Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Unity In Diversity

I am raising my children in Boro Park - a community that evokes strong feelings in many people. It's a neighborhood that is touted as the epitome of chessed, and maligned for its rudeness and unfriendliness.

There are great benefits to living where we do. My children are growing up surrounded by people whose homes are similar to ours, who dress the way we do, and who share our values.

But there are also drawbacks. Living all your life with people who are just like you puts you at risk of developing an intolerance of people's differences, of contrasting and judging.

It's not what I wanted for my children. I wanted them to learn to see past the clothing. To notice each person's special value. To appreciate the differences. And I was determined to teach them.

It wasn't quite as easy as I thought it would be. They were used to seeing everyone wearing identical yarmulkas and similar clothing, and anyone who dared to be different was suspect. Stripes on a man's shirt set him apart. He was less frum. And I wanted them to understand the misconception.

Some of my kids were able to grasp it pretty quickly. Others took a bit longer.

My daughter was in high school, when we went to the mall one evening to shop for shoes. A man was sitting at the side, waiting, while his wife tried on one pair of shoes after another. He was dressed in a colored polo and a suede yarmulka, an open sefer on his lap, learning while he waited for his wife.

Here was a lesson to be taught, and I grabbed the opportunity.

"Look," I whispered to my daughter, "look at that man. Does it make any difference that he isn't wearing a black hat and a white shirt?"

My daughter was impressed. She understood my point. But she didn't quite get it. In her mind, this was a rare exception.

It wasn't until a little while later that she was finally able to really appreciate what I'd been trying so hard to get her to see. She switched to a different camp that summer - a camp that attracted girls from a variety of backgrounds and communities. Her close friends, from different states, were just as frum as she was. Maybe more so. And meeting their parents on visiting day, looking decidedy un-Boro Park, was incredibly eye-opening.

Recently, an Ami Magazine article about Brisk featured a picture of the Brisker Rav with two sons. In the picture, one of his sons, R' Dovid Soloveitchik, is wearing a light gray suit and matching gray fedora, a common enough mode of dress at the time the photo was taken.

"It used to be that one could wear a light gray hat and still be considered choshuv, I guess," my daughter said. "When did that change? And why?

Why, indeed.

The giving of the Torah took place in the month of Sivan—the third month. In fact, the figure three is a constant motif in everything connected with the giving of the Torah.

Why the number three? Surely the Torah was intended to be unique and to reveal the oneness of Hashem. The number one is what we would have expected.

The giving of the Torah in the third month teaches us that Torah values diversity and individuality.

The purpose of the giving of the Torah was indeed unity. But true unity is when a person recognizes the One in the many.

When he perceives unity in the midst of diversity.


  1. When I spent my year in Eretz Yisrael, I spent a lot of time on Moshav Matityahu. Within my first week, I heard about Rav Leff and his family. He had twin boys, with one of them learning in Ponevitz and the other fighting in the army in Lebanon. I was beyond impressed. To do that, in Israel, and have a reputable yeshiva and teach all over... Good stuff.

  2. I also hope to inculcate in my children an appreciation for all kinds of Jews and an understanding that you can never judge a book by its cover.

    Beautiful post!

  3. Wonderful post! I totally agree with you, how we all characterize ourselves in different levels, usually based on outside superficial appearances. And it can be proven again and again, how completely meaningless "dress" is, and no way shows a level of "frumkeit".

    One thing is true, and unfortunate. If you dress a certain way, people expect you to act a certain way, so you have a bigger opportunity to make a chilul hashem if you are wearing the full garb.

    I took my Lag Ba'omer haircut in Manhattan, thinking my normal barber in Boro Park is all full. The barber wasn't wearing a yaarmulka, but turned out he was shomer shabbos, and probably (no, DEFINITELY) more frum than me. Here's what he divulged. He is a baal teshuva. He was not religious as a teenager. He was partying in a bar on a Friday night. A Chassidic guy walked in, with a long coat, and long peyos. And was engaged in real crude behavior with some women. Here's the point. He said that everyone was LAUGHING at him, how absurd he looked. And to him, every time he felt inspired, and toyed with idea of exploring Yiddishkeit, he would think back to that Friday night and say "THIS?, I dont want to be part of this!". He told me that this one incident delayed his teshuva for years!

  4. I agree, we need to understand that eventhough we're different, we still are observant Jews whether litvish, chassidish, Sefardic, Modern Orthodox, or in between. We can disagree with each other, but still respect each other. Imagine what an impact we can make with unity. And bring redemption closer

  5. It's true. When children are raised in an environment where people who dress differently than them are automatically assumed to be on a different religious level than them, it's important as a parent to show them that it's not always the case.

    Bringing guests to ones shabbos table is one way of showing them that although all Jews look different on the outside, there is that burning spark that wants to have a connection to Hashem.
    We all are searching for our own unique path in avodas hashem, our way of reaching it may be different but the goal is the same. So we must learn to accept all people even if they look different. This is a beautiful story of how someone who may not look like your stereotypical ben torah really values torah!

    You sound like you are doing a great job teaching your children to look beyond the outside dress of others because there is more than meets the eye!

    On a side note, I was recently talking to someone and she said that it's sad that now that people have cell phones (the blackberry, the iPhone...) there are less and less people taking out a sefer or a tehillim while they wait for things. Instead, they are busy checking their emails, texting or talking on the phone...