Joel Cohen

Chaveirim: What does it really mean?

Those who offer prayers as each new Hebrew month approaches, recite the ritualistic offering that says “Chaveirim Kol Yisrael”— translated as anticipating “All of Israel becoming friends.” The prayer, like any other, is unambiguously aspirational. We are not all friends today! It’s just the way it is. We simply don’t operate, we don’t extend ourselves, today for all members of the House of Israel as we would for specific individuals with whom we are genuinely friends.

Bringing this to the fore is a simple story from last week – a personal story, if you will. I travel by motorcycle – technically a motor scooter, a motorcycle without gears. My battery went dead on January  2 – a national holiday. Recognizing the problem, my friend Yaacov mentioned a website “Chaveirim” that, astonishingly, helps motorists by providing jump starts for stranded automobiles and cycles. Seriously! So what the heck. I call, explaining my problem and location. That’s all they wanted to know: “Someone will be there in 20 minutes. Wait by the bike,” I’m politely told.  No name, no credit card, no nothing. Just, “We’ll be there soon.”

Three young Hasidim – one considerably younger, perhaps a trainee – promptly arrive in a car, each with smiles from ear to ear. No flashy Chaveirim logo on their car. They’re clearly dressed and manicured like Hasidim. Is this for real? Its January 2, so I greet them saying Shana Tovah. They don’t know my last name, which would have been a dead giveaway that I’m a Jew. But I affirmatively wanted them to know that I’m “on the team” (although it was exquisitely clear that I’m not a Hasid.) They smile; but they’re Hasidim so they’re not going for the Shana Tovah. They stick with “Happy New Year.”

When they start looking at the bike I open the trunk, mistakenly believing that the battery is located there. They themselves don’t seem to know where it is. But every Hasid has an iphone. They check the Suzuki website and quickly find the battery’s location and easily, as if they’ve already done it twenty times that day, attach their jumper cables. Presto – the engine begins to roar. They dutifully tell me to keep it running for 30 minutes to be sure that the battery holds its charge (It did, by the way).

Ready to go, they pack up their cables and head to their unmarked car. They smile,  looking back at me, and say Happy New Year again. Huh? So I say: “How do I take care of you guys?” The answer was rapid fire — seemingly something they’ve said a thousand times before: “Nothing you need to do.”  “No,” I say. “What do I do?”  “Okay, put a dollar in your pushka (charity box).” But “I want to fill your pushka – what’s your charity? Do you have a card?” They tell me they’ll send me a text. They never did. Their job was done; another stranded motorist was calling for help and they needed to run.

A pretty story, right?  It could have been even prettier if my name and appearance was obviously gentile  – you get the point. These men were doing their “good deed” not to help a fellow Hasid of an insular community. They weren’t looking to help a fellow Jew. They were there to help anyone – I happened to be a Jew who had called the number on their website.

Most Hasidim, to be sure, often get a bad name. They are typically totally insular. They dress oddly, as many see it. They’re under the gun for sometimes providing insufficient secular education. And, often, they’re dismissive of those not in their world, or who don’t share their worldview. Not to mention that many people take offense when young Chabadnicks – the Chaveirim guys aren’t Chabad — stand on street corners offering passersby an opportunity to wear tfillin or bless an etrog and lulav on Succot, but only after first inquiring: “Are you Jewish?”­­ – a phrase sometimes viewed as demeaning to gentiles or even Jews (although it’s a question posed with legitimate purpose).

But consider what these young men of Chaveirim did. They didn’t care who I am. I could easily have been gentile and they would have come and started my bike just the same. I told this story to my secretary, Mary, not a member of the tribe herself. She smiled as she listened, and simply said “Don’t you get it? They were doing a mitzvah”  — a concept and description happily recognized often in the gentile world as well. Mary had put her finger right on it!

So, bottom line? The concept of Chaveirim kol Yisrael – is far too restrictive.  These men and this organization, are doing something incredibly powerful for the Hasidic world, the Jewish world and, maybe more important, the world at large. By their work, they basically encourage all people and all peoples to be “friends.” And their means to do so is with a simple battery boost. Not simply a prayer uttered once monthly in rote fashion.

The New Year is a season for resolutions. Something to consider.

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Petrillo, Klein & Boxer in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School and Cardozo Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and his latest book, "I Swear: The Meaning of an Oath," as well as works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Petrillo, Klein & Boxer firm or its lawyers.