Dale Carnegie next door

None of the common stereotypes of charedim infuriates members of the community quite so much as that of mindless, interchangeable automatons blindly following whatever we are told to do by our rabbinic leadership. Because that description of charedim as lacking all individuality, as well as any capacity for independent thought, is so incongruent with reality, we assume that it can be attributed only to malevolent hatred.

Yet it may well be that this tendency to group all strangers on the basis of one or two external similarities is typical of all of us, as a recent experience of mine suggests.

Just after Succot I arrived at work to find the hall in front of my office filled with black-frocked chassidim. Over the next two days, every two or three minutes we would hear cheers coming from the adjacent conference room that would not have been out of place at a Ohio State-Michigan football game.

The conference room, it turned out, was being used for a Dale Carnegie course.

Inasmuch as Dale Carnegie is not exactly a Yiddishe nommen, the association with chassidim puzzled me. My curiosity piqued, I wrangled an invitation to the final session, in which each participant makes a three-minute speech describing why he took the course; some incident in which he has already employed the lessons of the course; what he envisions himself doing in a few months, and how he will feel.

THE FIRST surprise was the participants’ openness in sharing their vulnerabilities with one another. (Though most of the participants were Belzer chassidim, I did not get the feeling that they had known each other well prior to the group.)

One had come to learn how to make friends more easily; another to gain the confidence to give a talmudic discourse in front of a group of peers in yeshiva; a third to be able to lead the daily prayers; a fourth to improve communications with his wife, and yet another so that he could talk more easily to his children.

A few were engaged and obviously concerned with getting married life off to a good start.

By opening up to one another as they had they had made it possible to receive the support and encouragement of the group – i.e., the raucous cheers emanating from the room. And in the process each discovered, as one put it, “abilities I did not dream I possessed.”

One young man who told his parents that he would refuse to speak in front of a group had already done so on the first day. And the one who wanted to be able to lead the prayers led afternoon services the second day.

The participants described how they had learned the power of a smile, a compliment, and speaking with animation. One said he had never before thought of himself as someone who could help others. But by using some of the techniques of the course he had succeeded in drawing his depressed father into a conversation.

Others told how they had carried on conversations with neighbors to whom they had never done more than nod, or even with people they had previously disliked.

One fellow described how, when he returned home from the course one day, his young son asked him as he entered the apartment why he had not greeted his mother-in-law sitting downstairs on a sidewalk bench. He could not understand why the boy was asking since he rarely exchanged more than the most perfunctory few words with his mother-in-law. Nevertheless, he went outside and greeted her. And when she came into the apartment he complimented her on having traveled so far to help another daughter pack her apartment for a move. With that compliment, her face was transformed, and she replied that she only wished she had come earlier.

I AM not a complete stranger to the chassidic community. Of the four or five Torah leaders with whom I speak most frequently and openly, all but one are chassidic. I have close chassidic friends. Still, I found myself amazed by much of what I heard as I listened to these touching snippets of others’ lives.

And I discovered that I, too, viewed those chassidim I did not know personally as an undifferentiated mass. For that reason I was astounded to hear that a Belzer chassid might feel embarrassed and uncomfortable to enter a Belz study hall where he did not regularly learn or pray.

And I was no less surprised that chassidic parents would be concerned with such modern concepts such as developing their children’s self-confidence or improving their interpersonal relationships, especially given that the course is not cheap. Yet there were a number of pairs of brothers in the class whose parents had picked up the tab.

Now, I know that those who write or speak about charedim as robots indistinguishable from one another do not necessarily do so because they hate us (though they may do so), but because that is how they see us. We all have a tendency to organize that which is unfamiliar to us in terms of a few external traits. Strangers, for instance, will often tell a mother how much alike her children look, whereas she can barely see any resemblance, so firmly is each child etched in her mind as an individual.

The test is not whether we have stereotypes of those outside of our community or group – we all do – but how hard we struggle against those stereotypes and strive to know others outside our narrow world as individuals.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2006.

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6 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Having stereotypes is not evil. It is a necessary adaptation to living in large societies, where we meet unknown people all the time. Otherwise we’d be making avoidable errors like offering food to Muslims during the day on Ramadan (Tishrey until the next Jewish leap year).

    Stereotypes become a problem when:

    1. We trust stereotypes instead of treating them as heuristics which may or may not be true. For example, most Arabs are Muslims, but some are Christians.

    2. We refuse to change our stereotypes, or accept that they don’t apply in a specific case, when faced with conflicting evidence. Not all Muslims observe Ramadan, just as not all Jews observe Yom Kippur.

    In the case of Charedim from the Chiloni perspective, though, there are two additional factors:

    1. Lack of personal experience. I lived in Israel until I was 24. At school, I was surrounded by other Chilonim (and one girl who became Ba’alat Tshuva). In the military, I worked with other Chilonim and Dati’im. When I went to Tel Aviv University, I studied with Chilonim and Arabs. My high tech workplace had Chilonim and Dati’im, and one woman who may have been Charedi but didn’t speak about her personal life enough for me to know.

    It’s hard to correct stereotypes when you don’t bump against the reality.

    2. The Chiloni mind well and truly boggles at the concepts of Da’at Torah and Emunat Chachamim. The nearest thing is the Chiloni world is expecting the Supreme Court to rule based on justice rather than the letter of the law, thus giving the Supreme Court the right to decide what is just.

    The difference is that the Supreme Court is only used in this capacity a few times a year. Da’at Torah is, if I understand the concept correctly, a daily thing. Giving anybody that kind of power over oneself is not something that’s easy for Chilonim to understand.

  2. Micha Berger says:

    There was a paper written suggesting that an essay in Mikhtav meiEliyahu was based on the Reader’s Digest summary of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Whether or not you buy it (I find the parallels a little stretched), R’ Aryeh Carmell zt”l, who compiled Rav Dessler’s writings and notes of his classes into Mikhtav meiEliyahu, reports that Rav Dessler thought that Carnegei’s methodologies had much to contribute to Mussar. His worldview, being focussed on pragmatics rather than being a holier person, not as much.

    Chassidim in general are very open to exploring such theories — in places where they have no mesorah about how such things are done. Their special ed programs are also often using very modern systems. If anything, I would complain that sometimes they go beyond the leading edge into what we in the computer fields would call the “bleeding edge”, so new you get all the mistakes that others could have weeded out for you.


    PS: R’ Aryeh Carmell was niftar in Tishrei and now the Tzitzi Eliezer (just today)! 5767 started with a hard couple of months.

  3. Michael Spilzinger says:

    I know that this was not the thrust of the article, but I just wanted to mention that reading Dale Carnegie actually gave me a greater appreciation of the depth of the knowledge that Chazal had in understanding human nature.

    It seems to me that people go through life thinking of Pirkei Avos as a book of ethics for the ethical minded. I now see it as a guidebook to getting the most out of our relationships, whether with G-d or with man. If you are not motivated by the Lishma of being ethical, then at least learn it for the Lo Lishma of being more successful in life.

  4. Ezzie says:

    This was an excellent post. I would add that it applies in all directions, though people tend to lump charedim together faster simply because they tend to dress alike and often do things in groups.

  5. Raymond says:

    When I read some of Dale Carnegie’s books as a young teenager, it probably did me some good, or at least gave me the tools with which I could enhance my relationships with people. However, when I read his most famous book again when in my early 40’s, I had to put it down, because it was just too elementary to sustain my interest. The Pirkei Avot is just so much deeper than anything Dale Carnegie ever wrote; the same is clearly true about any book in the Tanach. So why would religious Jews who study our Holy Texts on a daily basis need a Dale Carnegie course? Is there something I am missing here?

  6. Rivka W. says:

    While we don’t believe that Torah can be found among the non-Jews, we do believe that wisdom can be. Moreover, while I would agree that Pirkei Avos is far deeper than any self-help course, it’s a bit lacking in specific, practical steps to become comfortable speaking in public, for example.

    Being open to wisdom from sources like Dale Carnegie is not a detriment to Torah. Quite the contrary, using all the appropriate tools available to us is the Torah derech, is it not?

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