You Sure Don’t Act Jewish, Or How To Kill Good Relations

The violent acts by blacks against Haredi Jews in Jersey City, NJ and Monsey, NY have been all over the news lately.  While I have no experience with the subject in these areas, I have made some very close observations of what is going on between the two communities in Chicago. I now live in Israel, but am from the Chicago Jewish community. I made aliyah to Israel with my family in 2006.  Unfortunately, my marriage ended in divorce.

After my divorce at the end of 2012, I returned to Chicago to find work.  However because of the recession, this was not easy.   I am a convert to Orthodox Judaism via Chabad. At the time, I was easily identifiable as Orthodox.  Unfortunately, it was hard in the wake of the 2008 recession to find shomer shabbos employment.  All I could obtain was some work on a graveyard shift for a security company.  I accompanied and guarded sprinkler fitters at the downtown campus of the Northwestern University Medical School in the Chicago Loop.

I would wear a black kippah at night.  While this was against company policy, the supervisor rarely came in to check on me so I blew off the policy.  I became friendly with a black cleaning lady and we would schmooze daily while I was waiting for the fitters to come in and start the shift. We exchanged information about kids, etc.  If I had to describe her succinctly, I would call her a “gesmachte bubbe.”  She was just a sweet lady nearing retirement.  Like your grandmother, you’d just love to give this matron a kiss and a hug.

One day, she asked me an interesting question.  She asked me if I was Jewish.  I said of course.  Then she made a statement that I will never forget.  She said “you sure don’t act Jewish.”

At first I was shocked, but then I realized the issue.  Most of the Jewish doctors came from Peterson Park, the largely haredi neighborhood next to West Rogers Park where I lived and many of them treated the cleaning lady who took out the garbage like so much trash.  Memories flooded into my mind of similar incidents, especially with regard to black converts to Judaism.  For instance, two black converts I know in Chicago privately confided to me their frustrations with their acceptance in the Jewish community.  The level of stress I saw from these wonderful individuals reminded me of African Americans in similar circumstances I knew in the US Army.

One incredible African American career sergeant who was incredibly popular and had a brilliant career one day came into work very agitated and angry.  He was normally one of happiest individuals I knew.  When he came in one morning in a very agitated state, I asked him what had happened. Then, he told me how he was pulled over almost on a daily basis outside of my duty station by the police.  This was 1985, and not in the American South, but at Ft. Monmouth, NJ.  Very sadly, the police continually pulled him over, even though he was in uniform, a non-commissioned officer and clearly going to work on the post to serve his country.  I saw this same strain on the face of these black friends in Chicago who had or were converting and who had encounters that were affected by skin color.  It is sad that the Orthodox Jewish community elements have fallen to this level.  Unfortunately, it only takes one individual who has been badly treated or knows someone who has been so to use it as a justification for an anti-Semitic atrocity.

Since meeting the nice cleaning lady in Chicago, my relations with haredi Judaism has been strained and conflicted at best.  While I would never condone anti-Jewish violence (or violence against anyone, except in self-defense), I think that it is necessary to analyze motivations to prevent future problems.  After all, it has always been a key principle of halachah to promote peace with non-Jews for this very purpose.  Those who antagonize and irritate other minorities by abuse or racism only do other Jews a disservice when bad elements of those non-Jewish communities use this as an excuse for their atrocities.  It is critical at this time in America that Jews strengthen their ties with other minority groups and not inflame them, whether on an individual or a group basis.  Jewish leaders need to take the lead to encourage Jewish communities to be sensitive in relations with their African American neighbors in order to help head off future incidents.

About the Author
Akiva ben Avraham is a former community college adjunct, US Army intelligence analyst and officer, and a caregiver.