A couple of months ago, the Young Israel of Stamford was scheduled to appear before the town’s zoning board, to gain approval on expanding the shul and building a new synagogue on its property. Many of the shul’s members were present to lend support to the proposal, and to explain to the board members, and to the neighbors who were at the meeting, why the expansion was necessary.
For the most part, the meeting went extremely well, and the Young Israel was granted permission to move ahead with its plans to build a new synagogue for its growing congregation.
There was one hiccup that evening.
During the time when neighbors were allowed to speak for or against the proposal, one woman said that she lived near the synagogue, and that one Shabbos morning a congregant walked right passed her on the street – and failed to acknowledge her presence or say hello. She was extremely upset by this action, and wondered whether the city should be granting a privilege to a community of unfriendly people.
I don’t know if what this woman said really happened – Stamford is an extremely friendly community and the story surprised me, but it’s not impossible that an individual in our shul acted this way. Fortunately, the zoning board did not put much weight on her statement.
However, the takeaway that I had from this story is the deep impact a smile and a simple hello have on another individual. And why we should always attempt to be friendly to our Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors.
There’s a traffic cop who works in front of the shul every Shabbos – and I make it a point to say hello to him when I cross the street to get to the shul and thank him for his service. It’s a small gesture, but I think it means a lot to him.
I don’t have much to do with our non-Jewish neighbors, but when I do see them, I always stop for a few minutes to say hello and ask about their lives. It feels a lot better to me to do that than to walk right by them without saying a word.
Thank God, our Orthodox communities have grown – and we now have critical mass in many areas such as Teaneck, Lawrence, West Hempstead, New Rochelle, and even Stamford. But just because we have a large percentage of Orthodox Jews living in our community doesn’t mean we should ignore our neighbors who are secular Jews or non-Jews.
A couple of weeks ago, we read in Parshat Re’eh: “Re’eh anochi noten lifneichem…” Note that the sentence begins with the word “re’eh,” which means “see” in the singular. The verse, however, then shifts to the word “lifneichem,” which means “before you” in the plural. Why the grammatical inconsistency?
The Kli Yakar suggests that we are responsible for our own actions, but we must also be cognizant that everyone is interconnected, and our actions reverberate beyond our own individual lives. Our choices and actions can influence the entire world, depending on how we treat others.
We may not be influencers, as defined by the current social media use of the word. However, we do have tremendous influence! The things we do and say can make a huge difference in how others think, feel, or act. It’s a tremendous opportunity, responsibility, and privilege. Chance occurrences can turn into meaningful moments.
Interestingly, a new study suggests that not only is saying hello to our neighbors a proper way of acting. It also contributes to a higher wellbeing score.
Gallup conducted a poll and found that those who regularly said hello to their neighbors scored higher on the National Health and Wellbeing Index, which measures five categories of wellbeing: career, social, financial, physical and community wellbeing.
Among these five elements, it might be expected that neighborly interactions foster stronger social and community wellbeing in people’s lives. But notably, greeting neighbors is also linked to career wellbeing (liking what you do each day), physical wellbeing (having energy to get things done) and financial wellbeing (managing your money well).
And it’s not only our non-Jewish neighbors to whom we should be friendly. There are many secular Jews, who have a false impression of what Orthodox Judaism is all about. We would benefit greatly by reaching out to them in a friendly manner, and in the process creating a kiddush haShem.
There is a famous story about Rabbi Aryeh Levin, the famed tzaddik of Jerusalem, who once spotted a young IDF soldier on a short furlough from the army. The rabbi crossed the street and extended his hand in greeting. “Shalom aleichem,” said Rabbi Levin. “Please come to my home. I would very much like to drink tea with you and hear about your activities.”
The young soldier seemed uncomfortable. “I don’t think it’s right for me to come visit you,” he said. “I am not religious. I don’t wear a kippa.”
Rabbi Levin, in his black hat and long kaftan, smiled warmly at the young man and took his hand in his own. “Don’t you see? I’m a very short man. I see you, but I cannot look up so high as to notice whether you are wearing a kippa. But I can see your heart – and your heart is big and kind, and that’s what counts. You are also a soldier placing your life at risk for all of us in Israel. Please drink tea with me; your kippa is probably bigger than mine.”
An important lesson from which all of us can learn.