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Situational Awareness: A Requisite for being a decent person.

I and another person were waiting on line at a bank the other day when there was only one teller available. At that teller stood a young well-groomed frum person and the transaction seemed to be taking time. It turns out he was telling the teller a story even after she had finished the transaction. Another teller then opened her window and when I approached her, I could hear the young man speak to the other teller about Judaism and how it’s not right to hurt other peoples’ feelings. He went on to say that he may have been guilty of this and he was even explaining it with some nuance because as he was explaining he used the traditional talmudic thumb-twirl to illustrate his point. The teller wasn’t about to tell him to move on because the banks on Main St are so squeezed with competition from each other and they have to be very friendly to their customers. So I took it upon myself to remove this chilul Hashem and reminded him that there is a customer waiting behind him. He made a joke to the effect that I was an inspector but he moved on.

The young man was well intentioned but it’s not the right time to explain Judaism to a bank teller, especially when there are people waiting behind you on the line. This made me think of the lecture by Rabbi Moshe Turk, from the Jewish Heritage Center, given at one of Young Israel KGH’s summer lectures. He spoke about kiruv and how the most important thing frum people can do to draw irreligious Jews back to the faith is not brushing up on evolution theory or providing philosophical answers about G-d’s role during catastrophic events but rather role modeling exquisite behavior to other Jews and even to non-Jews; being friendly, considerate and helpful is the single biggest factor in showing others how wonderful our religion is - was his message. This was very refreshing to hear and something that I believe in very strongly myself. Chafetz Chaim from which Rabbi Turk is a musmach and where I also attended high school and first year Yeshiva Gedolah, pioneered kiruv 40 years ago.

All this has to do with being in touch with one’s surroundings, thereby knowing how to be in harmony with the people around you. Situational awareness is very tough for lots of us because we have to have the big picture to do it right. Many people are lacking the big picture and fall prey to their own myopia. The young man explaining Judaism to the teller did not realize that the person behind him and waiting for him to move on could be forming a very negative view of Judaism. True mussar, therefore requires having situational awareness (SA for short) and that is what the frum young man in the bank was lacking. Most conflicts arise from people lacking SA as it is a deficit of an understanding of the other person’s viewpoint. Besides observing, listening is key to understand the bigger landscape and resolving conflicts. Yet, listening in today’s world is a very underrated quality. Trying to be friendly, eager to hear what is important to another person is a key to being able to be helpful to that person. Rabbi Turk emphasized that while speaking to a person who is not familiar with Orthodoxy it is important to speak English without the Hebrew and Yiddish thrown in (Yinglish or Hebrish) which he said is a challenge to most frum people.

At the end of Rabbi Turk’s talk I asked him - in light of what he just spoke about, how does he assess the role of Yeshivos’ mussar programs. He answered that Chafetz Chaim had a good mussar program. I didn’t want to argue the point but first of all, his answer covered just one Yeshivah. Secondly, Chafetz Chaim was advanced with a kiruv approach and certain mature young men of the Yeshivah Gedolah were very good at it, by no means was it so refined that many others would not have benefitted from a practical guide to mussar. What was in practice at the high school level, were inspirational talks by some of the Rabbeim and the principal on how to excel in Torah study but not real Mussar courses. The Rosh Hayeshivah for the Yeshivah Gedolah provided intellectual, and arguably a theoretical approach, to mussar and quite a few students from what I observed, were not absorbing enough of the basics of mussar. Specifically, what I have in mind is that even in the Yeshivah Gedolah, when I asked some of the “older” guys questions about Gemarah or Hashkafah (philosophy), their responses were not always tendered with care and understanding. Many times Yeshivah students engage in Talmudical dialogue or even theoretical Mussar concepts with a competitive edge as opposed to wanting to truly learn or impart knowledge. The reality is that even in Orthodox schools, bullying, drug use and discipline problems exist and its time that Yeshivos and day schools would be more proactive in employing more practical Mussar programs to fortify the spiritual health of their students.

An even more powerful example of the lack of practice of Rabbi Turk’s message is illustrated with a personal story of mine. As I once related in one of my columns, my parents had wonderful qualities but coming from the shtetle life, they did not understand the American way of doing things. When I graduated the Hebrew Academy of Washington D.C. at the end of 9th grade, my parents and I wanted that I go on to Yeshivah in NY. Both of my older brothers had gone to a certain Yeshivah in NY and it was expected that I would be admitted there also. My parents left it to my older brother, then 18, and me then 15, to make the arrangements. So, during the summer before going to NY, against my older brother’s advice, I felt that I didn’t have to prepare for the upcoming “faherr” (test) to the Yeshivah, because I had been the valedictorian in Gemorah in my, admittedly, small class at the Hebrew Academy in Washington. Naturally, the faherr did not go well and the Yeshivah refused me admission. The school year had already started and because no advanced planning was made, another Yeshiva didn’t even entertain admitting me, as they explained - “this isn’t a subway station where you just come in whenever you want”. Later, a Lubavitch high school did take me in but because I wasn’t oriented in their ways I then switched to Chafetz Chaim. Before I was admitted to the Lubavitch school, I didn’t have a real place to eat or sleep. The Yeshivos which denied me admission did not even inquire as to where I would go and where I could stay before some Yeshivah would accept me. In Chafetz Chaim I was successful and even advanced a year ahead in religious studies. The Yeshivos who didn’t accept me were not able to see my potential. I consider this also a case lacking SA.

Christianity became such a powerful force all over the world because the missionaries mixed good works with religion. As they fed the poor and tended to the sick they introduced their religion to a spiritually deprived populace. There are now over 2 billion Christians in the world. World Jewish population is struggling between 14 and 18 million depending on the definition of Jewish. I am not saying that proselytizing was ever a goal for the Jewish religion or its adherents. But certainly not losing Jews to non observance or to other religions, is. I posit here that Jewish Orthodoxy, traditionally, carried with it a distinct insularity. In my opinion, the Jewish Orthodox through much of our history, with rare exception, constrained its own sphere of influence.

As I petition again, for no less meritorious a candidate, as Assemblyman Michael Semanowitz, an Orthodox Jew, I once again am confronted too often with cynicism and ignorance from some (smart alecky) frum people. “He’ll get on the ballot anyway”, “Will I get money in my pocket if I sign for him?” or “I stay away from politics” are some of the refrains I hear as explanations why they don’t want to sign a petition. Rarely do I ever get a “yesher coach” for petitioning from house to house. Why? Because there is a total lack of situational awareness. Frum Jews don’t know or realize that the government provides support to the Jewish community by way of grants to Tomchei Shabbos, meals to seniors, subsidies to building security enhancements and zoning allowances for Yeshivos and shuls as well as parking situations for such. Perhaps the biggest reality taken for granted is that the government provides us security through the Homeland Security Agency and our local police forces so that Jews, in our public gatherings, can be relatively secure and not have to worry about Neo Nazis and militant Islamists wanting to do us harm. Also, where is the Hakaras Hatov for the U.S armed forces? How many religious Jews marched in last Memorial’s Day Parade? How many Yeshivos, as a prominent Rabbi asked, hang U.S. flags from their buildings on Memorial Day or July 4th?

Is it possible that the reason Orthodox Jews end up too often on the front pages of newspapers with scandals of slum lording, money schemes and pedophelia, is because we get caught up in the technicalities of religion and we forget the bigger picture of how to translate Torah teachings to practicalities of daily life. How we treat each other - be it in marriage or just to neighbors, being ethical in business and doing good for the community deserves much greater attention than is currently given. Why should only Christians be known for “good works”? Jews have something to learn from Christians in how to reach out to others in society with grace and good-will. Perhaps when more Orthodox Jews show up serving lunches in general soup kitchens, care for homeless veterans, get more involved with American political issues, will the rate of Jewish assimilation decrease or even reverse.

The Torah and our heritage offer such pearls of wisdom for wholesome living yet we don’t find many Rabbis or educators who are eager to share this spiritual gold with American society at large! American society is losing its bearings with its youth lost in pursuits of violence, bullying each other, drug use, teenage pregnancy and a general lack of respect for each other and even for themselves. Why won’t the Orthodox leadership share its wisdom to spiritually starved America? The young man at the bank shouldn’t be wasting people’s time there - he should be sharing his enthusiasm for Judaism with troubled American youth. Why hasn’t anyone ever told him that?

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