Another Breach in the Wall

For a number of years, in my role as Agudath Israel of America’s media liaison, I attended an annual gathering, each year in a different city, of Jewish periodical editors and writers. Over time, the conferences became more business-oriented and less focused on Judaism and Jewish issues, and I decided that the potential gain of my having some input during the proceedings didn’t justify the cost in Klal dollars of my attendance.

I don’t particularly miss the conferences, except for one thing: the opportunity they afforded me to meet the kind of fellow Jews I wouldn’t otherwise likely ever have met. Among the attendees were Reform and Conservative Jews, unaffiliated Jews, cultural Jews and, well, just plain Jews. At first, some of them were a little wary of me. They seemed to regard my beard and tzitzis as a sort of cultural poison ivy. But few barriers are invulnerable to a smile and a friendly introduction; and each year I conversed with, got to know, and even befriended some of the other attendees.

What dawned on me as a result of those experiences was that all the banes of the contemporary Jewish world—the lack of observance, the ignorance of halacha, the increase in intermarriage—are really underlain by something more prosaic: the social wall between the community of Jews who know and appreciate Torah and that of Jews who don’t. It’s not a consciously constructed wall; it’s just there. They don’t know us (and we don’t know them, but that’s another essay). The lives of Jews who have never experienced a true Shabbos or Yomtov, who have never opened a holy book, never attended a Torah-class, never considered living in accordance with Jewish law, can proceed from cradle to grave without ever intersecting, in any real way, the life of a Torah-observant Jew.

It’s not our fault, and certainly not theirs. Living is a hectic business these days and the responsibilities of observance consume much time and energy. As for the other Jews, well, they’re busy too—and don’t know that they’re missing anything.

To be sure, there are opportunities we can and should take to reach out to our Jewish brothers and sisters. Programs like Torah Umesora’s “Partners in Torah”—which facilitates telephone study-partnerships between more and less Jewishly-knowledgeable Jews—are invaluable means for breaching the wall. Those of us whose work puts us in contact with other Jews can find cracks, too, that can be widened with a little effort. The point isn’t to proselytize, only to interact, Jew to Jew.

A new way of forging a path through the wall came to me recently, from an unlikely place. A while back, a weekly magazine focused on science, an abiding interest of mine, began arriving in my mailbox. The issues were an interesting read, but I hadn’t ordered them. Why was I being gifted with a subscription?

After reading a few issues, though, the magazine’s bias became laughably apparent. Its reports on developments in the scientific world almost always came with a blended-in “editorial” comment that referenced random evolution or the backwardness of religious beliefs. It dawned on me. My anonymous benefactor, presumably having read something I had written about the rightful place of skepticism in evaluating scientific claims, wanted to enlighten me.

Alas (at least for him), it didn’t work. Nothing in the periodical was novel; on the contrary, the tiredness of its presentation of assumptions as facts only confirmed my convictions as a believing Jew.

But my anonymous benefactor’s real gift was one he hadn’t intended: the idea he gave me for giving fellow Jews a window on our world.

Whether or not we are able to seize opportunities to engage in “real time” with non-observant or less-observant Jews, here’s a way to place something of our lives in, quite literally, their laps. Not to proselytize, just to familiarize.

Do you have a co-worker or relative or acquaintance on the other side of the “Jewish Divide”?

Well, consider entering a gift subscription for him or her to a Torah-oriented newspaper or magazine (like Ami! – but any of them will be fine).

It’s a window, after all, in the wall.


[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

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