United as Two

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16 May 2018

They were as different politically as two people could be.  

They both came to shul each week, Stuart dressed in a dapper suit and bowtie, Andrew, in casual clothes. Stuart was robust and full of energy and opinions, which he liked to share in person and on Facebook with the most irreverent, colorful language, which always made me laugh from shock at its audacity. Andrew, on the other hand, was far more restrained of a personality, and always spoke in a calm voice. Stuart was a former Democrat from New York who had “seen the light”, and as a passionate Conservative, was overjoyed to live in his newly adopted red state of South Carolina. A lover of Israel, he would take politicians and Christians to Israel to recruit them to his cause. Alan Clemmons, member of the South Carolina House of Representatives, joined Stuart on one of these trips and he later introduced the anti-BDS law to South Carolina, which was then adopted by several other states. Andrew, a public school teacher turned principal, intentionally served at a school with a lower income population, and was as liberal-minded as they come, including his views on Israel. To quote Andrew, Bernie Sanders wasn’t liberal enough for him.  

These two men, as one might imagine, were not friends. In fact, one of the only things they had in common was they were both committed shul attendees each Shabbos. They were always friendly to each other but with their passionately divergent views, and disdain for the other’s position, I always assumed they disliked each other.

The country was in the throes of the Trump campaign. Stuart was elated, Andrew, in shocked dismay. Stuart felt Trump was the answer to all of America’s (and Israel’s) problems, Andrew made no threats but shortly after President Trump was elected, relocated to Israel, despite not liking Prime Minister Netanyahu all that much more than Trump (there were actually many reasons for the move). It was a time when friendships were ending over political disagreements, when being on Facebook left one with a disturbing feeling as hateful comments were thrown from one end of the political spectrum to the other, leaving no room for dialogue and respectful differences.

It was against this backdrop that this story took place.

A claim was made against Andrew about the way he had handled a disciplinary issue with a student and he was put on leave as the claim was investigated. It was all over the newspaper with one commenter even making the claim, that he had acted out of racism. Those of us who knew him were aghast- this man lived to service the black and immigrant population! He showed this in so many ways: by where he chose to live, where he worked, how he educated his own children, and his topics of conversation. We were horrified by the treatment he was receiving- the accusations, the lack of transparency by the school board and having his position where he did so much good, revoked.

His supporters stood strongly and loudly in his corner. And despite this, I was shocked when I was copied on the following email from Stuart, which was sent as a letter to the editor submission to our city’s paper.

On August 26th, the Post and Courier published a front page story about the persecution of Dr. Andrew Halevi.  I have enormous respect for Dr. Halevi although we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. My unvarnished view is that he is a “bleeding heart liberal” who is entirely too concerned with those without self discipline or concern for civilized behavior.  But he lives his principles and has dedicated his life to serving those who “have fallen behind”.

In getting down to the nub of the article I am left with the distinct impression that Dr. Halevi is the victim of one school board member… Dr. Halevi, then Program Director of Clark Academy, a school for those who “have fallen behind,” was grossly disobeyed by a young woman who doesn’t seem to understand the nature of decent behavior and respect for proper authority.  In the face of enormous provocation he evidently acted calmly and without anger… Dr. Halevi has been transferred out of a position in which, from all accounts, he excelled (according to the article, the only time in twenty-one years that he was ever disciplined was when he REFUSED to punish students who had referred to him as a “dumb Jew”).  Dr. Halevi was doing his job, and he is being punished because a powerful man can’t face his and his own family’s failed responsibility to a troubled and recalcitrant young woman.

Stuart Kaufman

Here was a man who disagreed fundamentally with nearly every value Andrew stood for, and yet, he was publicly advocating for him, expressing admiration for this man’s commitment to his values, attesting to his honesty. Stuart expressed a view that’s rarely heard today: you are not like me in any way and I disagree with everything you stand for, but I value you and your passion.

I don’t think that letter was ever printed. But it warmed my heart, especially given the political dissidence of the times.

As we enter Shavuos, it is that letter that I am thinking about now.

Rashi says before we stood as a nation at Har Sinai, we were kish echad b’lev echad, like one man with one heart.

Today, it sometimes seems as if we are very different nations. The Orthodox community, at least in the bigger cities has become polarized to Chassidiche, Yeshivishe, modern-Orthodox, liberal Orthodox, Sfardi, Ashkenazi and with minyanim of even similar populations diverging into young couples minyan, hashkama minyan, etc.

In most cases, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Everyone deserves to live a halachic life where they can find purpose, a Tefilla where they can find meaning. We aren’t all the same and there’s no reason to put ourselves into a box to pretend we are.

However, the challenge comes when we focus on the differences more than the similarities. When one person won’t daven at a different kind of minyan, when the bare-headed secular Israeli looks at the bearded Chassid as an alien, rather than a fellow Jew and when the yeshivishe person looks at the modern Orthodox Jew as chutz l’tchum (out of boundary). You may not be comfortable eating at the home of another Jew, but there should always be the willingness to have a conversation. To see the good in another, to be willing to see his/her perspective even if you adamantly disagree.

I look at our minyan in Charleston. Everyday, we have Ashkenazim and Sfardim and Yemenites davening together, Americans and Jews from other countries, baalei Teshuva, Jews who are frum from birth, and many Jews who are not observant at all. It is not unusual to see visiting Chassidim at our shul, donning Tefillin among secular Israelis. And despite the differences, there is a camaraderie in the air, religious and political differences forgotten as this microcosm of the Jewish world unite to daven to the one G-d they share.

Of course, this minyan is like this because we are too small a community to host more than one minyan. But there’s a tremendous beauty to this reality. When one person enters the shul as the tenth man, you start to learn not to see him any differently than another Jew, the outside trappings an afterthought.

As we accept the Torah this Shavuos, we can focus on different interpretations, the different commentaries that speak to us, the meaning that govern our lives and make us different from our neighbors. But above all, let us remember, it is one Torah we share, one Hashem that we daven to. And at the heart of all of our differences, is a great similarity and purpose that weaves us all together.

Ariela Davis is the Director of Judaics at Addlestone Hebrew Academy and the Rebbetzin of Brith Shalom Beth Israel, the historic shul of downtown Charleston, South Carolina. She writes and speaks about issues related to Israel, the Holocaust and Jewish thought. She can be reached at arieladavis@gmail.com

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