Doing the Right Thing

I’ve been known to be critical. (I can hear friends in the background groaning sarcastically, “You? Critical? Never!”) And, indeed, I’ve been critical from time to time in these pages about my community’s national and local rabbinic leadership and also its national and local educational leadership. I stand by these criticisms, though they brought me no pleasure, especially since some of those I was writing about were friends or respected acquaintances. But I care deeply and feel strongly about the issues I raised, and I think my voice of dissent should be part of the discussion.

There is, therefore, a bit of irony in the fact that I feel more pleasure in writing about the world-wide coronavirus pandemic. My emphasis, though, is directed to my own small section of our planet, as I write about the pride I feel in my local Bergen County Orthodox community and its rabbinic and lay leadership.

How rapidly recent events have changed our lives and our perceptions. When the Young Israel of New Rochelle (where my sister and her husband are decades-long members) was forced to close its doors just a little over two weeks ago (was that all it was?), I found it unprecedented and almost unbelievable. True, shuls have closed in my lifetime due to natural disasters or man-made ones. Such occurrences, though, were sharply limited in scope and duration. But to shut down an entire community with no anticipated reopening date? To close a shul’s doors sine die (as I used to say in my days as a litigator)? Never. Shuls were there when we needed them, and since we always needed them they were always there.

Until now.

Now our Bergen County shuls and Jewish schools are closed, as are other many Bergen County places where people meet and congregate – closed sine die. Our local leaders, unlike our national ones, looked hard facts squarely in the eye and made difficult decisions. Our local Bergen County Jewish community leaders provided leadership, and we should be proud of them.

I can only imagine how difficult it was for rabbis and shul lay leaders – but especially rabbis – to vote to close down public daily and Shabbat services. Tefillah be’tzibur – communal prayer – is critical to our observance, a major core value in our belief system. When first hearing about the decision to close our shuls, I remembered the thoughtful email by Rabbi Reuven Fink, YINR’s senior rabbi, about coping with his community’s crisis, and his poignant comment that he couldn’t remember the last time he had davened without a minyan for Shacharit. I knew our community’s rabbis no doubt could fully relate to this. Yet he understood the necessity to close his shul for davening. He, like the Bergen County rabbis, personified the meaning of leadership.

I confess that I’m remiss in adequately fulfilling my obligations regarding tefillah be’tzibur. Unlike Rabbi Fink, I can easily remember my last time davening without a minyan, even before the current crisis. But I also remember that when I was attending morning minyan every day without fail to say kaddish for each of my parents, I was deeply impressed that the majority of the participants were not saying kaddish; they were there every morning at 6:30 a.m. because, well, because that’s what they did. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do.

So I know how rabbis feel about davening together with a minyan. And yet, caring about the health and safety of all of Bergen County’s residents, they unanimously voted to close down our public Jewish community without knowing when it would reopen. They showed us how true leaders act.

I wrote above that I can only imagine how difficult it was for rabbis to make this decision. But that’s not completely true. While I understand the difficulty intellectually, I don’t think I can truly imagine how it felt. Those of us who have tried to find words of comfort for someone undergoing a serious tragedy we have not personally experienced sometimes say “I can only imagine what you’re feeling.” But often, though we understand it, we can’t really imagine its emotional impact; we can’t imagine how it feels to walk in their shoes unless we’ve actually laced them up and taken some steps.

And that’s how I feel about the members of the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County who made this difficult decision. I can’t imagine the anguish they felt as they put aside their deep personal connection to tefillah be’tzibur for the ultimate benefit of their parishioners. I can’t imagine how isolated they must have felt being ahead of the curve, knowing that Israel and most U.S. Jewish communities had not yet decided to close their shuls. (Thankfully, many other communities later followed Bergen County’s lead.) Their shoes were ones I’m glad I didn’t have to walk in.

It all comes down to leadership. My very dear friend Michael Hammer, a”h, the reengineering guru who we sadly lost at much too young an age, once told me that the difference between a manager and a leader is that a manager gets you to do what he wants you to do and a leader gets you to want what he wants. Well, nobody wanted to close the shuls and schools, of course. But our leaders did want us to be safe, and they understood that to get what they wanted, their community needed to do what would have been unthinkable just a few weeks earlier. And so, with courage and wisdom, they inspired us to want what they wanted by helping us understand that the epitome of tefillah under these unusual and trying circumstances is for each of us to sit alone or with loved ones in our home, saying the tefillot we cherish.

(And there even was a small silver lining. Some of us chose to form a virtual tzibur, chanting Kabbalat Shabbat together over a call-in telephone line, thus welcoming the Sabbath Queen as a reformulated congregation, until we were stopped by candle lighting time. For many it was the highlight of their week.)

Peter Drucker once wrote “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right thing.” Last week, the Jewish community of Bergen County was blessed by leadership.

About the Author
Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist for the Jewish Standard, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work has also appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, The New York Jewish Week, The Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, The New York Times.
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