observant will negatively impact on their own families and therefore are hesitant to invite people into their homes. Then there are still others who simply feel inadequate: “What if they ask me questions and I don’t know how to respond?” they worry.
Bottom line, however, I believe that most Orthodox Jews would be happy to reach out to their brethren if they knew how to go about it. Lacking the tools, they live insulated lives, which is misinterpreted as “judgmental” by the non-observant. I encountered this very problem many moons ago, when I was privileged to launch kiruv – outreach, and while great strides have been made since those pioneering years, much still remains to be done.
The time has come to rectify the blatant neglect. Having lost six million holy neshamos, we can’t afford to lose millions more to a spiritual Holocaust. Every Jew who believes, every Jew who loves his people, must become pro-active and reach out. One day soon, G-d will ask us to give an accounting for the lost Yiddishe neshamos that were left abandoned on the highways of life – even at our own doorsteps.
Will we parrot the infamous words of Kayin, “HaShomer Achi anochi? – Am I my brother’s keeper?” or will we respond like the Patriarch Abraham who said, “Hineni – Here I am” and kindled the light of G-d in the hearts of all those with whom he came in contact.
(To Be Continued)