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Being the Antidote

on Friday, June 7 2013. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
In an attempt at humor, a Jewish parody blog ran the following headline this week: “In a rare moment of achdus (unity), Ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews rejoiced at the news that a Modern Orthodox group had finally made a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).”

The author was referring to a story that made its way to the homepage of CNN.com as well as countless other news outlets.  On Monday, students from a prominent Modern Orthodox High School in New York, on board an airplane awaiting take-off, reportedly refused to stay seated, and continued to use their mobile devices after they were asked to stop.  Despite multiple requests by the flight crew and an attempted intervention by the pilot himself, the students allegedly continued their disobedience.   Ultimately, 101 students and 8 chaperones were asked to exit the plane and the flight was delayed 45 minutes as a result.

The students and the chaperones deny having engaged in unruly behavior or compromising the safety of other passengers.  One chaperone said, “They certainly did not do what the stewardess was claiming they did. That’s what was so bizarre.”  

Now, I wasn’t on the plane and obviously didn’t see what occurred, but I think it is safe to say this:  It is unlikely the students were sitting obediently, following all of the rules and regulations, and carrying themselves with dignity, class, and refinement.  In sports, when a referee or umpire makes a questionable call towards the end of the game, a decision that impacts the very outcome or result, the coach will often be heard saying: “We didn’t lose because of the referee, we should not have put ourselves in the position to be at the mercy and discretion of the ref to begin with.”

While perhaps the flight crew overreacted, it seems to me that the students likely behaved in a questionable fashion, leaving the fate of successful transportation to their class trip in the hands of the discretion and judgment of a flight crew.  Even if the decision of the crew was wrong, why should a decision to expel an entire class from a plane ever need to be made?  Perhaps the chaperones should be saying: “We didn’t get kicked off the plane because of the flight crew.  We should not have been in the position of being at the mercy and discretion of the crew to begin with.”

If you think a group of Modern Orthodox teens have a monopoly on chillul Hashem, you haven’t seen a terribly disturbing and unsettling video making the rounds on social media.  Recently, a biker in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, got cut off by an Orthodox minivan driver. His bike-mounted camera was filming the whole time, capturing the driver boxing him in and harassing him before a throng of other Chassidim surround, intimidate and threaten him.  The situation was clearly escalating until eventually, a driver stops to help the biker and shields him until he is able to escape and pull away.

Our BRS community is very committed to outreach and to sharing the richness of our heritage and birthright, a Torah lifestyle, with our Jewish brothers and sisters.  For a long time, I personally thought the greatest obstacle to this effort is ignorance.  The vast majority of non-observant, non-affiliated Jews have little to no experience with Orthodox people.   To a large extent, I still believe ignorance is the main hurdle evidenced by the fact that I regularly hear from newcomers to our Shul or community, “Wow, Orthodox Jews are not at all what I thought.  They are friendly, kind, welcoming, and most of all, they are normal.”

While ignorance and unfamiliarity are certainly challenges, it is clear to me that perhaps the most formidable obstacle is self-imposed and placed there by ourselves.  For every Orthodox Jew, teen or adult, who behaves in a manner that desecrates God’s name, turns people off to Judaism, and leaves them with unkind attitudes towards orthodoxy, we need at least a thousand acts of Kiddush Hashem, Observant Jews performing phenomenal acts of kindness, courtesy, honesty, friendliness, and righteousness.

The real story about the Modern Orthodox high school kids getting thrown off the plane is the fact that for CNN and other secular media it is a story at all, and a headlining one at that.  I have to imagine schoolchildren on class trips have run-ins with authority on a regular basis in this country.  Yes, being expelled from a plane is extreme, but I think what made the story particularly salacious, and therefore attractive for the media, is the fact that the alleged perpetrators are Orthodox Jews.

The world expects more from us.  They believe something that perhaps many of us fail to subscribe to ourselves, or we neglect to remember as often as we should.  Torah values and a Torah lifestyle are supposed to improve us, shape and mold us to be better, refine our character, guide our behavior, and impact our very essence.  The world expects Torah Jews to be measurably more ethical and moral, more honest in business dealings, easier to work with, having greater integrity, and making decisions with a precisely calibrated moral compass.  When instead they find over 100 of us being disobedient on a plane or having an altercation in the street, it becomes newsworthy.

Between ignorance and unfamiliarity, goons and buffoons who create chillul Hashems, and agenda-driven Jewish leaders of other denominations breeding hostility and contempt towards Orthodoxy, we must do more and we must do better.

The antidote and the solution are up to us.  Not only do acting with derech eretz and behaving like a mensch never come in conflict with following halacha, Jewish law is all about crafting us into the best mensches and acting with the greatest derech eretz possible.   

We need not behave in any extraordinary manner or take radical steps to solve this problem.  All we, the observant community, must do is live up to the fair expectation the world and the Torah have set for us – to be faithful, honest, kind, courteous, and ethical.  Let’s get to work.

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