The Orthodox Jewish community has been getting enormous negative press over the last several years, especially the segment known as the Haredi or the Hasidim. They have been vilified in every way imaginable way by the media, and negatively stereotyped. I cannot imagine the burden such a group has to bear due to the misunderstanding and ignorance of the larger mainstream society. I live near a growing Jewish community and the growth of the Haredi community has incited community divide and civic tension. Unfortunately, it is getting more negative by the day. Though I have always had close relationships and interactions with the Modern Orthodox community, during the last several months I decided to learn more about the broader Orthodox community. This has dramatically changed my perceptions.
The Orthodox community is quite diverse and falls on a broad spectrum. I have met members that are living aspects of mainstream lives like most of us: devotion to their religion, family, God, working professional jobs while still managing a home and raising kids. They are doctors, psychologists, nurses, teachers, entrepreneurs and lawyers. While many of us may think that they are insular and do not want to interact with non-Jews, I actually found the opposite! Most work mainstream jobs in secular society and interact with non-Jews. A large part of their client base is actually with non-Jews and they want to be engaged with American society. The only difference is that they are very observant, live a Torah-based life and live in a community with the infrastructure and lifestyle that is based on that. How can I say they are any less American than I am or are not engaged, contributing American citizens?!
I am a non-Jew (my family is from India), but I happen to have made friends who were instrumental in giving me a window into the amazing, beautiful world of Judaism. My best friend from college was a woman who was from an Israeli family who were Conservative. She began attending an Orthodox synagogue in the city and fully embraced Orthodox Judaism. I lost touch with her, but she now lives in Brooklyn with her family. She introduced me to her childhood friend who was raised Modern Orthodox. I was also very close with her and her family and would celebrate the Jewish holidays with her family, eat kosher Italian food and Chinese food and even attended her father’s funeral. I visited the Chabad House during college and found the rabbis there to be very friendly, warm and open.
I once thought they did not want their kids to be exposed to math, science or secular subjects. Several months ago, I saw a family at the local public library getting children’s books for the kids. When I went to a popular science museum last year with my nephews, I saw several Orthodox families spending the day there and their kids exploring all the exhibits at the museum. One day, I ran into an older Orthodox gentleman who was really into theatre and Broadway and teaches this to people in the community. I even met an Orthodox lawyer who went to NYC to see his non-Jewish clients, whose wife is a CPA. His children take violin lessons.
I am really glad I encountered these individuals and families. It made me realize how diverse the community is and how many are engaged with and interact with the non-Jewish world. It’s not my place to judge the politics and issues within the Jewish community concerning the different branches. I have had an open mind and so decided I would learn on my own and find out from my own experience. Most of the people I met on a one to one level were lovely people.
Judaism is one of the most ancient religions on this planet. Orthodox Jews want to protect it in its purest and traditional form so it can live on. I do not blame them. I come from an Eastern tradition which is also 4000-5000 years and our people faced waves of conquests and invasions where religious persecution took place and our traditions and way of life were almost obliterated too. So in some ways, I can understand. While the Hasidic community is deeply insular overall, it may be that way for good reason. Imagine if your community has been persecuted for thousands of years and was not allowed to practice its way of life. Then millions upon millions died for the only reason of their religion. Let us not throw blame on them.
Much can be learned from the Orthodox community’s way of life which is largely missing in today’s world. Their lives are centered around living a God centered, spiritual way of life with less emphasis on the excesses of individuality and materialism. There is a very strong emphasis on family, community, and the home. Someone is always there in your time of need, whether guidance from elders and rabbis at any moment, or a whole village to help you raise your child. Most of all, there is so much celebration of life and tradition. You are never ever alone on this journey of life.
There is incredible diversity within the Orthodox community, and it is unfair to always see only the negative side, succumbing to our own prejudices and biases. There is good and bad in any community, so why single them out? They are human beings too and want to live in a nice community, raise their kids and maintain their way of life just like any of us. Let us remember the common humanity we all share.