When you hear the term activist, what comes to mind?
If you’re like me, you probably think of a person super-passionate about immigration reform, saving the whales or something like that. Yet, in the past few years there has risen a new brand of activist, individuals who are super-passionate about making a Kiddush Hashem.
Kiddush Hashem refers to “I shall be sanctified amidst the children of Israel” (Vayikra 22:32) and “making a kiddush Hashem” refers to the many ways one can “sanctify G-d’s Name” with our choices. The Talmud (Pesachim 53b) lists the prophets Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah as ultimate role models of “sanctifying G-d’s Name” by being forced to give up their life for their religious beliefs. Even a quick Google search of “kiddush Hashem” results in a definition of “religious martyrdom in times of persecution.” To this day, many Jewish communities refer to the victims of the Holocaust with the honorific “Kedoshim,” for they died “Al kiddush Hashem.” Yet there are many who understand “kiddush Hashem” to encompass more. As the Rebbe of Munkacz, author of the Minchas Elazar, once taught “Those who died in the Holocaust are called Kedoshim because they had no choice, but kiddush Hashem can only truly happen when one has a choice.”
The most popular way of understanding kiddush Hashem is as any action you choose to do that brings honor and glory to G-d in the eyes of those around you (Acting in a way that “desecrates G-d’s Name” would be termed a “chilul Hashem.”). We see this idea traced back to the days of Moses and Aaron who were punished because of their failure to sanctify G-d’s Name in the eyes of their people (Bamidbar 20:12; Devarim 32:51). Perhaps the most vivid story recorded in the Talmud elucidating how kiddush Hashem refers to inspiring ethical conduct is that of Rabi Shimon ben Shatach who once bought a donkey from from an Arab merchant. The Rav’s students were delighted to find a jewel hanging from the donkey’s neck. Although the law of the land gave Rabi Shimon permission to keep that jewel, he returned it to its owner, who cried out, “Blessed be the G-d of the Jews Who renders His people so scrupulous in their dealings with other men” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Bava Metziyah, 2:5, 8c).
I believe that the kiddush Hashem activists I’ve recently met are a response to the times that we live in. Our generation is one where the Internet is not only contributing to the explosion of globalization but also to the speed at which even the smallest of our actions can careen around social media. Therefore, acting in a way that “sanctifies G-d” in public is paramount.
Among the many activists I’ve come to know is Alison Josephs who started a “Kiddush Hashem Corner” on her popular website “Jew in the City.” There’s Mrs. Ilana Orange, a chassidic woman from Boro Park who started the “Kiddush Hashem Gemach.” She sends out inspirational messages and practical how-to ideas for acting like a mensch. And there’s even an entire kiddush Hashem educational video series produced by the son of celebrity attorney Ben Brafman.
My friend Shiya Hirsch (Herman) Friedman was recently featured on the cover of Ami magazine for his extraordinary efforts to reform the American prison system. In the article he notes that “Nowadays, things are very different. Today one negative thing about chassidim on social media can go viral and be seen by millions of people. The ratio of instances of “kiddush Hashem” and “chilul Hashem” in the media is very bad, and no one is doing anything about it… There are so many positive stories that could be told about our community that aren’t being reported because the media are unaware of them.” After the article was published, Mr. Friedman received an enormous amount of calls and positive feedback about the article, most of it regarding what he said about kiddush Hashem.
Thankfully, he has a cadre of talented communal leaders working together to create an organization that will become the global address for all kiddush Hashem education and activism (In the interests of complete transparency, he even recruited me to his cause!) One of the people he has been in touch with has been Marc Firestone who has been doing kiddush Hashem activism under the auspices of his own organization, “Project Light.” He chose the name because he feels the best way to be a ”light unto the nations” (Yeshaya 49:6) is to make a kiddush Hashem so that “our speech and action cause people around us to pause and reflect on the best of humanity and that gives people hope that we can indeed raise the standards and make the world a better place.”
One of Firestone’s first projects was aimed at his own community of Talmud-studying, Orthodox Jews. “I started noticing how, whether I like it or not, I’ve become an ambassador for the Jewish people just because I’m wearing a kippah on my head,” he said. “This got me thinking of all the different ways I could either be sanctifying G-d’s Name – by acting like a real mensch or, G-d forbid, doing the opposite.” At the Siyum HaShas in 2012, Firestone and his two sons-in-law, Rabbi Benyamin Moss and Dovid Herzka, gave out thousands of glossy cards reminding people of the importance of making a kiddush Hashem. To this day, Firestone still sees them in people’s cars, homes and synagogues all around the country.
This past summer, Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss, a well-known figure in the Torah world, urged people to do more of this kiddush Hashem activism. “If you pull up to a gas station and someone pumps your gas, don’t just say ‘thank you very much.’ Give them a dollar or fifty cent tip. People don’t do that anymore. Or the next time you go into the deli or the fruit store, ask the man or woman behind the counter their name and then address them by their name. Then the next time you come in, make it a point to remember their name. People don’t do that either. But it will make the clerk feel like a person with an identity.”
Another kiddush Hashem activist is Rabbi Shraga Freedman, a Torah scholar and student of Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, Mashgiach of Beis Medrash Govoah in Lakewood. Rabbi Shraga has published multiple books on the topic of kiddush Hashem and credits Rav Mattisyahu with inspiring him to pursue this unique activism. “Twenty years ago, while I was learning in BMG, I had the good fortune of attending a series of shmuessen from Rav Mattisyahu that profoundly affected me and literally changed my life,” says Rabbi Freedman. “The topic of these shmuessen was the mitzvah of kiddush Hashem, and Rav Mattisyahu quoted Rabbeinu Yonah’s statement in Shaarei Teshuvah (3:158) that the very reason Hashem took Klal Yisrael to be His chosen people, and the purpose of the entire Torah and all of its mitzvos, is for the Jewish people to bring honor to Him.”
Rabbi Freedman decided to study the concept of kiddush Hashem in depth and began organizing his research into a sefer titled Mekadshei Shemecha – Sanctifying the Name. Simultaneously, he began penning a regular column in Yated Neeman which led to a school curriculum on the topic for Torah U’mesorah and a book in English, published by Artscroll, titled “Living Kiddush Hashem.”
Throughout all this, he never forgot how Rav Mattisyahu used to exhort him and his fellow classmates to be cognizant of event the small ways one can make a kiddush Hashem. “[Rav Mattisyahu] would remind us that the purpose of our Torah learning is to create kiddush Hashem, and then he would warn us that if we drove to yeshiva in a way that caused other drivers to think poorly of Hashem’s chosen people, we might very possibly negate the impact of all of the hours of learning we were going to spend there. Throughout our exiles, we have always had one of two choices. In many exiles, we faced terrible persecution and crushing edicts that threatened our allegiance to Hashem and His Torah. Over the centuries, generations of Jews struggled over and over to resist the efforts of our oppressors to tear us away from the Torah, often giving up their lives. But while many of our ancestors passed the test of dying al kiddush Hashem, we are now blessed to be in a different type of exile, one where our challenge is to live al kiddush Hashem. When the Torah lifestyle is lived correctly, it inspires the respect and admiration of others. Let us take advantage of the opportunity afforded to us by this galus and usher in the final Redemption by declaring our commitment to live every day for the sake of kiddush Hashem.”
Other kiddush Hashem activists haven’t been ones who have consciously made this their raison d’etre but who have become defacto models just by who they are and what they do. Judge Ruchie Freier is one example. Hailed by the New York Times as the “Hassidic Superwoman of the Night Court,” Frier is the first chassidic woman to be elected as a Civil Court judge. Many would point to her elegant manner and pride in her heritage as being the ingredients for her kiddush Hashem activism. Indeed, in an interview with the Forward, she said,“I carried my Jewish and Hasidic identity with pride. Many Hasidim will try to blend in, wear a baseball cap over a yarmulke, or a hair covering that looks like everyone else’s hair. You identify who you are and you’re clear about it. I don’t mind if I stand out.”
Since being elected, she has been flown all around the world to share her story and there’s even an award-winning documentary titled “93 Queen” about her efforts to create the first all-female volunteer ambulance corps in New York. As the Hollywood Reporter puts it, “Forget Supergirl and Wonder Woman. To see a real female superhero in action, check out Paula Eiselt’s documentary concerning the creation of an all-female, Hasidic EMT corp.” One of the most significant developments of her quasi-celebrity status is that she has become a kind of ambassador between the chassidic community and the secular world. Yet, she sees nothing contradictory between her cherished religious beliefs and her high-powered, secular career. “We need to unite and champion true Torah values to solve our problem[s]”, she wrote last summer.
Rabbi Benyamin Moss, a talented Torah educator and son-in-law of Mr. Firestone, believes that we all must be “ambassadors” of the Divine and quotes a teaching of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the father of Jewish Neo-Orthodoxy, to illustrate that being an ambassador of G-d is yet another way of understanding the religious creed to “make a kiddush Hashem.” On the verse in Yeshaya 66:1 “…the Heavens are My throne and the Earth My footstool (hadom raglee),” Hirsch points out that the word for “footstool” shares an etymological source with the Hebrew word for the first human being, “Adam.” The lesson is that human beings are ambassadors of the Divine who assist the Divine to “step down” into our world through everything we do. When Moss shared this with me, I was reminded of the teaching of Rav Yerucham Levovitz, the spiritual leader of the Mir Yeshiva in Poland, who explained that kiddush Hashem describes any small, practical action that serves as a vehicle to connect the Divine Presence with our consciousness.
This is the true mantle of a “kiddush Hashem” activist. Not just to be a public relations agent for the Jewish people, but to channel what Rabbeinu Yonah taught over seven hundred years ago:“The entire reason God gave us the Torah and Mitzvot and made us into the Chosen People is so that we [may] make a “Kiddush Hashem” (Rabbeinu Yonah, Sharei Teshuva 3:158). Or, as Rabbi Shraga Freedman confessed to me, “I had always known that kiddush Hashem was a great mitzvah, but I had never actually grasped that it is the very purpose of our existence.”