There have been several scandals over the last few weeks involving the Orthodox community: the kosher slaughter house immigration situation, a child custody battle in a Chassidic neighborhood in Upstate New York, and over the weekend, my husband and I saw a front page story about a “religious” guy that defrauded people out of millions of dollars in a ponzi scheme.
Shanda is the word my mom used to use when I was a kid and we’d hear about a Jew behaving in some publicly embarrassing manner, but nowadays, I just say “chilul Hashem,” or literally a desecration of God’s name. Because if we Orthodox Jews are claiming to represent the Big Guy then if any of us behave in a less than appropriate manner, we consider it not just bad for the Jews, but bad for God Herself.
Now for the record, I don’t know all the details in any of these cases and whether or not there’s a valid defense to the allegations. What I do know, however, is that when so few people in the world personally know an Orthodox Jew, any unfavorable media coverage true or not is incredibly damaging to the Orthodox community because the public’s opinion of religious Jews is largely based on such scandals.
Although I could never claim that all Torah observant Jews strictly adhere to the Torah at all times, the greatest shame to these scandals is that most religious Jews conduct themselves quite admirably most of the time. And since my first Shabbos spent in the ultra-Orthodox community of Lakewood, New Jersey ten years ago never made it to the New York Times, I will report the story here today:
My friend and I were scheduled to go on a Shabbaton (a group Sabbath trip) with some girls at her college. When I arrived at the house of the family where my friend and I were set up to sleep, a very cute and bubbly woman, a few years my senior, popped out and welcomed us. She was very apologetic that she already had other Shabbos guests staying in her spare room for the weekend, but fortunately her neighbor two doors down (a complete stranger to us, not that we exactly knew this woman) had left us their house for Shabbos. When we arrived at the neighbor’s house, Shaindy, the said cute, bubbly woman asked my friend and me if we wanted to sleep in the upstairs house or downstairs house. Sharing puzzled looks, we responded “Upstairs house,” in unison.
She opened the door and the house was immaculate. Our unpresent Shabbos hosts had left us a gift basket with goodies for Shabbos along with a note welcoming us to their home. We both had a wonderful time that weekend, and I always think back to those strangers who so generously opened their home to us knowing that they’d probably never meet us, never get paid back, and have to trust that we’d return their kindness by being respectful, conscientious guests, which of course we were.
At first I thought that idea of complete strangers lending out their house for the weekend was a unique thing, but the more I got to know the Orthodox community, the sooner I learned that this was the norm in many places as the idea of hachnasis orchim, or hospitality to guests, is a central tenet in observant Jewish life. In fact, there’s an entire registry of people around the world who open their homes to anyone who wants to spend Shabbos with them, called the Jeff Seidel Jewish Traveler’s Guide.
I know I can’t single handedly put an end to scandals within the Orthodox community, frustrating as that is to me. But I will tell you this much – I don’t plan on resting until the world starts basing their opinions on the vast majority of us rather than the few bad seeds in the bunch.