Of all the many sterling qualities of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in
Israel, I suspect no one would list public relations acumen near the top. And of
the many public relations failures of the community, none looms larger than the
widespread perception that haredim are indifferent to the fate of their fellow
Jews and feel no connection to them.
That perception is not only wrong,
but demonstrably so. Haredim founded many of Israel’s largest volunteer
organizations: Yad Sarah, the country’s largest volunteer organization, which
assists the sick, the elderly and the disabled; Ezer Mizion, which maintains,
inter alia, the largest Jewish blood registry; Ezra Lamarpeh, a worldclass
medical referral service directed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer; ZAKA rescue
and recovery organization; Chesed v’Zimra, founded by the grandson of Rabbi
Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, which brings a little bit of music and joy to those
confined to mental institutions; and a host of organizations serving childhood
cancer patients and their families.
As the late Sam Orbaum once wrote in
these pages, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare,
and human kindness [of the haredim] may be unparalleled among the communities of
He was not just referring to intra-communal
Orbaum’s paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva students who
rushed to donate blood when they learned of his need and a haredi health fund
clerk who rushed vials of Orbaum’s blood after hours to a downtown laboratory to
expedite the receipt of vital test results.
Nor is haredi involvement
confined to hessed (loving-kindness)-related activities. Tens of millions of
dollars are spent annually on efforts to enrich the Jewish knowledge of Israelis
who would describe themselves as secular or traditional. The Shuvu school
system, serving children from Russian-speaking homes, is one example; Hidabroot
Jewish television programming is another. There are dozens of organizations
reaching out to different segments of the Israeli population: those in pre-army
programs, university students, at-risk youth. If there were no feelings of a
common bond, there would be no reason to reach out.
The failure of haredi
yeshiva students to do army service is most responsible for the perception of
haredi detachment and indifference. But even here, the inference is wrong.
Haredim do not claim that they have no responsibilities to their fellow Jews in
Israel (though they are far more likely to frame those duties as owed to the
Jewish people than to the State of Israel). Rather, they believe that their
Torah learning is a vital component not only of national security but of
Given Israel’s remarkable achievements in both the
military and economic spheres, those claims cannot be rejected
Those who do not share the haredi belief in the power of
Torah learning to arouse Divine favor will not be convinced that haredi students
are pulling their weight, and they may argue that haredim should not be allowed
to determine what form their national service will take. But still those cavils
are very far from establishing haredi indifference or detachment from the fate
of their Jewish brethren.
INDEED, IT would be surprising if haredim
lacked any feeling of common bond with their fellow Jews or of responsibility
toward them. Just the opposite should be the case. The more intensely one
relates to the giving of Torah at Sinai (which we celebrate on Shavuot) as an
actual historical event, the easier it is to articulate a common bond between
Jews: We received the Torah as one people – as one person with one heart – and,
as the recipients of the Torah, we were given joint responsibility for revealing
God to the world.
Haredim inhabit a Judeo-centric universe, in which what
Jews do and what happens to them is the prime moving force of human history.
Every haredi child learns from an early age that the fate of the entire universe
hinged on whether the Jews would accept the Torah on the sixth day of Sivan
(Rashi, Genesis 1:31). Had they refused, the world would have returned to its
Discussing the splitting of the sea, the great medieval
commentator Nahmanides wrote that God only performs open miracles on behalf of
the Jewish people. In a typical passage in Nefesh Hahaim, viewed as the single
most important statement of the worldview upon which the Lithuanian yeshivot
were built, Rabbi Haim of Volozhin, the leading disciple of the Vilna Gaon,
wrote that God’s entire connection to the created world is dependent on His
chosen nation’s Torah learning, mitzva observance and prayers, but for which it
would cease to exist.
Such ideas are foreign, even anathema to most Jews
today; they appear to fly in the face of the universalism and egalitarianism to
which they subscribe. But these concepts do lead to greater identification with
haredim’s fellow Jews and greater concern for what happens to them.
IMPACT of worldview can be readily ascertained by contrasting attitudes of
Orthodox and non-Orthodox American Jews during the Holocaust and toward Israel
today. Historian Raul Hilberg, in The Destruction of European Jewry, describes
the response of mainstream American Jewish organizations during the Holocaust as
one of “complete paralysis.” David Wyman’s The Abandonment of the Jews details
how American Zionist organizations could not put aside their internecine battles
to focus on rescue and relief for Europe’s trapped Jewish population.
topic was barely discussed at the major conferences of American Jewish
organizations in 1942 and 1943.
The Orthodox were the outliers. Only the
Agudath Israel-affiliated groups broke a British boycott of Naziheld territory
to send food packages to starving and typhus-ridden Jews in Polish ghettos. The
Vaad Hatzalah and Agudath Israel ignored wartime currency restrictions to
finance rescue operations in Europe; employed diplomatic pouches to expedite the
receipt of information; purchased fraudulent South American passports, which
were recognized by the Nazis. Mainstream Jewish groups would not dirty their
Only the Revisionists among the Zionist groups put aside
everything else to concentrate on rescue. They pushed for the creation of the
War Refugee Board, which, in Wyman’s estimate, resulted in saving the lives of
between 200,000 and 400,000 European Jews. And the Revisionists’ only allies
were the Orthodox. The 1943 march of 400 rabbis on Washington, two days before
Yom Kippur, helped galvanize congressional support for a rescue resolution in
Congress, which caused president Franklin Roosevelt to agree to the creation of
Revisionist leader Hillel Kook, a nephew of Ashkenazi Chief
Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, told Wyman: ”The Orthodox rabbis [were] more
[They] were simply more responsive, more – more Jewish in
a sense. They were more sensitive to the issue, and less affected by the
environment. They operated on the old Jewish theological concept of ‘He who
saves one soul, saves the entire world.’” Those same patterns prevail today. In
a 2007 study by sociologists Stephen Cohen and Ari Kelman, over half of
non-Orthodox American Jews under 35 responded that they would not view the
destruction of the State of Israel as a “personal tragedy.” Almost 60% percent
of American Jews have never visited Israel, according to a recent American
Jewish Committee study. Well under 10% of American Jews say that policy toward
Israel or the Iranian nuclear program will be the most important issue in
determining whom they vote for in November.
By contrast, 80% of Orthodox
Jews have visited Israel, and more than half of those have done so three or more
times. I am confident that Israel’s security will be uppermost on the minds of
minimally 70% to 80% of American Orthodox Jews when they cast their votes for
AMBASSADOR TO the United States Michael Oren gave an unusually
frank address to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs in Detroit two weeks ago.
“Sometimes it seems to me that we, Israeli and American Jews, not only inhabit
different countries, but different universes, different realities,” he said,
referring to recent calls by Peter Beinart for a Jewish boycott of the Israeli
Oren did not focus, as Israeli ambassadors to the US might
once have done, on Israel’s need for the political or even economic support of
American Jews. Rather, he expressed his chief concerns as ones over the ongoing
“unity of the Jewish people.”
His point was an important one. But in
order to understand the phenomenon that he is describing, Oren would have to do
no more than visit a few synagogues on Shavuot. Non-Orthodox ones will be
For Torah Jews, Shavuot celebrates the central event
in human history: the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish people.
for most other Jews, Shavuot is the literally unknown holiday. Not that that is
surprising. They do not believe in the giving of the Torah as a historical
event. They observe few of the Torah’s commandments.
Of the wisdom of the
Torah they know little or nothing.
Yet without a belief in Sinai, it is
hard to fashion a coherent account of the Jewish historical mission or even to
articulate why the continued existence of the Jewish people, and by extension
the State of Israel, matters.
Yes, most Jews continue to care to some
degree about their fellow Jews, and it is good that they do. But that concern
diminishes with each passing generation, a vestigal holdover from ancestors who
had an entirely different view of the role of every Jew in world
Until the importance of Sinai is appreciated, Ambassador Oren is
merely identifying symptoms, not addressing their causes or providing
cures.The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a
regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of
eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.