As I boarded a plane in Melbourne, Australia during a speaking tour a year and a half ago, I noticed a very Hasidic looking man sitting next to a very secular (read: dressed for summer) woman. Despite a spate of headlines at the time that had reported on Hasidic men who refused to sit next to women on planes due to modesty concerns, in this case, there were no problems, no delays, no nothing. Just a non-event of a Hasid, being a Hasid (read: being a mentsch) while flying on a plane. I posted on Facebook about the non-event and wondered how many normal, peaceful interactions happen each day in the ultra-Orthodox world that we never hear about vs. how much we (and others) define our community by the bad guys we read about in the news.
Case in point, early one morning in 2013 a gay, African-American man named Taj Patterson was allegedly gang-beaten by a group of Hasidic men in Brooklyn to the point that Patterson was blinded in one eye. I know not the specific details of the case, which is being tried right now, but to whatever extent the allegations are true: that a group of religious Jewish men took part in assaulting another human being, on account of racism, homophobia, or for any other reason, they are nothing short of deplorable.
But are these men representative of the Hasidic community? Or is the Hasidic community more accurately represented by the woman in the image above, whom Instagrammer Picturemacher posted about? Picturemacher writes, “I was walking on the street, behind me was a Hasidic woman pushing a stroller, when an elderly Latin woman accompanied by a younger woman came walking towards us, both carrying bags in their hands. The Hasidic woman offered them to schlep their bags with her stroller. I stopped to capture this photo and continued walking, turning my head back ten seconds later and witnessing the three of them walking together in the opposite direction with their bags hanging from her stroller.”
The truth is, there is no data on the subject. No one knows how many so-called deplorables there are in the Orthodox Jewish world. Every group has some number of them. Most happy, content Orthodox Jews will tell you that most Orthodox people they encounter are good and kind, while some angry, ex-Orthodox Jews will tell you most people they encountered were bad and hateful. The most extreme, egregious cases usually make the news while the quiet acts of kindness and mentschlichkeit generally don’t. So how do we assess ourselves?
If actions are impossible to track, we could try examining our beliefs, which even if offensive usually do not lead to violence in the frum community, though offensive beliefs are still…offensive. One could argue that the more seclusive someone is, the more likely he is to be xenophobic or prejudiced against those outside his community. There could certainly be some merit to that line of reasoning. Then again, one could also argue that when a community is taught that the world is built on acts of loving-kindness and that all humans share a Divine spark, that person would be more likely to spend his life honoring Hashem’s creations.
Bottom line: it’s not easy to reach a conclusive answer in terms of such numbers and trying to guess is not very helpful. What IS helpful is making sure that we follow the Torah’s teachings: “the Torah on one foot is ‘what is hateful to you don’t do to your fellow'”; make sure we teach our kids to do so, as well; praise and publicize the good that we see; and speak out and condemn the bad. This formula may not be headline grabbing, but it’s the fairest way to judge ourselves and hopefully continue to grow as a community.