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The Code of Jewish Coexistence

Golden rules to follow whenever we start wondering where someone fits on the religious spectrum and whether that's OK

Last week, I saw something that made my head spin.

I was enjoying a relaxing Friday morning at the beach with my family and friends (we’ve had enough of the pool), when an Israeli family appeared out of nowhere and began to set up shop in the empty patch of sand to our left.

At first, we barely noticed their arrival. But as the minutes passed, we realized that the entire nuclear family – mother, father, big sister and little brother – was standing virtually motionless around a single beach chair trying to figure out a complex word problem. (Of course, this is a guess. We had no idea what they were doing.) After about ten minutes, Dad broke the huddle and told everyone to go have fun. (“We can figure out this pesky word problem later over hummus.” Again, just a guess.)

Within seconds, Big Sis and Little Bro ripped off their t-shirts and disappeared into the ocean waves. Mom straightened her sunhat and readied herself for a long day of sitting. Lost in thought, Dad slowly removed his Tel Aviv marathon jersey. As he struggled with the jersey, a pristine pair of tzitzit (religious fringes) was revealed.

I had only been watching the family out of the corner of my eye, but Dad now had my full attention. I did a double take because I was certain that both Dad and Little Bro hadn’t been wearing head coverings of any kind. Upon further inspection, my suspicions were confirmed: Dad was wearing tzitzit under his jersey at the beach…but no head covering. I couldn’t make sense of it. I couldn’t figure him out.

Just then, my Jiminy Cricket chimed in to remind me of the two fundamental tenets of the “Code of Jewish Coexistence”:

(1) Every Jew connects with G-d in different and truly unique ways.
(2) Their spirituality is none of my damn business.

I internally codified this important canon about 18 months ago, when I was appointed the gabbai (warden) of my synagogue.

During my first Shabbat “in the saddle,” an older gentleman from the congregation approached me to make a request. He explained that he really enjoyed beckoning the Kohanim (priests) during the repetition of the silent prayer and was hoping that I would allow him to do so during the Shacharit and Mussaf prayers on Shabbat. Though it is commonly the duty of the gabbai to call out to the priests, I saw how much it meant to him and told him that “the job” (saying the word “Kohanim” aloud twice every Shabbat) was his. It was clear that calling the Kohanim to attention for the priestly blessings was how he connected to G-d, and I couldn’t possibly stand in his way.

Following Shabbat services the next week, our new “cantor” beamed with pride. I didn’t understand why summoning the priests made him happy or how it helped him connect with G-d. But it wasn’t my place to understand it. It was just my responsibility to facilitate it.

And that’s exactly what I told another member of the congregation who approached me to complain about the new arrangement while I was locking up the sanctuary. Well, that and the appropriate application of the two crucial tenets of the “Code of Jewish Coexistence”:

(1) The “cantor” connects with G-d differently than we do.
(2) His spirituality is none of our damn business.

But the “Code” (patent pending) is not a new development. It’s been percolating inside me for quite some time.

Earlier in my life, I spent close to eight years working and volunteering for several wonderful Jewish outreach organizations. Though each organization set specific goals and defined “success” in very different terms, countless experiences “in the field” (both supremely uplifting and deeply depressing) taught me that focusing on HOW a child found Jewish spirituality was a mistake – the key was simply (or not so simply) making sure THAT he or she found a way to connect with G-d.

The same is, of course, true with Jews of any age.

Though it is appropriate (perhaps even preferred) to be preoccupied with the “rules” of living a Jewish life (the cornerstone of our heritage), it is foolish to assume that Judaism is “one size fits all.”

In Judaism, the great unifier is G-d Himself. If we want to move things forward (read: end our incessant in-fighting and get on with the task of becoming a “light unto the nations”), we must ensure that all Jews feel connected to G-d. The excitement about being Jewish and adherence to the rules will flow naturally thereafter.

The first step is chipping away at the mental block that forces us to judge and disparage each other’s chosen spiritual vehicles. (Again, we’re not even talking about facilitating the spirituality of others – we just need to stop putting each other down.) Indeed, it’s all about the “Code of Jewish Coexistence.”

So, repeat after me, boys and girls:

(1) Every Jew connects with G-d in different and truly unique ways.
(2) Their spirituality is none of my damn business.

With the New Year approaching, it’s time for a serious reboot. If we can all internalize the “Code,“ we will unlock a Jewish future ripe with blessings and possibilities we couldn’t begin to imagine.

Here’s to an enlightened year!

About the Author
Elie Klein (aka "the Donut Guy") is a proud papa and a non-profit public relations specialist living in Bet Shemesh. Prior to "the big move," he served as the North American Director of the Jewish Agency for Israel's Na'ale/Elite Academy Program.
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