There is a famous story (we don’t know if it’s true or not, because it’s never been verified) about an Orthodox Jewish man who was walking up Route 17 on Friday afternoon to join his family in the Catskills for Shabbat. He saw a man wearing a yarmulke, hunched over his car by the side of the road. One of his car’s tires was flat and he looked like he needed help.
The driver pulled over to the side of the road, approached the man, helped him change the wheel and wished him “Happy Shabbat”. The man thanked him, took off his yarmulke and put it in his pocket. The driver gave the man a questioning look, at which point the man he was helping turned to the driver and explained, “Oh, I’m not Jewish. It’s just that I know that if I wear one of these skullcaps, someone Jewish will stop and help me.
It’s a humorous story, and it particularly resonates with members of the observant Jewish community, as many of us would probably do the exact same thing: pull up in our car to help another person wearing a yarmulke who needed help. ‘aid.
Recently, I thought about this story because I believe that we lived through significant events – and which contributed to a loss of confidence in our Jewish brothers.
I am thinking in particular of the Chaim Walder affair and the story of Bernard Madoff ten years earlier.
Chaim Walder sexually abused dozens of young women, according to their testimony before a beit uproar (Jewish Court), and many of his unfortunate victims are still terribly scarred by his heinous acts. But there is an additional victim in this horrific story – and that is the loss of trust we have in others.
Walder was able to get away with it for as long as he did because his victims trusted him as an honorable person and other members of the community who learned of his abuse did not believe anyone. one like Walder could commit such despicable acts.
Since the story broke and exploded in the media, many of us in the Orthodox community have become more sensitive to this issue and will wonder if we should blindly trust rabbis and other people in power. And this is certainly a positive result.
However, with this advantage came a very unfortunate outcome. We have lost our fundamental trust in others in the communities in which we live. The truth is, for every abuser, there are thousands of good, honest, and ethical people we can and should trust. The overwhelming majority is good…only a small minority is bad. As an honest and ethical majority, we must put in place protective shields that will prevent the minority from acting according to its immoral and sordid intentions.
Bernie Madoff’s story is another example of how we lost our trust. Madoff defrauded his clients around the world out of $50 billion, but the center of his operation – and where he was able to build his most valuable relationships – was the Modern Orthodox community.
Among the institutions that lost millions of dollars invested with him were Yeshiva University, Kehilath Jeshurun and Maimonides Synagogue, Ramaz and SAR Academy. Individual members of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue collectively lost $2 billion.
How can such reputable nonprofits, with smart, thoughtful members on their boards, be so naive in donating millions of dollars of their precious capital to someone like Madoff? How could individual investors sell their entire portfolios to Madoff without even performing due diligence? The answer, unfortunately, lies in the trust they had of other people in power who thought he was honest, outspoken and a brilliant financier. And that confidence has emerged from close-knit aspects of the Modern Orthodox community.
Professor Samuel Heilman, a distinguished professor of sociology at the City University of New York, explained the phenomenon this way: “There has always been the feeling in the modern Orthodox world that ‘our people’ share many things in common – the same schools, the same diet, a way of life in which we feel at home. And it’s a network that can be used, like any network, for good or for evil.
We celebrated Passover with our families, beginning the seder with the words:Kol dichfin yeitei v’yeichol (All those who are hungry must come and eat). No doubt our parents and grandparents a generation or two ago would have taken this to heart, and if a stranger knocked on their door on Passover night, they would have invited them to join in the meal and participate in the seder. Unfortunately, due to some of the incidents I’ve described, we’ve become much more suspicious of people we don’t know – and I wonder if our hospitality has suffered as a result. Would we turn down a stranger we don’t know who has asked to join us at our seder, lest he be an ax murderer? Should we?
There are no clear answers to this question. On the one hand, it’s admirable that we’re paying more attention to who we trust – and I think that will pay dividends in the future. On the other hand, I long for a more innocent time, when agreements were made between members of our community with a handshake and a chaim and the need to control the people with whom we we dealt with was not as important as it is today.
Many years ago, I would drive to the synagogue on Friday evenings for services, just minutes before the start of Shabbat. I found a young couple in front of the shul with a suitcase by their side. They told me they were heading to New Haven, but there was terrible traffic on I-95 and there was no way they would get to New Haven before Shabbat started. They knew there was an Orthodox synagogue in Stamford, so they pulled off the freeway and headed to the local shul.
I told them to get in the car and that I would drive them home before Shabbat, as they were going to be our guests. No questions asked.
It turned out to be a beautiful Shabbat, and we knew some people in common. However, I wonder what I would do today if the same thing happened.
Let us certainly be vigilant in whom we place our trust. At the same time, let us preserve the wonderful aspects of brotherhood and hospitality that make our community so special. It’s a difficult balance, but I think it can be achieved.
Michael Feldstein, who lives in Stamford, CT, is the founder and owner of MGF Marketing, a direct marketing consulting firm. His articles and letters have appeared in The Jewish Link, The Jewish Week, The Forward and The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at [email protected]