For the Sake of Zion, I will Not Be Silent

An Orthodox reporter said he was attacked by an angry mob at a protest in Borough Park, Brooklyn, against coronavirus restrictions Wednesday night. “I was just brutally assaulted, hit in the head, and kicked at by an angry crowd of hundreds of community members of the Boro Park protest — while yelling at me “Nazi” and “Hitler” —after Heshy Tischler recognized me and ordered the crowd to chase me down the street.” —New York Post 10/08/2020

Berish Getz, a Borough Park resident, was beaten to the point of critical injuries during a demonstration that raged until the early morning Wednesday against new state-mandated restrictions imposed on the neighborhood, as well as others home to New York’s ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, communities. He is now in stable condition and is undergoing body scans for injuries from the attack. —Forward News 10/07/2020

I’m no longer willing to accept the rights of all to public protest. I should have learned my lesson after seeing the destruction in Seattle, but was fearful of the ramifications of speaking out. I see a world without direction, or perhaps worse, a world where following the pack is regressive. I see a resurgence of religious fervor, but a decline in spirituality. During the Sukkot holiday when joy should abound, I see vengeance in the eyes of Jews cloaked in religious garb. I find them lusting for blood, even if the blood is one of their own. I hear religious Jews shouting taunts of Nazi, snitch, traitor and moser, but in my ears it is reminiscent of the anti-Semetic rhetoric of the 1930’s. In my mind, I hear “dirty Jew” or “zhid” shouted by those who a few generations ago were themselves taunted. I see the pursuers wearing garments of the ultra-orthodox, but in my mind, those uniforms now showcase deceit and distrust. I can no longer be silenced; I can no longer sit by idly and watch those who claim to be religious Jews spewing venomous diatribes of unfathomable hatred.

I’m no longer willing to pardon the unpardonable nor accept that which can never be accepted. I will never excuse iniquities against my people regardless of the oppressor. It behooves us to condemn the abominable behavior of these protestors with the same passion we condemn the heinous crimes of the anti-Semites of yesteryear. Borough Park is not only the epicenter of Coronavirus, but to my utter chagrin the epicenter of Jews acting despicably. A vaccine will hopefully be found to protect against coronavirus, but will one ever be found to protect against the mentality of entitlement? Their behavior desecrates the holy name of God by publicly displaying denigration against civil authorities. They blatantly disregard the safety of their fellow man by refraining from acting responsibly. More so, they incite violence against those who disagree with them in gross violation of the sanctity of the religion they claim to uphold.

A few days ago, an ultra-orthodox reporter was chased and threatened by his co-religionists.  Another innocent individual was attacked and is in critical condition. Sadly, this was not the Judaism of our parents, nor the reason they gave up everything to come to these shores. This is a newly formed religion that is not based on Torah values or adherence to Jewish law. The theology of God has been replaced by a theology of hate, intolerance and a lack of basic respect and dignity for humanity. I’m shamed by their civil disobedience but more embarrassed by the lack of their rabbinic leaders firmly speaking out against it.

I’m aware of the conspiracy theories but I’m no longer willing to listen to their voices. Whether they care to acknowledge the obvious, numbers don’t lie. The ultra-orthodox neighborhoods have seen the largest uptick of a resurging COVID-19. I don’t want to close Yeshivot or Jewish day schools, but who is responsible for their closure? It’s not Andrew Cuomo or Bill de Blasio; it’s the ultra-orthodox community’s total disregard for the safety and health of their neighborhoods. Social distancing is dismissed as culturally insensitive and those who wear facemasks are mocked.  Edicts and rules promoting the preservation of life are ridiculed and the belief in the street is that all the rules are a government conspiracy to destroy their Jewish way of life.

On one hand I understand their frustration and can commiserate with their pain. But deep down I’m incensed by the radicalization of my brothers. I’m shocked by a Hasidic spokesperson who stated that our entire way of life centers around our Rabbi and the inability to be with him on Shabbat and festivals is tantamount to our spiritual destruction. And if gathering together has a risk of people dying from COVID, it’s the price we are willing to pay to retain our lifestyle. In their opinion, this is a time of spiritual decline and regardless of the consequences, any alternative brings spiritual suicide. The audacity of the statement is beyond comprehension and a willingness to jeopardize my existence to promote their own is reprehensible.

I can’t help but ponder the outcry by the Borough Park community if the attack against the Jewish reporter was orchestrated by Christians or Muslims. They would have publicly condemned the atrocity and demanded a strong response. We shouldn’t demand any less now. It is not good enough to say it’s only a fringe group. After years of silence, this has now become a mainstream populist opinion. The fanatical right within Orthodoxy believe their lack of concern is justified and responsible. They see themselves as victims of a concerted effort by both the American and Israeli government to secularize their way of life. They have convinced themselves that regardless of the consequences to others, they have to remain steadfast to their way of life.
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There are a few Hasidic Rabbis who demand respect for rules and regulations. Sadly, the overwhelming majority do not. Tomorrow on Shemini Atzeret we read Kohelet – Ecclesiastes. The author condemns the world for its worthless pursuits. He states that hakol hevel that all is in vain. How true it is. But he also states Et milchama v’et shalom there is a time for war and a time for peace. In the past few weeks we have realized that change is possible. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have made peace with Israel. Perhaps the time is ripe that we the Jewish people make peace with ourselves. That we come to the realization that the festival of ingathering has less to do with crops and more to do with people.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Jack Engel

About the Author
Rabbi Jack and his wife, Miriam have reinvigorated Anshei Emuna, a Modern Orthodox Synagogue located in Delray Beach, Florida, in the ten plus years they have been at the Shul, through their experiences gleaned from serving in pulpits in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. They are advocates of a modern Orthodoxy, being open minded, yet adhering to the integrity of halacha. They believe that being an “ohr lagoyim” refers first and foremost to the entirety of our collective Jewish family.
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