Uniformed on Pennsylvania Street

Over the past 18 months, we’ve been subjected to the presidential pageant where no fewer than 16 Republicans and 5 Democrats battered and bruised each other; bullying, putting each other down, in their quest to occupy the building on Pennsylvania Ave.

Here in Allentown, PA, on Pennsylvania St., we have a building that houses an institution every bit as important to us as the one in Washington is to the country, but the difference in admission policy couldn’t be greater!

Longtime residents may take this for granted: why shouldn’t a Jewish family be greeted warmly and welcomed in? But I don’t take it for granted, we’ve been elsewhere.

Back in May of this year my wife, Rikki, and I visited the Jewish day school for the first time. We had a beautiful drive from the Catskills, down through the Poconos, onto busy State Route 33 then 22, and from there back onto the quiet, leafy streets of Allentown’s West End. Our GPS told us we were a block away from the school, but I thought it must be mistaken; we were still on a sleepy residential neighborhood. But suddenly there it was! The JDS building stood there calm, clean, confident, unapologetic.

We walked in and were greeted by the sight of happy children running the hallways, blurred together by their uniformed sameness. They looked like Siamese twins, joined at the hip of their religious affiliation.

My school experience came back to me. My school didn’t require uniforms; there were no differences to unify: we were all male, all Jewish, all Orthodox, all Ashkenazi, all Hasidic, all followers of 2 or 3 rebbes, we all spoke Yiddish, we all read the same books from the same list of approved publishers, we would all grow up to live in the same one or two approved towns, we would wear black suits and white shirts. Our existence gave lie to the saying of the Sages: “As their faces are different from one another, so are their opinions unique.”

The communal immune system was very sensitive to difference.

But we’ve since moved away from that lifestyle. We now live with religious difference right in our household: Rikki and the children follow strict Orthodox practice, while I don’t.

Raising children in a dualistic household is a challenge; it is far easier to Band-Aid all question with a simple “Because that’s what we do.” It is also easier to use a like-minded community as a retaining wall around your family. It requires bravery to open yourself up to questions. But if you are going to have an open family then having a pluralistic community helps.

Instead of relying on negative reinforcement: “You will be expelled from the school if you’re caught with that book, if you express that idea, if you’re caught wearing that shirt at the mall,” rather than using the community’s monolithic beliefs and customs to prop up our own, instead, it’s the very openness that reinforces us, that holds us in: “Look, every family finds the place in Judaism that works for them, and this is the place we’ve settled on because we find it meaningful. As you grow you too will engage with your Judaism, embrace it, and make it yours.”

It is precisely our openness that will allow our children to conquer the fearful Judaism that animates the community of my childhood. Then, perhaps, one of our children will take the lessons they learned at their school on Pennsylvania Street and go on to bring unity to Pennsylvania Avenue.

About the Author
Eli Mandel is a graduate of Pupa cheder in Monsey, N.Y., the Telz yeshiva and Fairleigh Dickinson University. He is now recovering from ultra-Orthodoxy with his wife and four daughters in Philadelphia, PA. When he's not riding his motorcycle, he works to improve financial well-being through proper budgeting as a form of tikkun olam.
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