Exposing yourself to the way Jews around the world live and getting to know new communities is always an interesting experience. Seeing how other Jewish communities live around the world can challenge your expectations of what the prototypical Jew looks like and in more dramatic cases overturns the way we think about the Jewish nation as a whole.
At the beginning of this summer, I traveled to Odessa, Ukraine on a service mission organized by Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future (CJF) and the American Joint Distribution Committee. Not only did it give me a chance to explore my Soviet roots (my father is from Ukraine; my mother is from Russia), but it also allowed me to learn more about a Jewish community so utterly different from and yet so similar to my own.
Living within an Orthodox community and all that it entails often creates a culture of homogeneity, where in order to fit in with the community one must conform to a specific set of norms. One particular issue that comes up is the mode of dress and what is considered acceptable for each community. The popular idiom “clothing makes the man” is used to highlight the importance of particular modes of dress. What this has meant in my community is that girls and women are expected to dress according to the standards of tzniut in order to indicate a sense of modesty, and boys and men are expected to dress formally, avoiding casual attire such as jeans and T-shirts. In extreme cases, even the color of one’s button-down shirt matters and can affect how others view him. Some people are under the impression that a young man who wears jeans is somehow less religious, or less serious about his Judaism, a viewpoint that I find rather ridiculous. The truth of the matter is that sometimes members of a community feel pressure to dress according to these expectations for fear of being labeled as subpar or less religious.
These expectations and clothing-based stereotypes left their stamp on my mind, making me quite aware of what people are wearing in the Orthodox community and what they are trying to say about themselves through their clothing.
One of the most meaningful aspects of my trip to Odessa was the experience of meeting Ukrainian Jews my age and younger and seeing their dedication and love for Judaism. I met teenage girls and boys who spent their free time participating in activities and volunteering at their local Jewish Community Center (JCC). I saw young women in shul early on weekday mornings, striving to come on time for shacharit. The Chabad shul our group went to for shacharit a few times was filled with young men starting their day with tefila. I witnessed true dedication on the part of all these young men and women, who had meaningful relationships with their Jewish identity and with G-d.
Above all, I witnessed unity and love for each fellow Jew. In a city where Jewish life was nearly obliterated under Communism, every single Jew is important. It is in places like Odessa where we can truly understand the significance of every Jew and their contribution to our nation as a whole, regardless of what kind of clothing they wear. In Odessa’s Orthodox community, it doesn’t matter how you dress. Nobody is judging you or sizing up your religious beliefs and observance based on your mode of dress.
When I looked down into the men’s section one weekday morning during shacharit, I saw an entire group of young men in jeans and band T-shirts and tefillin, intently praying. Not the sea of black and white that I would have expected to see back in New York, but infinitely more meaningful for me because of the lesson it taught me: it is not clothing that makes the man. This message was even more powerful in the women’s section. I didn’t expect to see any women in shul that early, but Odessa’s Jews surprised me as a sizeable group of women filed into the ezrat nashim. Their skirt length and sleeves didn’t matter as much as the fact that their presence declared their dedication to Judaism, Torah and mitzvot. And that’s a pretty powerful lesson.
While I am not implying that women should ignore hilkhot tzniut and men should dress however casually they like in settings like shul, those issues should be left up to the individual and should have no bearing on the way they are perceived and treated. When dealing with people, it is necessary that we look at them as fully actualized complex human beings, because stereotyping based on people’s clothing choices will never get us anywhere. It is our loss when we fail to welcome someone into our community and into our hearts because we cannot look past the way they dress when it makes them look different from us.
This is the message we need to emphasize in our Orthodox community. It is amazing that there are this many large Jewish communities across America but the pitfall of this is that we stop valuing each Jew as an individual and begin separating between Jews based on things as insignificant as modes of dress, categorizing and labeling them because of what they wear. Is that really what ahavat Yisrael has come to?
Clothing does not necessarily make the man. While clothing has long been seen as one of the indicators of Jewish identity — or at the very least, expressing Jewish identity through one’s clothing has been seen as an integral part of religious observance and identification — this system is faulty if it causes us to discriminate among Jews. As a personal choice when one is getting dressed, it is fine. But as a criteria for accepting other Jews as our own, it is problematic.
I had the opportunity to hear Elie Wiesel speak a few months ago at the 92nd Street Y. His lecture was on the topic of Jeremiah, but one thing he said in particular that struck me and remained ingrained in my memory was this: “My creed, my faith, is ahavat Yisrael.”
How powerful this statement would be if we all took it to heart, if we were all committed to seeing each Jew as the precious soul he/she is and loving them for the G-dly spark that is in them — no matter how they look or what they wear. It did not matter what the Jews in Odessa were dressed like. The bottom line was that they were in shul early in the morning, connecting to G-d, and even I, in my long sleeves and skirts, cannot say that I have the same dedication every morning when I am in New York. I have the highest admiration for the Jewish community in Odessa and all the things that it has taught me.
This trip to Odessa was a powerful reminder of something we should always keep in mind; the inherent value of each Jewish soul – underneath anything physical or material.