Several years ago, while traveling by plane, I found myself seated next to a Reform Jew who seemed interested in the Daf Yomi I was studying.
This was right after Hurricane Katrina and my seatmate—who turned out to be the weatherman for a local TV station in New Orleans—said he had been in New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. In the course of our conversation, he marveled how every Jewish organization—local, national and international — expressed concern for the welfare of New Orleans’s small Jewish community after the hurricane. The 10,000 Jews in New Orleans were housed, fed, clothed and treated with the utmost care and dignity by the broader Jewish community.
In contrast, he mentioned how hundreds of non-Jews were herded into the Superdome and treated as if they were homeless. Then he told me something I’ll never forget: “In all my life I was never prouder to be a Jew than during Hurricane Katrina.”
This incident came to mind as I witnessed the Five Towns and Far Rockaway communities band together to assist those suffering devastating losses due to Hurricane Sandy. Most impressively, I witnessed the great achdut that was evident throughout the broader Orthodox world. Help came from groups across the spectrum—new linens and kugel from the Satmar community of Williamsburg; much-needed generators and flashlights from the Jewish community of Baltimore and cleaning help from teens of Maimonides School in Boston, to name a few. It was truly an extraordinary sight to see Jews with markedly different hashkafot unite together to help their fellow Jews in a time of need.
The question is, will this achdut last?
In Megillat Esther, which we recently read, when the Jewish people are threatened with extinction by the wicked Haman, Esther says, “Go, assemble all the Jews that are to be found in Shushan, and fast for me” (4:16). Similarly, at the very end of the Megillah, the theme of Jewish unity is emphasized once again (10:3). Interestingly, the achdut in the latter verse, which is traditionally recited aloud by the entire congregation, takes place after the story of Purim is over, when life has taken a vastly different turn for the Jews of the Persian Empire. Peace and tranquility reign. The Jewish people have a Jewish queen and prime minister and their enemies have been obliterated. In my mind, the unity expressed here is one of the greatest miracles of the Purim story. Despite the fact that it was a time of peace, the Jewish people put aside their individual differences and cared for and loved one another.
When I attend events such as the OU’s Yachad Family Shabbaton, which brings together families of children with special needs, I observe Jews of all stripes, from Chassidic to Modern Orthodox to secular, coming together to share an inspirational Shabbat. While such a display of unity is certainly uplifting, why is it that we can only get together when we share a common challenge or problem?
Should we be impressed with the extraordinary achdut Hurricane Sandy brought about when most likely this display of unity will dissipate as soon as people get back on their feet and it’s back to “business as usual”?
I once heard Rabbi Meir Lau, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, speak to a mostly secular Jewish audience about the mitzvah of aliyah. He quoted from the Book of Isaiah where the prophet uses the imagery of clouds and doves to describe those returning to the Promised Land. “Who are these, who fly like a cloud, like doves to their cote-windows [nests]?” (60:8) Citing Rav Kook, Rabbi Lau explained that there is a major difference between a cloud and a dove. A cloud comes because the winds move it along. A dove comes seeking its loved ones.
Rabbi Lau then asked the group, “How are you going to come to Israel? Are you going to come like the cloud because you’re pushed here by a Holocaust or by anti-Semitism? Or are you going to come like a dove, seeking love?”
Similarly, I want to ask my fellow Jews: Are we going to celebrate achdut only when there are clouds of tragedy looming, or are we going to celebrate achdut like the doves because we genuinely seek to love one another?
Let’s take this opportunity to bring achdut to a new level. Let’s not wait for a tragedy, chas veshalom, to unite us. Let’s make achdut so ordinary, it will no longer be newsworthy.
So what can we do to bring all Orthodox Jews together? I have several suggestions for what could be a starting point for my community of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, a community, by the way, that has only one va’ad hakashrut, a testament in and of itself to our desire for achdut.
• Implement monthly chesed projects (separate gender) for all junior high and high school students to help break down barriers.
• Start community-wide parashat hashavuah sheets to be prepared by all local boys’ and girls’ schools (separately) to be distributed to local shuls. Representatives from each school should work together, giving teens from different schools a chance to meet and interact with one another.
• Set up an achdut council representing the various segments of the community, with the simple goal of promoting achdut.
• Encourage local rabbis to switch pulpits on a regular basis.
• Start a lecture series with rabbis and educators from all the local schools and shuls.
• Establish a quarterly achdut Shabbat, where people are encouraged to daven one of the three Shabbat tefillot at a synagogue they usually do not attend.
• Invite outside speakers from the various camps in the Orthodox world to come together on one stage to show unity.
• Encourage block parties so that everyone within a certain geographic area gets together for a Shabbat kiddush or a Sunday barbecue to meet neighbors who perhaps attend a different school or shul.
• Set up places to learn where everyone, regardless of hashkafah, is encouraged to attend. Create community outreach programs to bring in unaffiliated Jews who live in our community and have never experienced the beauty and joy of a Shabbat. It should become known that everyone in our community is willing to sit, daven and learn with one another.
Stephen J. Savitsky is chairman of the board of the Orthodox Union.