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Saturday, February 29, 2020

(Part II)

Last Friday night, Shabbos Chanukah, I found myself at a tish with my Vizhnitz friend, Moishe. Hundreds of chasidim lined the bleachers hopping like energizer bunnies in perfect synchronization; peyos swung wildly and only Yiddish could be heard. The shul served as a portal to a previous generation, where people shvitzed spirituality and Shabbos was as tangible as the shtreimels brushing against my face. In the middle of all the action sat the orchestrator, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Kohn, Rebbe of Toldos Avrohom Yitzchok. Like the navi Yehoshua, the chasidic master motioned with his hand to stop, and the chasidim donning sun-gold bekeshas came to an immediate halt; another signal, and all the chasidim continued their festivities. The Rebbe had full control over his chasidim.

Moishe and I left the Mea Shearim tish and sat down in a shul nearby. Scattered upon our table were Neturei Karta pamphlets that read (in Hebrew): Guardian of Judaism. Four chasidim wearing striped gold-and-white bekeshas and two Israeli sephardic Jews were sharing drinks. It seemed like this shul tucked in the nooks and crannies of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood was a place where all observant Jews were welcome. A few minutes went by, and the term medinah (referring to the State of Israel) was heard being tossed back and forth between the chasidim and the sephardim. Soon after, the chasidim began singing (in “Lashon Hakodesh”): “The government of heretics we do not believe in…” I turned to Moishe and jokingly sang along: “Neturei Karta we do not believe in…” (Moishe hadn’t heard that one before.)

Shortly thereafter, a 19-year-old named Yosef approached us and introduced himself, “I am a Palestinian Jew. What are you?”

“I am a Jewish Jew.”

“No,” Yosef insisted, “there are Palestinian Jews, American Jews, etc. What kind of Jew are you?”

My Hebrew wasn’t good enough to explain what I had meant, so I asked Moishe to tell Yosef in Yiddish, “I don’t mix my nationality with my Judaism. I’m just a Jew.”

Yosef seemed disappointed but accepted my answer. He continued, “Have you ever been to the settlements?”

“You can’t settle in your own land. Anyway, don’t you think that all of the medinah is a settlement?”

Yosef conceded.

Yosef was just a 19-year-old kid, brainwashed by the anti-Zionist sentiment that his tight-knit group fosters.

I inquired, “You clearly have a love for Jews. So much so, that you felt compelled to approach a stranger in order to ensure that he does not support the Israeli government, an act you deem heretical. I just wish to know, why wasn’t my appreciation of Shabbos, Chanukah or Rosh Chodesh the first thing you checked up on? Why ask about my opinion on the State of Israel before probing my observance of anything mentioned in the Written Torah?”

Yosef, somewhat to my surprise, responded calmly, “There are two aspects to Judaism: the actions, laws, holidays, etc., and the hashkafa (Jewish philosophy) through which one lives. Before offering to help you with the mitzvos of Judaism, I wanted to make sure that your hashkafa was correct, because if a person supports the medinah, any Torah he learns is due to the influence of the sitra achra (opposite of holiness).”

Even Moishe, who has many Satmar friends opposed to the medinah, had a quizzical look on his face.

Moishe and I left the shul without further incident.

“What happened to the mitzvah of loving one’s fellow Jew?” I questioned Moishe.

Moishe gave an answer that we all must hear. “You know,” he began, “I’ve met many people who claim to love all Jews, but when I ask them if they love charedim who yell ‘Shabbos!’ at driving cars or protest in the streets against actions of the Israeli government, I’m always told, ‘Those people are crazy [and therefore don’t deserve love].’”

Someone please correct me if I’m wrong: Ahavat Yisrael is not limited to those whose opinions line up with one’s own. The Torah demands of us to find a way to love every Jew, even if his religious ideologies appear fanatic and his religious lifestyle seems foreign. True, there are parameters for Ahavat Yisrael. For example, if a Jew is out to kill another (i.e., the Neturei Karta members who stand with Hamas), then perhaps there is no mitzvah to love him. However, for a Jew whose religious fervor seems extreme, or for a child like Yosef who may not know any better, we can disagree in the strongest terms, but we still must love him genuinely.


Shlomo Deutsch is a college sophomore and former Jewish Link intern who often finds himself conversing with very different people. His typical morning could include praying at the Kotel with a group of “settlers” followed by listening to Mohammed, his 17-year-old former (long story) Muslim friend, dream about his “right of return.” He might then call the U.S. to catch up with his Open Orthodox chavruta as he walks to Mea Shearim to learn with a friend from Lakewood. Shlomo listens to all these opinions and tries to make some sense of them here on his Times of Israel blog.