What Is The Role Of Torah In The Urban Jungle?
While many people were mandated to stay at home during the pandemic, my time was spent at the Bond Hotel, a downtown Toronto hotel turned homeless shelter. For those who do not know, this hotel is situated beside Toronto Metropolitan University, formally known as Ryerson University. This community has two sides, with each ignoring the presence of the other. My job was to serve the shelter clients, ensuring that they did not die from opiate overdose or other threats.
It was in this context that my friend’s brother was murdered, being brutally attacked by someone who was refused medical care prior to the crime.
My faith crystalized during this time. There were several days when we had several fentanyl overdoses, necessitating either the oral or nasal administration of Naloxone. Without giving too much detail, the medication stops the effects of the drug, causing the client to awaken from their coma. They often become irate, yelling at you for the pain they are feeling (due to withdrawal). However, those were the good times when you could tell everyone that the client was stable and heading over to the hospital. Other times we were notified that the client had passed on, carefully reflecting on the last words that you exchanged with them.
One example was that of a woman in her 30s, a client that used a wheelchair despite being able to walk. She worked in the sex industry and was quite mouthy at times. However, she always treated me with respect and dignity, something that I willingly reflected right back her way. Her death is memorable because I read about her story in her obituary, something I would not share publicly without her family’s consent. She was from a good family, a solid university graduate. The face I saw in those pictures was not the same face that I saw on the day of her passing.
This was an immense time of spiritual growth for me. I was surrounded by Jewish people, something that filled me with such happiness. One lady was an Israeli-Egyptian Jew, perhaps a couple years my junior. We discussed the joy that we felt serving these clients, even if they tended to give us some suris once in a while. Another was an Ethiopian Jew, a beautiful soul who was married to an Ethiopian Christian man. She used to say, “yes, I am a Jew, but…”- I always cut her off. I told her that she was as Jewish as my family, deserving of all of the sweet fruit that we enjoy everyday. This specific conversation caused another man to speak up, telling us that he was a Marrano Jew who was forced to convert during the Spanish Inquisition. He sported a huge Magen David on his neck, something that I think looks lit AF. Like many of my Jewish relatives, I too have Jewish tattoos all over my body. While this is against the Halachic decree not to do such things, many of our amazing IDF soldiers fall into this camp.
Not all people had the freedom that I enjoyed, with many being stuck inside for months on end. This meant that many synagogues had to close, not just for legal but also moral reasons. Our commitment to Pikuach Nefesh is absolute that any law can be “adjusted” if human life is at risk. This means that first responders can use technology on the Sabbath–and Yom Tovim–without stigma or prejudice. In fact, such people are credited for protecting the community.
What Is The Cost Of Social And Spiritual Isolation?
Should students forgo their Bnai Mitzvahs if the shuls are closed?
Would Hebrew school be put on hold as well?
What about seniors and other marginalized groups?
The Bond staff were the most religious people that I have ever met, with everyone being firmly committed to their respective faith. It was common to be told “G-d Bless” when asking someone how they were. This theme was consistent across the board, with police and paramedics also sharing in the same type of “worldview”. Perhaps chaos drives people to faith, finding something solid to root themselves in during the most important times. Furthermore, I have seen many schools and learning centers staffed with committed believers, seeing their profession vocation as an expression of their faith.
Do You Have A Ticket?
Kanye West recently made some antisemitic claims, suggesting that all Jews are rich and control the world. While there are certainly many affluent people in our tribe, there are also many of us who work jobs with more humble salaries. People do not become teachers because of the great pay, with the private sector offering much more lucrative opportunities. For some unaffiliated Jews, the price can be overwhelming and constitute a barrier to getting “inside the fold”. While Chabad does an excellent job at serving Jews all over the world, there are some people who are not comfortable with “this stream” and may prefer something more “relaxed”.
This is not to say that Chabad is not accommodating and warm–which they certainly are–but other people are “outside” what Orthodox Halacha permits. Consider an interfaith couple, raising their children in a world rife with bigotry and decrimination. As demonstrated by the Nazis desire to eradicate anyone with at least 25 percent Jewish blood, one can be Halachically not-Jewish but still be “grouped” with Am Yisroel by our enemies. This serves as the basis for Israel’s Aliyah Law, which allows the “grandchildren” of Jews to immigrate without converting. Many of such people have grown in their faith, often converting and adopting a Torah Obedient Lifestyle.
What About LGBT Jews?
It is important to remember that LGBT people were put in the camps with us, being forced to wear a pink triangle while we wore a yellow star. While other Middle Eastern countries are dangerous, Israel is a shining beacon of tolerance in the desert. This does not mean that the Orthodox administration accepts them, with many excluding LGBT students from yeshivas, synagogues, and other social institutions. Despite all this, there exists many alternative spaces for LGBT Jews, from Orthodox Minyans to Reform Havrutas. One Las Vegas Rabbi offers online High Holidays, Shabbat, and other Moedim. Rabbi Shai has become a good friend of mine, after having met on “Jewish TikTok”. For those who do not know, TikTok puts you in a circle with users who share similar interests, whether it be Israel, Hebrew, or Jewish humour (forgive my Canadian spelling).
There are many liberal Jews who insult religious Jews, often putting blanket statements on them (which are often untrue). This causes a rift in the community, making it difficult to come together in a respectful fashion. Alternatively, many Frum Jews insult liberal Jews, often branding them as “lazy” or “not kosher”.
Despite our differences, the Torah commands us to love each other as we love ourselves. We each have a different story, coming to “the table” from a different path and circumstance. Some of us have had the benefit of a full Jewish education, while some of us are still learning our Alef Bets. Some people are called to the Torah at 13 while others do it later in life, perhaps behind prison walls. There are many people who hate us, wanting to destroy everything that we consider Sacred. If people are drawn to us, perhaps there is something Supernatural stirring inside their hearts. We are taught to pray for not only the Righteous Converts among us, but also the people that “dwell among us”. If someone is connected to us in a meaningful way–and desires Kiruv–who are we to stand in their way?