The following is a somewhat shortened piece that
originally appeared in a recent issue of the Jewish
When the oddly shaped package arrived in the mail, several of
my colleagues at 84 William Street happened to be in my
office. I took the cylindrical 20-inch mailing container in
hand and looked at the return address. It was from Mr. Blue*,
an older gentleman in Northern California with whom I have
been corresponding for several months.
Mr. Blue, who had first contacted me to take rather strong
issue with something I had written in a national Jewish
magazine, had never made a secret of his negative feelings
for Orthodox Jews and Orthodox Judaism. We argued back and
forth in letters over those months, he quoting news reports
and enclosing press clippings and I responding with
protestations, corrections and explanations.
"It's from someone not exactly enamored of us `Ultras,' I
told my friends with a laugh. After making a lame joke about
the package ticking, I tore off the wrapping to find a bottle
of fine kosher Cabernet.
All of us smiled, and I put my slightly late Purim gift on my
desk, where it stayed for most of the day, a reminder of one
Jew's gesture of good will toward another -- and a spur to
There are no Orthodox Jews where Mr. Blue lives. He had
formed his opinion of the Jewish religious heritage and those
dedicated to it from the only sources available to him: the
pages of newspapers and word of less-than-friendly mouths --
some, no doubt, speaking stridently from pulpits. And so his
first missive had been accusatory and indignant in tone. All
the same, though, I realized from the start, he had
bothered to write, and that says he cares. And so I had
written him back in a friendly tone, expressing the hurt
rather than the anger that his words -- a hodgepodge of
common misconceptions and overheard half-truths -- had caused
me. And so it was that our extended correspondence began.
Now many months later, Mr. Blue still displays biases,
misconstrues things he reads and vents misplaced outrage in
his letters. He may never fully accept my point of view. Yet
he has, I think, come to realize that Orthodox Jews are not
the shallow caricatures he once assumed, that even if our
deeply-held principles do not allow us to accept things like
the Reform or Conservative movements' definitions of
"conversion" (or, for that matter, of "Torah"), we
nevertheless consider all Jews to be parts of the Jewish
people. He has been forced to concede, to boot, that we are
real people, people from whom he can elicit a reasoned
response, people with whom he can have a good argument,
people whose day he can brighten with a bottle of wine.
And even as he has, I hope, learned a bit from me, I know I
have learned much from him. Not only about the depth of
misconception that Jews "out there" harbor about the Orthodox
world, but also about how the deepest unreason and cynicism
can sometimes be eroded by simple conversation and caring.
The multifaceted Am Echad project, of course, which was
created by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, zt'l, and which I am
privileged to direct in the United States, aims to correct
misconceptions and provide accurate information about
Orthodox Jews and Judaism to the wider Jewish community on a
broad communal scale. But there can never be any replacement
for personal, "Jew-to-Jew" outreach.
They Teach and We Teach
Another memory, too, was conjured by the bottle of wine (and
all this even before it was consumed!) -- of a letter to the
editor of a magazine published by the Reform movement. The
letter, written by a teen-aged girl, had apparently been
inspired by an article in an earlier issue of the periodical,
in which a Reform rabbi had contended that Orthodox Jews have
contempt for Jews who are not like themselves. "Why," wrote
the young woman, "when there is so much antisemitism in the
world must fellow Jews hate us as well?"
I was greatly agitated after reading the letter, deeply
pained that anyone -- not to mention a "Jewish leader" --
could so outrageously slander other Jews and bring such
needless anguish to an innocent young Jewish soul. I simply
couldn't concentrate, and so I picked up the phone and dialed
information for the girl's New Jersey town.
There would probably be many listings for her last name, I
told myself, too many to sift through.
There was only one; I wrote it down.
Taking a deep breath, I dialed the number and asked for
Michelle*. She came to the phone and, after apologizing
profusely for calling her out of the blue and promising that
I would not call her again unless she asked me to, I spoke my
"G-d forbid! Orthodox Jews don't hate you! We may have
serious disagreements with the philosophy of the movement
with which your family is affiliated. As you get older and
learn more, you will be able to evaluate those concerns for
yourself. But you and your family are precious Jewish
brothers and sisters to us!"
A pause, and then she responded.
"You sound like a nice person," she said, "but I'm sorry. I
can't accept the truth of what you're saying."
I was stunned. "But why not?" I asked.
"Because I've been taught otherwise. For years."
"But what you've been taught simply isn't true!"
"That might be so, but we've spent my classes in my Temple
school discussing the Orthodox attitude and I can't just
suddenly take your word against all that I've been taught by
I was dumbfounded, and angry -- at those who had so polluted
a Jewish heart -- but could do nothing but plead with the
young woman that she try to keep an open mind. She assured me
After the conversation, I was hardly less agitated.
I had only promised not to call her again, I told myself.
There wouldn't be any harm in writing, would there?
At the start of my letter, I apologized for the second
intrusion, and enclosed several articles I thought might help
demonstrate that while Orthodox Jews, like all principled
people, might reject things -- philosophies or ideas -- we
most certainly do not reject other Jews for their casual
affiliations. I asked her to weigh the sentiments in the
material that was enclosed against what her teachers had told
"You might also try an experiment," I continued. "Go (with
your parents, of course) to any Orthodox synagogue -- pick an
`Ultra' one if you can -- on a Friday evening or Saturday
morning and, after services, ask anyone at random if you and
your folks -- identify yourselves as Reform Jews -- can join
his or her family for the Sabbath meal. You can imagine what
to expect if your teachers are correct."
I included my phone numbers and address, should she ever wish
to talk further, but promised not to bother her anymore --
through any means.
I have not heard from her to date and have so far kept my
A multitude of scenarios has been proposed for the American
Jewish future. If present trends continue, there is little
doubt that the Orthodox community will grow, be"H,
both in size and its proportion of the entire Jewish
community. What will happen, though, to the larger American
Jewish world -- to the Jews who affiliate with non-Orthodox
movements or, like most, with no movement at all?
A sad scenario has the majority of such Jews falling prey to
increased assimilation and intermarriage, drifting away,
chas vesholom, into Jewish oblivion. An insistent
optimist, however, someone weaned on miracles, might envision
the future intensification of something that has already been
experienced on a relatively small but noteworthy scale over
recent decades: the ba'al teshuvah movement.
The non-Orthodox philosophies, after all, are collapsing
under the weight -- or perhaps better, weightlessness -- of
their unabashedly Zeitgeist-driven agendas. It is only a
matter of time before large numbers of affiliated non-
Orthodox American Jews come to realize, as have their non-
affiliated counterparts, that a quasi-Jewish patina is
neither honest nor necessary for the embrace of
environmentalism, feminism, the legitimization of "alternate"
lifestyles or any of the other grand causes that have
motivated the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist
rabbinates in recent years.
And while "the Orthodox monopoly" (or, less partisanly put,
democracy) in Israel will surely continue for some time to
serve as fodder for outraged Reform and Conservative rabbis'
sermons, the "pluralism" issue -- which is, to non-Orthodox
activists, essentially a political one in the end -- will
eventually fade once against into the background, perhaps as
soon as the imminent Israeli elections. Either the Jewish
State's religious parties will not, chas vesholom,
retain sufficient Knesset leverage to stand up to the
activist Israeli High Court, or, be"H, they will. In
either even, though, the American Jewish sectarian war cry
may soon enough come to lose much of its resonance.
Should that indeed happen, a mammoth vacuum could well begin
to open up within the collective heart of American Jewry.
From my perch, cracks already seem evident. The increase in
the number of returnees to our mesora is powerfully
apparent in practically every Jewish community, and large
multi-generational families whose matriarchs or patriarchs
were raised in nonobservant homes are no longer anomalies. We
have come to know noted intellectuals who were brought up in
the reform movement -- like David Klinghoffer (the literary
editor of National Review, whose recent autobiography
chronicled his movement to Jewish Orthodoxy) and Yonason
Rosenblum (no stranger, of course, to Jewish Observer
readers) -- who have squarely faced the fatal flaws in the
non-Orthodox philosophies and courageously followed the
demands of their consciences. Is it unreasonable to imagine
large numbers of other honest, caring Jews who are at present
unaware of how distant their rabbis' beliefs and ideals are
from those of the historic Jewish tradition coming to follow
Reasonable or not, that must be our deep hope and our fervent
*Names have been changed.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is Director of Public Affairs, Agudath
Israel of America, and American Director, Am Echad