I don’t remember the details about the stranger I met on a street in Passaic one summer erev Shabbat about two-and-a-half decades ago, but I remember thinking I’d never been prouder to be a Jew.
I was staying with friends on what was then the outskirts of this fast-growing Orthodox community in New Jersey. While taking a walk, I stopped to say good evening to someone I had never met, my friends’ middle-aged neighbor, out walking his dog. Noticing my kippah, he deduced that I was part of the Orthodox people in whose midst he lived. He started telling me his life story, mostly about his interactions with Jews.
He’d grown up in New Jersey. He told me stories, one after another, of various kindnesses extended to him, his family, his friends and his non-Jewish acquaintances through the years by Jews. Unprompted acts of chesed. He couldn’t praise Jews enough. His words brought tears to my eyes, partly out of pride in Am Yisrael, partly out of shame for not living up to the standards the man was describing.
I couldn’t pull myself away from the stranger. I didn’t want to cut off his flow of shevach; I didn’t want to be rude. I returned to my friends’ apartment and told them what had just happened—I had just heard about generations of Jews who had succeeded in living a life of kiddush Hashem, sanctifying God’s name in public.
As Tishah B’Av approaches and I think back to that time, I realize that the man in Passaic alerted me to the dual meanings of kiddush Hashem: serving as a living example of His attributes, and, God forbid, dying for His sake, as countless Jews have done through the centuries.
That man also made clear to me the diverging consequences of our actions—earning the admiration of the non-Jewish world, or, God forbid, bringing destruction upon ourselves, as in the case of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, whose blood feud two millennia ago led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the hands of the Roman occupiers in Jerusalem.
We, too, often fall short of our spiritual ideals; unfortunately, we hear too many stories of chillul Hashem these days, and the ubiquitous Internet and social media are eager to share our failings. So I am always on the lookout for kiddush Hashem. I search the media and ask my friends for inspirational stories.
Stories such as these:
Rabbi Ephraim Simon, the Chabad rabbi from Teaneck, New Jersey, who donated a life-saving liver and kidney to strangers.
The 150 members of Toronto’s Jewish community who turned out at a moment’s notice last winter in below-zero weather for the funeral of a man they didn’t know, a ninety-year-old Holocaust survivor who had only one living relative.
The members of the Student Government at Touro’s Lander College for Men in Queens, New York, who organized an “appreciation breakfast” one Sunday morning in honor of the school’s dedicated maintenance workers, handling all their responsibilities that day, serving breakfast and doing the cleanup, and giving the crew gifts and thank-you notes.
The phone message received during the Christmas season by B&H Photo Video, a major Chassidic-owned photo and electronics supplies store in Manhattan. After being unable to place an online order on B&H’s web site one Friday night, the customer contacted the store. “A week before Christmas,” the caller said, “you expect everyone to gladly take your money. However, after some confusion (and looking up what Shabbat is), I understood the reason [for the web site being closed] and gained a level of respect and admiration for your company. You may have lost sales from impatient people who went elsewhere, but not from me. You have gained a customer for life, because I know that your pride in how you celebrate your faith trickles down into other areas of your business.”
These stories speak well of how we, as a community that purports to follow God and His halachah, are conducting ourselves; how we are representing ourselves to the world at large; and how we have learned the lessons of our exile that began 2,000 years ago, which we will mourn on Tishah B’Av.
The Torah commands us to sanctify God’s name (Leviticus 22:32). It is not enough merely to avoid chillul Hashem. I try to keep this in mind when I’m out in public. Everyone can see my kippah. If I raise my voice, if I’m rude to someone, people aren’t only judging me, they’re judging all (Orthodox) Jews. Years ago I gave my seat on the subway to an elderly Chinese woman. “Yutai,” I heard her say to the woman sitting at her side. (“Yutai” is Mandarin for “Jewish.”)
People are watching us. Sometimes we read the results online, sometimes we see them on the evening news. Sometimes these stories spread only among a small circle of friends. Sometimes we hear them while walking down the street on a summer’s night in Passaic.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at the Jewish Week in New York and a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.
We invite our readers to send in their own stories of kiddush Hashem to firstname.lastname@example.org.