Can my Orthodox neighbors be friends with me if I’m not Jewish?

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Dear Jew in the City,

I live across the street from an Orthodox Jewish for family for 32 years.  We have always gotten along and helped one another out.  Can they be friends to anyone other than their religion?

We also are getting a lot of Syrian Jewish in our town (by the Jersey Shore) and they seem different. They seem not to look or acknowledge any of us. There seems to be a lack of respect and rudeness about them. Can you explain.

Thanks,
Hellen

PS – I love the U tube videos

Hi Hellen-

That’s nice to hear that you have a friendly relationship with your Orthodox neighbors. There’s no problem with an observant Jew being friends with people of other religions, but for practical reasons, because Jewish life is centered around kosher food, Sabbath and holiday observance, it might make it a bit more difficult for friendships between observant Jews and non-Jews to happen as often.

Since I grew up as a non-observant Jew and there were very few Jews in my town, most of my friends growing up were not Jewish and we were very close. As I got older and started becoming more observant, my social events started revolving around the synagogue and Sabbath meals. Now that I have a family, we spend most Sabbaths hanging out with our Orthodox friends who have kids for our kids to play with. My kids go to Jewish schools also, so if I become friends with the parents of their classmates, they also end up being observant Jews.

The whole kosher thing also makes friendships harder to form as an Orthodox Jew can never eat in a non-kosher home and can only go to kosher restaurants.

My non-Jewish friends from my childhood are still dear to my heart even though our lives have moved in different directions. But honestly, people usually end up moving away from childhood friends as they grow up even if they haven’t made such a drastic changes in lifestyles. Whenever I see these friends either at class reunions or on Facebook I still feel that I can relate to them.

And honestly, at the end of high school, as I was starting to take my religion more seriously, I found myself having more in common with my Christian friends who were spiritual people that believed in God than some of my Jewish friends, who although culturally similar to me, had no interest in such concepts. We also have a babysitter for our girls who is a sweet Catholic girl and has similar values, and I can talk on and on with her about ideas that we both believe in that a secular Jew might totally disagree with.

So in short – there’s no prohibition against friendship with non-Jews and Judaism teaches that Jews should be good to all people as everyone, Jew and gentile alike, is made in the image of God. However due to practical observances, it is a bit harder for these friendships to develop.

Also, another important thing to understand is that observant Jews, although we feel very American, still remain different than our non-Jewish neighbors. When a group of people is a minority in a larger culture, it’s very, very easy to assimilate, blend in and just be like everyone else. (That’s what has happened to most Jews in the world today.) So some of these laws of kosher and the Sabbath are there in part to help keep a certain separateness so that the Jewishness can be maintained. Not because there is any ill will towards other people but rather because it’s a matter of survival when a small group is living amongst a larger group.

In terms of the Syrian thing – I’m sorry that they’ve seemed rude and disrespectful. I think this actually comes down to more of a cultural thing than a religious thing. The Syrian Jewish community is extremely closed off, even to other Jews, sometimes even to other Orthodox Jews who are not Syrian!

Now, in their defense, I think we have to look at where they come from. They were poor Jews living in a Muslim country where their non-Jewish neighbors did not treat them very well and I think this rough exterior that they’ve developed is somewhat of a protection mechanism as the people they used to live amongst made their lives very difficult. (If you keep beating and beating a dog, even the sweetest, friendliest dog will get vicious – not that these people are vicious, but I think the analogy is clear.)

Because I’ve experienced very little anti-semitism in my life, I have a much more open, positive view of people who are different than me. I still know that there are people in the world who wish I were dead just because I’m Jewish, which is a disturbing thought, but also a very intangible one.

I’ll leave you with a story that is told about a great rabbi (one of the greatest in his generation) named Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky who lived in New York and died around 20 years ago. After his funeral, when his family was sitting shiva (the Jewish week of mourning), a prominent nun from the community came to the house of mourning to pay her respects. She said that this rabbi would pass her by on the street every day with a big smile and a friendly “hello” and it really meant so much to her. So although these rough exteriors unfortunately get created, this story about the rabbi and the nun is repeated because being a kind, decent person is how Jews should actually be conducting themselves.

I hope I’ve cleared some things up. Thanks for watching!

Sincerely Yours,
Allison (aka Jew in the City)

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Comments

  1. I was trying to figure out how to ask this exact question! When I was 11 years old, I met some Hasidic Jews in Miami, FL. They avoided everyone and only spoke Yiddish, and I thought it was because they were not allowed for religious reasons to be friends with
    non-Jews.
    The Jewish religion and people are so close to my heart. I used to think of converting to Orthodox Judaism, but decided to stay a Christian. I thought it would mean more to love Jewish people and religion as myself. If I was one of them I would not have the same appreciation and it would be easier to take things for granted. Also, I couldn’t take my only friend with me to Judaism. Thank you so much for posting this!

    PS I love your Youtube videos too! :D

  2. Shimon Baum says:

    Don’t worry as an orthodox Jew I can tell you that many of the orthodox Jews I know are just as unfriendly to their fellow Jews.

    • Unfortunately there are religious Jews out there, Shimon, who don’t live according to religious Judaism, but there are plenty of great ones out there too, and the more we see people acting the wrong way the more we should be inspired to be even better ourselves.

  3. Yaakov Cohn says:

    Dear Kim,
    I was so fascinated that you once considered converting, but realized that you could best express your love for our people by remaining true to yourself. I wonder if you have ever noticed the references to “God-Fearers” in the Psalms. Those “God-Fearers” are usually understood to be non-Jewish neighbors who lived peaceably alongside and even joined in our celebrations, but did not themselves adopt Judaism.
    I see you as a modern day God-Fearers and I think the Jewish people have no real need for converts, but we desparately need God-Fearers.

    I grew up attached to a Chasidic community in Boston. I’d say that the apparent stand-offish attitude from that community is complicated. For one thing, members are likely to be on the defense against expected hostility from the majority culture. Sadly, and I speak from personal experience, those expectations are likely to be reinforced from time to time by sporadic episodes of verbal or physical attacks often directed against young people by majority culture young people.

  4. shimon baum says:

    Actually as a fellow religious Jew I would settle for some who just say hello or are half way friendly

  5. Dera Shimon,
    Hello.
    From,
    A fellow Torah Jew (I do not use the label Orthodox)

  6. syrians are very racist. they won’t marry other jews either. it’s not religious it is cultural.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs says:

      thanks for your comment but i think racist is not fair. i think it’s more correct to say “insular.” and i’m sure their insularity is a reaction to their history. does it have a place in the world today? probably not. but i don’t think that there’s malice connected to it.

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