Can My Orthodox Neighbors Be Friends With Me If I'm Not Jewish?

Can My Orthodox Neighbors Be Friends With Me If I’m Not Jewish?

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Dear Jew in the City,

I’ve lived 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.


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, didn’t understand my need to connect to God. 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 you’ve experienced rude and disrespectful behavior from the people you’ve interacted with. I don’t think that the interactions you’ve had speak for the whole community, and I think this actually comes down to more of a cultural phenomenon than a religious one. The Syrian Jewish community is extremely close knit, even, in some cases, when it comes to members of the Jewish community who are not Syrian.

Now, in their defense, I think we have to look at where they come from. Many are only in the U.S. for a couple generations. Before that, they were living in a Muslim country where their non-Jewish neighbors did not treat them very well and the guardedness you experienced likely developed as a protection mechanism. My grandfather was born and spent his childhood in Ukraine and experienced terrifying anti-Semitism there. He raised my mother to believe that every non-Jew, no matter how nice they seem, ultimately hates Jews. Why? Because when he was 12 years old, some of his non-Jewish neighbors lined up his family and tried to slaughter them all in a cruel game. My mother told my sisters and me his story and his belief and we rejected the idea. We were distant enough from the brutality he experienced to lend credence to it.

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 30 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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  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
    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! 😀

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

  5. Dera Shimon,
    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 : May 28, 2014 at 1:25 pm

      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.

    • @Joe, there’s more nuance than that. At least two of the most prominent American-Syrian Orthodox rabbis are married to non-Syrians. Same for a fair percentage of the laity.

  7. Hello. I am a catholic that just signed a contract to purchase a condo at a hassidic community in Passaic, NJ. I was told 12 out of 26 apartments are Orthodox.My friends are telling me I made a big mistake,that they might actually give me a hard time and they would not accept me in that community and they could be retaliation against us. We are very quiet people that keep to ourself? Any suggestion?

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : January 16, 2018 at 11:02 am

      Hi Mel. Congratulations on the new condo! To clarify – Passaic is not a Hasidic community, but there are many “ultra-Orthodox” Jews there who are part of the “yeshivish” community. They are generally not as seclusive as the average hasidic Jew. Passaic has lovely people by and large, though I obviously can’t speak for every resident. If you really want to get on their good side (this is not necessary but will make you popular!), something that would be so helpful if you meet one of the men you can tell him, we’re new here and not Jewish. If you ever need help on the Sabbath, please feel free to come over. On the Sabbath Jews are restricted from using electric and fire and sometimes they need a non-Jew’s help to turn something on or off. I am quite sure that you should have very positive interactions with your neighbors in any case. Good luck!

  8. Hi, Helen, Orthodox Jew here!

    My neighbors are Irish Catholic – very Irish, very Catholic. We are quite good friends with them – when I moved in, my children and the dad bonded over using the big hose to water the lawn. Instant friendship. The mom was sad that she couldn’t give them cookies or candies, but she understood that her house is not kosher and we would not eat her food. The kids have grown up, we are all still friends.

  9. Allison- the story you wrote about Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky definitely illustrated his nobility and the deep respect he had for all humanity, but for the record I want to point out a few inaccuracies. I was fortunate to grow up down the block from him, and we davened in the shul in his basement every Shabbos. Just a few hundred yards from his home is a large old- age home run by nuns, who can often be seen walking in the area. Whenever Rav Yaakov would encounter one of the nuns, he would go out of his way to greet her with a smile, a gesture that was deeply appreciated. I highly doubt there were nuns at the shiva- but of course this does not take away from the important point you were making.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : January 30, 2018 at 9:03 am

      Thanks for your comment, Suri. There are numerous places the shiva part of the story is shared. Not sure why a nun coming to a shiva is so unbelievable.

  10. Becky Johnson : March 12, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    Just moved to Boro Park in Brooklyn for my husband’s residency program at Maimonides and boyyyy I went into culture shock of the insularity I have experienced. My husband and I are Christians and on the conservative side, meaning no pants for me and heavily involved in my Christian journey, but I find it very disheartening to know that I moved into a community that doesn’t want me there. I would think “hmmmm I’m religious, married, and have a little one… maybe I can find another religious, married mom with a little one too.” Instead I am greeted with me going to the park with my baby and when I sit down on a bench one bench away from three Jewish ladies they get up and move to a bench across the park. I am slowly getting rid of that idea of making any friends here. It is not easy living in New York especially when it is not by choice but because of opportunity and on top of that to be in a community that is not welcoming.

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : March 12, 2018 at 2:07 pm

      I’m sorry to hear that, Becky. In some communities, the fear of how non-Jews treated Jews in the past carries on till today. It’s not fair and shouldn’t be that way.

  11. Bonnie Belknap : January 2, 2019 at 1:46 am

    I believe from the discussion above that I am definitely a Catholic “God Fearer.” I have always been attracted to Jewish things.

    I stand up for Jewish people,but as you know it isn’t always easy. I have a Puerto Rican mother-in-law who lives in Coop City in the Bronx. We’re out in Oregon. She is over 90 and very sweet. She has a couple Jewish acquaintances in her building, but in general critical of Jewish ways.

    Recently, on the phone, she told me that the Jews in her building accept Christmas presents but don’t give any. They accept drinks and candy on paper at her apartment but when she goes to their’s “they dont even offer me a glass of water.” She told of her daughters having similar experiences with Jewish colleagues at work. At one daughter’s, its customary to have a candy dish on one’s desk. She says the Jewish workers go around and take candy out of each dish to fill theirs. They never bring any. Her conclusion is all this is because they’re “cheap.” I’m at a total loss. Help!

    • Allison Josephs Allison Josephs : January 2, 2019 at 9:29 am

      Thanks for your comment, Bonnie. So on one hand you could try to tell her that a few people don’t represent ALL Jews. And here’s a hasidic Jewish guy who runs a restaurant without registers that feeds every type of hungry person around NYC https://people.com/celebrity/masbias-soup-kitchen-offers-fresh-food-from-chef-ruben-diaz/

      Then again, anti-Semitism is not a rational thing. Jews are blamed when they’re too cheap and when they’re too extravagant. When they’re too assimilated and when they’re too separated. When they’re too secular and when they’re too religious. So while I think you should try, it may not work. But thanks for trying!

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