Jews in the News —

agudah_logoStanding side by side on the dais at the Agudath Israel of America convention, Rabbis Chaim Dovid Zweibel and Labish Becker looked nothing alike – in size, facial features, hair color or virtually anything else.

Yet, none of that stopped a non-Jewish child who saw the duo standing together several months ago from remarking, “Mommy, they’re the same person.”

The youngster was most certainly unaware that both have leading positions in Agudath Israel – as Executive Vice President and Executive Director, respectively. What bound the two prominent activists together in the eyes of the child, and what binds them together in the eyes of the average American is what binds each and every one of us: our identification as Orthodox Jews.

Every one of us has on more than one occasion cringed at the uncomfortable stares – real or perceived – we get when even just one of our brethren is the subject of some unsavory media headlines. When one Orthodox Jew – of any stripe – is perceived to be less than fully upstanding, we are all seen as suspect, or even accomplices.

As unfortunate as that is in so many ways – the grave sin of chillul Hashem, and the negative repercussions in the business, communal, legal and political realms – it need not be so. While none of us have the power to control the actions of others, we can prevent and offset a lot of the collective damage.

Following Rabbi Becker’s intriguing introduction of the “Jews in the News: Dealing with the Uncomfortable Spotlight” convention session, three prominent speakers offered some fascinating insight and advice.

Ben’s Brother

Rabbi Aaron Brafman, Menahel of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, is an accomplished white bearded talmid chacham, mechanech, speaker and writer. Yet, more often than not, he regretfully finds that members of our community identify him as “Ben Brafman’s brother,” referring to the prominent criminal defense attorney He related that the attorney, too, wishes he’d be lesser known in our community.  “My heart aches,” said Rabbi Brafman. He pointed out that every case brought against a member of our community entails much more than meets the eye. Spouses suffer, children suffer, relatives suffer, friends suffer – we all do.

Rabbi Brafman explained that when a community as a whole grasps the severity of legal and moral misdeeds, and looks with disdain at unsavory actions, the likelihood of individuals engaging in such activities significantly diminishes.

Modern technology has made it significantly easier to commit sin away from human eyes, but Rabbi Brafman stressed that recent revelations about governmental collection of personal electronic communication data can teach us a powerful lesson about the potential for “secret” sins becoming public, leading to the desecration R”l of both Hashem’s and the sinner’s honor.  

Ultimately, though, Rabbi Brafman urged to focus on the bright side and emulate those who make public kiddush Hashems. “Let’s look at Rabbi Noach Muroff who returned $98,000 in cash he found in a desk (and addressed the convention on Motzoei Shabbos),” he said, “or the11 year old HANC student who refused to participate in a prestigious ping-pong championship on Shabbos despite various heterim she was offered.”

Clouds of Hope

“Jews are not ‘in’ the news, we are the news. The world is fascinated with us.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs for Agudath Israel of America, is a master at positively presenting our community’s perspective to the media and world at large. He is as aware as anyone of the world’s propensity to tarnish the Orthodox community with a broad brush – “There seems to be a quota in some papers for negative stories” – but he is equally aware of how little it can take to counter that.

All it took for noted Harvard University Professor Noah Feldman to pen a glowing op-ed in Bloomberg News about the Orthodox world – after becoming known for his previous negative sentiments – was to pay a visit to Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. Professor Feldman saw firsthand how the chabura system is, in his estimation, more of a democracy and meritocracy than what is found in secular universities – and raved about that to the world.

Rabbi Shafran related other recent news items, including the story of an Orthodox woman in Montreal who won elective office after earning public accolades for teaming up with a native Palestinian woman on behalf of common local political interests; and the much ballyhooed story of the Orthodox Jewish man traveling home on the subway who allowed another human being who had fallen asleep on his shoulder to continue his nap undisturbed. Every smile, good word, or minor honorable deed that we show the world at large feeds our communal cloud with positive moisture, said the Agudath Israel leader, and eventually causes gishmei beracha to rain upon all of us. “Even when we do (good) things that no one will ever know of,” Rabbi Shafran stressed, “that feeds the cloud.”

From the Other Side

Avi Schick is a dynamic veteran attorney and community activist, but what he stressed most during his presentation at this forum is what he has gleaned from his decade of work for New York State government.

When Mr. Schick participated in a crucial negotiation session between a team of female government officials and male Orthodox community activists, he stressed in advance that the avoidance of a handshake was no reflection on our attitude towards the women, but rather a reflection on our community’s lifestyle and values. The meeting proceeded without a hitch, and those officials were promoted to top federal positions – with a very positive view of our community in mind.

Although we may often be tempted to advance our community’s agenda through political clout and the belief in the moral superiority of our argument, Mr. Schick advised against that approach, particularly when dealing with a world drifting further away from our morality standard by the day.

The best results come when we instead highlight our own beautiful values and work to get others to appreciate their importance to us. When we do not come across as scolds, others can more easily respect our concerns and help us protect ourselves from what we see as detrimental to our lifestyle.

Mr. Schick concluded with the powerful words of Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, who wrote to a talmid that the Torah values he learned in yeshiva can be reflected in his every action in the business world. “Rav Hutner taught us that the Torah does not only protect you in the outside world,” Mr. Schick concluded, “but it has the power to transform everything you do.”

(Author: Shimmy Blum)