From Long Island to Phoenix; It’s Closer Than You Think

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Arizona Sunset
19 Jan 2011

To find out more about OU’s 2011 Convention Resolutions, including those issues relating to civility, please visit: OU Adopts Resolutions at 2011 Convention

Judaism demands that we empathize with the sorrow of all people regardless of where they happen to be. Thus we read that Noach and his sons entered the Ark separately from their wives to teach that they abstained from marital relations so as not to be self indulgent while mankind suffered. For the same reason, the Torah makes a point of telling us that Menashe and Ephraim were born to Yosef prior to the onset of the famine. We may never turn our backs or be indifferent to plight of mankind. However, the Torah recognizes that we are limited in the amount of sympathy we are capable of feeling for others. This can be seen in the Halacha that the poor of your city take precedence over outsiders. The factor of identification is crucial to our level of concern and desire to help. An earthquake in California is more upsetting to a New Yorker than the massive flooding in Queensland, Australia and every American was in a state of shock and disbelief on 9/11. The closer the disaster is to home the more it gets our attention.

Thus, for the people of Arizona the horrific rampage in Tucson which took place on Saturday, January 8, 2011 had a greater impact than for those in other states. In my shul, as in many others, we said special Tefilot for the well being of the victims and I dedicated the Shabbat D’var Torah to finding some meaning in the tragic event. On Sunday, I spoke at a meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, a designation which many New Yorkers may regard as an oxymoron. Phoenix, Arizona is politically, the diametric opposite of Plainview, Long Island, from where I recently emigrated. This was an audience of fervently conservative, anti-Obama Jews. Yet, in spite of the fact that Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman who had been shot is a Democrat, there was great sympathy and support for her well-being. The chairman of the event asked me to begin my discussion with a prayer for the victims of the massacre and, of course, I was happy to comply, choosing selections from one of my favorite Shabbat prayers which bless “all those who faithfully attend to Tzorchei Tzibbur…” Gabby Giffords is an extremely popular figure who is respected by her congressional colleagues. The Jews here take pride in her Jewish roots. The fact that her Halachic status is unclear does not seem to matter. All we know is that her mother was Christian and her father Jewish. She has distinguished European rabbis on her father’s side. After a visit to Israel in 2001, Gabby chose to become Jewish. She is very proud of her Jewishness, openly professes it and actively touts it in her campaigns claiming that Jewish women have a special way of getting things done when all avenues seem to be closed. Gabrielle Giffords is admired by people of all backgrounds in Arizona. She is regarded as someone with great talent and potential and we all hope and pray for her complete and speedy recovery.

At first there was some speculation about the possibility of anti-Semitic motives in the assassination attempt. However, little proof has emerged to substantiate that suspicion and for the moment the shooter, Jared Loughner, is regarded as someone with a severe mental illness.

On a personal note, I am about to complete my first year as Rabbi of the Young Israel of Phoenix. Until I moved last year, I had lived my entire life in New York. I served as the Menahel of Yeshiva B’nei Torah which I co-founded with the Rosh Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Chait in 1971. I was also the Rabbi of the Jewish Community Center of Inwood, Long Island for twenty-five years and of Congregation Rinat Yisrael of Plainview, New York for the last ten years. In addition, I served as the Dean of Masoret: Institute of Advanced Judaic Studies for Women which I founded in 1993.

The most difficult aspect of moving was to explain to people why I would leave so much behind and move to Phoenix at this point in my life. My wife Linda and I were very interested in Phoenix for a number of reasons. Our eldest son and daughter in law and our three grandsons have lived here for the past eight years and this was, of course, a great attraction. Whenever we visited our children in Phoenix, I was asked to speak at the various shuls and was positively impressed by the character of the Orthodox community. The fantastic Phoenix weather also played a role in our decision. As an avid jogger and sun lover who doesn’t even mind the extreme summer heat here in Phoenix, I was happy to leave behind the cold and snowy New York winters. However, you may ask: how could I give up the intense learning, Shiurim, and the wonderful students that I taught every day? The answer is that due to modern technology I did not have to. Both through conference calls and the internet I maintain the full schedule of Shiurim that I had in New York as well as personal contact with Talmidim and Chaverim. My weekly Tuesday night Chumash class that I give at the Young Israel is streamed live on the internet with people viewing it in different parts of the country. Due to the miracles of modern technology I am able to have my cake and eat it too!

I enjoy the atmosphere at the Young Israel of Phoenix and the pace of life here is not as hectic and frantic as in New York. We have a very warm, friendly and welcoming congregation. What I find refreshing is a remarkable lack of interest in “status” and materialistic display and there are no social barriers based on age, wealth, profession, etc. Thus, there are no cliques as everyone is friendly with everyone else and there is a complete absence of the usual social divisions one encounters at many shuls in New York.

I was also surprised by the amount of people interested in conversion. Some are products of intermarriage, but not all. I am frequently contacted by gentiles who are searching for religious meaning and want an opportunity to learn more about Judaism. In this past year I have attracted a number of new people to the shul many of them from conservative or reform backgrounds. I always strove to elucidate a rational, philosophic Hashkafa of Yahadut which while scrupulously faithful to the Mesorah transcends “denominational divides” and is appealing to all Jews. I am gratified by what, with Hashem’s help, appears to be a measure of success in this endeavor.

When I lived in New York, crime was something I read about in the newspaper and it rarely involved me in a personal way. In Phoenix, it seems to be different, as people feel a sense of connection to the Tucson victims and keenly follow Gabby’s day to day progress. A few months ago, a sefer Torah was stolen from my shul and all of the newspapers and television stations interviewed me and gave the story extensive coverage. I received many expressions of support from ordinary people on the street and even non Jewish clergy expressed their concern. The Torah was returned, B’H, in perfect condition only a few days later and it was gratifying to experience the expressions of relief and happiness that were fully publicized by the media.

I have moved nearly three thousand miles, and my life has changed in many ways. However, beneath the surface, the basic values which inspire Jews as individuals and a community are the same in Phoenix as in New York. In New York I grieved with everyone else on 9/11 and was extremely proud of the brave Hatzalah volunteers who rushed to the scene. Last year our community, together with Jews around the world, was extremely proud of the Israeli medical teams and members of Zaka who made a Kiddush Hashem in Haiti.

The Torah teachings of Chain, Chesed and Rachamim are alive and well in Phoenix as they are in New York and around the world. May our sense of concern for Jews and for the welfare of all people have opportunity to express itself on happy occasions as well.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.