i hate intolerance


(Warning: this is a long rant. If you’re like most people and have better things to do, feel free to skip this. I won’t take offense.)

I’m embarrassed to post this, because it reflects poorly on some of my coreligionists. But it needs to get exorcized from my system. Earlier today, my 13-year-old daughter Arielle attended a bas mitzvah (the female counterpart of a bar mitzvah) of a friend at our former synagogue. We had belonged there for many years because we liked the former rabbi (who recently left) and, well, there weren’t any other options where we used to live. This was a Conservative synagogue, and we’re anything but. We finally realized that we were Reconstructionist Jews trapped in a Conservative synagogue, and it was easy to leave using the excuse that we were moving to Wyncote,. The reality was that we were miserable there. That synagogue didn’t reflect our liberal values, and represented a lot of what I have resented about how Judaism is practiced in this country since I was a kid. I’m also not sure it would have gone over well if I had publicized my atheism, and I can say that my criticism of Israel and support of the Palestinian’s aspirations definitely was not well received at our former synagogue. And then there was that time I asked the Israeli ambassador why they were assassinating people against international law…

Anyway, I digress. At the bas mitzvah today, a friend of Arielle’s who happens to be Asian was writing something down very quickly on a sheet of paper when the executive director of the synagogue, who I guess is to that synagogue what the Taliban were to Islamic practice in Afghanistan, came up to the girl and said “Well, I guess you wouldn’t know this since you’re Asian, but we don’t write on the Sabbath.”

Her comment was mind-boggling, and deeply offensive. For starters, it ignores the fact that this girl could indeed be Jewish. My wife has Asian relatives who are, in fact, members of the tribe, and I’ve known at least one Japanese American who was Jewish. But even worse, it’s damn patronizing and inappropriate. Even more absurd is the fact that for all this woman’s talk of keeping the Sabbath, how did she and everyone else get to this synagogue? I know they didn’t walk. Note to this executive director: driving is just as verboten on the Jewish Sabbath as is writing or cooking, if you’re religious and all that. 

I remember when I was a kid. I attended Episcopalian Mass every now and then (long story). The first time I attended Mass I went up for communion. I had no idea what communion was, but a lot of folks were going up there so I didn’t want to be rude by staying in my pew. When I got up to the alter, the priest didn’t look at me and say “I guess you wouldn’t know this since you’re a Jew, but only those who accept Christ can take communion.” Rather, someone politely informed me that I don’t need to take communion, and I took the hint and sat down, totally non-offended.

But today I am quite offended, and especially since I’ve had similar bad experiences with this executive director in the past, wanted to bring it to someone’s attention. I wrote a e-mail to the executive director, cc’ing their new rabbi. Within minutes I got a response from the rabbi. Unfortunately, he totally missed the point, minimized the entire incident, and essentially discounted anything my daughter reported since it didn’t happen directly to her (in other words, Arielle’s reporting of the comment is irrelevant since her friend, to whom it was directed, isn’t reporting it). In essence, he cannot believe his executive director could possibly have said anything inappropriate, as she’s only the best person in the world, has cured the lame and the sick, is developing the cure for cancer, blah blah blah blah. Whatever.

By this point, I’m not only offended. I’m pissed. At a rabbi. One whom I’ve never even met.

So I shoot back with another e-mail where I don’t hold back at all (other than withholding a lot of profanities pertaining to his executive director). I indicate that he should at least take seriously what my daughter is reporting. Why is a 13-year-old more offended by a clearly inappropriate and hurtful comment directed at an Asian teenager but not a rabbi? In the end, this got me nowhere, as the rabbi tried to deal with my e-mail through sarcasm and finally declined by offer to discuss this over the phone and broke off communications. Now Arielle just fired back with an e-mail to him informing the rabbi that he should not be discounting the word of a 13-year-old. I doubt that will change anything.

I could write a tome about how Conservative Judaism is imploding, how it’s irrelevant, how its stance towards gays and interfaith couples is wrong, how its knee-jerk support of Israel to the detriment of all else is harmful, etc. But I won’t. I will say that this rabbi should have just responded to me the first time by thanking me for bringing this to his attention, that this is indeed an offensive comment, that he would take this seriously and speak with his executive director and try to ascertain the facts, etc. That’s what most folks would have done, especially in a leadership position. So why not this rabbi? 

Honestly, on those rare occasions where we’ve had to go back to attend an event at our old synagogue, I’ve come away feeling like I need to be deprogrammed. We love our Reconstructionist synagogue. It’s not perfect; nothing is. But it’s fully egalitarian, supports LGBT rights, is supportive of interfaith couples, does not believe in this “chosen people” crap, rejects the notion that the torah was written by god, etc. And I can say beyond a reasonable degree of medical certainty that no one at our current synagogue would ever, ever, chastise someone of a different race, religion or culture for inadvertently violating a religious custom they would not have known about.   

As I think about it, this executive director had a teachable moment here and she blew it. She could have very politely mentioned to my daughter’s friend that many religious Jews don’t write on the sabbath and out of respect, their particular synagogue would prefer that everyone within its walls observe and respect its customs. This could have led to a respectful discussion of why the more religious Jews do not write, drive, cook, or do anything that could be construed as work on the sabbath. The same way that at Arielle’s bas mitzvah, our rabbi politely invited anyone up to view the torah up close, realizing that many of our guests were not Jewish and might be interested in learning more about why Arielle was doing what she was doing. That’s not at all threatening. That’s not at all patronizing. That’s not a putdown of another religion or culture. But what the executive director of our former Conservative synagogue did this morning was indeed threatening, patronizing and disrespectful to another culture and religion. It was also really rude. Who knows what that Asian teenager thinks of Judaism in the wake of how she was treated earlier today? I doubt her respect for Judaism was enhanced by this encounter.

I’m ashamed and angry that there are people in my faith who seem to work overtime to convince others that Judaism is about feeling superior to others. Now I’m not religious in any way, although I strongly identify culturally with my Jewish heritage and appreciate the fact that a belief in god or the adherence to rituals are not required in order to be Jewish. But even a totally secular Jew like me knows that there is something deeply wrong with telling someone in a patronizing manner that he/she is violating a local religious custom. Unfortunately, that synagogue’s current rabbi has no clue why that comment was offensive. I suppose I could offer this as another example as to why Conservative Judaism is as irrelevant as the GOP.