Judaism’s walking billboards

It never occurred to me that I’d have to visit the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail to get a deeper understanding of the Charedi crisis in Israel. I call it a crisis because, in my mind, anything that makes the Jewish religion look really bad is a crisis. If you look like a religious Jew, and you spit on an Orthodox girl because her dress code doesn’t meet your standard of modesty, and the incident is caught on Israeli television and goes viral on YouTube, then you are slandering Judaism and it’s a crisis.

So, here’s my message to religious Jews who publicly and brazenly humiliate women and spit in the face of the Jewish state that feeds them: Don’t slander my religion.

What I witnessed at the county jail on the last night of Chanukah, however, was the opposite of slander. I was there with my 12-year-old son and a small group of local Jews and rabbis — some with long beards and black hats — to light the Chanukah candles with law-enforcement officials, and to bring some holiday comfort to Jewish inmates.

I had been invited by Chaplain Howard Winkler, director of the Orthodox Jewish Chaplaincy Board, who used the occasion to hand out awards. Around long tables serving up kosher doughnuts, drinks and dreidels, people with police badges milled around, listening to a Jew in a yarmulke talk about the inspirational light of Chanukah and the Jewish value of gratitude.

What could have been going through their minds?

Here’s a group of religious Jews coming to their jailhouse to honor these public servants for the difficult work they do — and to thank them for the respect and sensitivity they show to the Jewish community and to Jewish inmates. How could they not respond positively to this “religious” ceremony?

As Winkler handed an award to Sheriff Lee Baca, I reflected on those images we’ve been seeing in the media of enraged Charedim in Israel, and I thought: What a contrast! In Beit Shemesh, a group of religious Jews says “screw you” to the world, while, in a Los Angeles jail, a group of religious Jews says “thank you.”

Can you guess which one better honors the Jewish religion?

Imagine if a group of Charedim had held a public ceremony on the last night of Chanukah, and thanked the Jewish state for the financial support and religious freedom that allows them to gorge themselves on their brand of isolationist, all-you-can-eat Judaism. Could that happen?

But instead of showing gratitude, they have been insulting and abusing other Jews who don’t think like them — and desecrating the image of their own God in the process.

I know, I know, these extremists are only a minority, and they don’t represent the vast majority of the Charedi population. But here’s the problem with that argument: It doesn’t work in the real world, where image is everything. If this vast majority of Charedim keep quiet and don’t take action against their own “bad apples” — while working to create a more positive image for their community — they, too, are responsible for the damage done in their name.

Any Jew who walks around with a yarmulke is a walking billboard for God. And if you’re a Charedi who wears not just a yarmulke but over-the-top regalia of Eastern European ghettos, you might as well be a Jumbotron electronic billboard on Sunset Boulevard. As far as the world goes, you’re a Jew on steroids.

You’re not just representing God, you’re wearing God.

The ultra-Orthodox organization Agudath Israel of America responded to recent events by releasing a powerful declaration, saying, “We condemn these acts unconditionally.” But no declaration can undo a horrible media image. If the Charedi leadership in Israel is serious about repairing the damage done in its name to Judaism, instead of playing power politics and victimhood, it ought to do some soul searching about how it might change its ways.

As Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein wrote in the blog Cross-Currents, the proper Jewish way is “one that brings honor to Hashem and honor to the one who follows it.” A lifestyle that brings nothing but contempt upon Torah, he adds, “cannot legitimately be Torah.”

This is the inevitable result of extreme isolation: You lose sight of how your actions play out in the real world. Fear of being spiritually “contaminated” by the outside world can all too easily lead to contamination of your worldview. Like an antibody that turns on itself, you become oblivious to the presence, let alone the value, of God’s other children. And when you reach the point of becoming a source of contempt for what you love most — God and Torah — you know you’ve reached bottom.

But how will the Charedim ever know the impact of their actions in the real world if they shun it so obsessively? Will they invite advertising executives to their yeshivas to give them a course on the dynamics of public image?

Maybe they ought to just look at the most integrated black hats in history — Chabad — and study how these global emissaries have managed to turn their Charedi uniforms into symbols of love, rather than division and isolation. It’s not a coincidence that they live and breathe in the real world.

In this real world, you visit jail wardens to say thank you. And if there are Jews who bother you, you don’t spit on them, you invite them over for Shabbat.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.