Over the past few days, we have been reading conflicting reports about who was at fault for what happened on two Israel-bound El Al planes that took off late because of weather-related delays in New York late on Thursday. El Al and some passengers alleged that several ultra-Orthodox passengers became violent toward the flight attendants. On the other hand, other passengers denied that there was any physical violence, although some passengers were angry and disappointed. Some passengers claimed that the pilot blatantly lied to the passengers, announcing that they were returning to the gate and asking them to sit, but he took off shortly thereafter.
Many reports painted this story as another example of the Haredi-secular conflict in Israel. In truth, this wasn’t a Haredi issue. Orthodox Jews of all stripes believe that we may not board a plane if it will continue to fly on Shabbat. And, indeed, Orthodox Jews of all stripes disembarked to spend Shabbat in Athens and many of us have read many posts about the beautiful Shabbat that so many different types of observant Jews celebrated together unexpectedly in a hotel by the airport in Athens because they were stuck there for Shabbat. This wasn’t another manifestation of the Haredi-secular divide. Mistakes were made by El Al, the company tried so desperately to take off from New York on Thursday night and arrive before Shabbat and many Orthodox Jews were naturally upset when they discovered that they might have to violate Shabbat. It is unfortunate that the climate of mutual distrust and antipathy between the Haredim and the secular Jews likely contributed to the strong reaction on both sides, when, in fact, there was so much good that came out of this mishap: the unity amongst all Jews, the tremendous efforts by the Chabad rabbi of Athens, and the commitment to Shabbat.
Although I am pained by the destructive nature of this religious-secular divide, I am heartened by the knowledge that passionate commitment to one’s faith doesn’t necessarily translate into hatred and condescending behavior. This past Saturday night, our shul hosted Judge Ruchie Freier, the first Hasidic female judge in the United States. She shared her story with all those assembled and what was clear to me was that she was someone who absolutely stood by her religious convictions without compromise, but also without being condescending. In her climb from being a legal secretary, to a paralegal, to a college student, to a law student, to a lawyer, and finally, to becoming a judge, she did not compromise on the halachic principles of yichud, of seclusion, and she told stories of how she told clients that she must leave the door open when they were meeting. She told of her struggle about whether to shake men’s hands, even though there were some rabbis who permitted her to do so, but she chose not to do so and she never encountered any resistance to her decision. She even told a story of how she was working as an intern in an office and there was an individual who didn’t stop using profanity and how she kindly asked him to refrain from this behavior. She told us of how she politely convinced Megyn Kelly to dress modestly while interviewing her because many Hasidim would likely watch the interview. While listening to her, I noticed why she was successful in sticking to her principles and earning respect while doing so. She doesn’t present herself as “holier than thou.” She doesn’t deride non-Hasidim as not being religious enough. She is very open towards different religious approaches, but she is very firm in her own faith and that for what she stands. And I was thinking to myself – imagine if all of us religious Jews were strongly committed Jews, while remaining מעורב עם הבריות, likeable and friendly towards those around us, even those who are not religiously similar. We wouldn’t live in a world of accusation and counter-accusation between the religious and non-religious. Imagine if we knew how to communicate our values more in a manner that would earn us respect and not enmity from those who do not share our same values. Imagine if we were all more like Judge Ruchie Freier.