Thursday, July 9, 2009

Modi'in Continued...A Painful Exchange for the Three Weeks

I received a troubling e-mail response to my posting yesterday regarding the arson attack on a Masorti synagogue in Modi-in. Considering that today is the Fast of Tammuz and the beginning of the three weeks of mourning leading to the fast of the 9th of Av, it was especially timely.

One of the main thrusts of the rabbinic "take" on why the Second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 ha to do with what the Talmud calls "Sinat Hinam," causeless hatred. See some background here, including the famous story of how Jerusalem fell because of a simple cocktail party invitation snub.

I want to print the e-mail exchange verbatim, because I have no idea where the precise truth lies, but it illustrates just how dangerous infighting can be. I also recognize some of my own culpability here, in jumping to conclusions that may not be accurate.

It is important to state that there is never an excuse for destruction and vandalism, especially of a synagogue - just yesterday there was a report of swastikas spray-painted at a Chabad synagogue on Long Island, and that is also reprehensible. But it reminds me of the time when we found swastikas here (see My Dance with Amalek) and after months of firey rhetoric about the dangers of anti-Semitism, it turned out that the vandalism was perpetrated by someone who was Jewish. We are always so quick to condemn the Other, especially where it is politically expedient, when sometimes what we need to do most is look into the mirror.

So here is the exchange, with permission of the e-mailer, slightly edited for space and flow:

Hi, Rabbi Hammerman.

I'm writing because of the posting that you wrote about the Masorti synagogue in Modi'in. I live in Modi'in, and attend an independent, egalitarian minyan that broke off several years ago from Yedid Nefesh. Our two minyanim are often at odds with one another, so you're welcome to dismiss what I'm about to say. It pains me to have to write this, because I'm a former member of the board of the Masorti movement, and share many of the movement's goals. But in this particular case, I think that the movement has gone way overboard in its PR campaign, and has misled many people regarding what happened here.

I was horrified to hear about the fire at Yedid Nefesh several days ago, and joined in the condemnation against those who did this act. But the more that I have looked into the issue, the more obvious it becomes that this was not an act of religious or political violence against a Masorti synagogue, but rather the sort of (admittedly terrible) teenage vandalism that we have grown used to in Modi'in, and which happens to public buildings all of the time.

For example, my daughters' school has a wonderful nature program, with a greenhouse, large outdoor garden, and composting. I should say "had" a wonderful program, because about 2-3 months ago, someone climbed the 2-meter fence in the middle of the night, smashed the greenhouse and tore up the garden. My daughters were devastated, the school was horrified, and everyone who knew about the nature program was up at arms. Even though the perpetrators weren't caught, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that it was teenagers in Modi'in, because they are known to do this. From everything I understand, the police arrived at Yedid Nefesh, found that the welcome mat had been burned by some cigarettes, and that as a result of this fire, some plants had been damaged, as well. It was not arson in even the simplest of senses; there was neither kerosene nor lighter fluid, nor an attempt to enter, nor an attempt to break windows or doors, nor a note, nor anything that would be indicative of someone's malicious intent toward the synagogue. If I were personally interested in causing damage to the synagogue, I could think of dozens of ways to do it that would be more effective than what was done here.In other words, there is ample precedent for simple, random, teenage destruction of public property in Modi'in. And the fire at the synagogue building showed all of the signs of being another such incident. The local newspapers have refused to cover the story, because reporters examined the evidence along with the police, and found that there wasn't anything to report. This week's "Modi'in News" doesn't have a story about the Masorti fire, but it does have a full-page story about some destruction that teenagers did in the Reut section of Modi'in.

Now, the members of Yedid Nefesh claim that they are hated by the community, that there has been at least one problem in the past with haredim (which is true), and that a sign announcing the synagogue's affiliation with Masorti had just been put up. My experience is that almost no Israelis know what the Masorti movement is, let alone care about its symbol being displayed on a small building. My minyan (which again, broke off from Yedid Nefesh several years ago, and which is growing far faster than Yedid Nefesh, without any movement affiliation) has received nothing but the best of help from the municipality, including a building into which we'll be moving shortly. If there is hatred or animosity in the community, then I'm not aware of it; on the contrary, we have been treated in the same way as Orthodox minyanim by the people in charge of assigning buildings and rooms to minyanim in need of them.To lump this week's fire with the (very real) attacks in Ramot several years ago, or with Kristallnacht, would seem to be an extreme exaggeration. I am extremely upset to find Masorti jumping to conclusions, and sending out a letter asking for donations, when there are so many real problems for non-Orthodox Judaism in Israel that should be taken care of. I don't think that Masorti officials are purposely lying, but I do think that they tend to believe that the entire State of Israel is against them, when the fact is that the State of Israel generally ignores them, given their extremely small size and negligible influence.I'm quite worried that by crying "wolf!" in this case, the people at Yedid Nefesh and Masorti are ensuring that any real threats or problems in the future will be ignored.

I'm not asking you to lessen your support of Masorti in any way, although I have become quite critical of its strategies and tactics over the last few years, and remain quite skeptical of the movement's chances for success. And I'm certainly not trying to justify teenage violence; I think that the main outcome of this incident should be greater patrols near public buildings, including synagogues, by the police and the private security company that the municipality has hired. But I am asking you to give the police and other investigators more credit than they have received to date, and to express a bit of skepticism in the face of dire warnings and PR statements.Thanks for taking the time to read this. I'd be happy to chat and/or e-mail with you on this subject at greater length, if you're interested.



You make some interesting points, Reuven. In the interest of giving a fuller picture, I’d be happy to quote you in the blog. Let me know if you would want that, either directly or anonymously. In stating your case, however, what also comes through is that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye between the two congregations, a lot of history and resentment which led to the split. That being the case, since I don’t know the first thing about that history, there is potential for a lot of sinat hinam here (nice timing, this being the 17th of Tammuz) – and the issues are too great, the stakes too high in terms of pluralism in Israel, for such important things to become sidetracked by internal squabbling.

Hi, Rabbi Hammerman. You wrote:

You make some interesting points, Reuven. In the interest of giving a fuller picture, I’d be happy to quote you in the blog. Let me know if you would want that, either directly or anonymously..

Feel free to quote me by name, since I don't believe it'll surprise anyone to hear what I (and many others in Achva) believe. I'm basically saying, "The police don't think that this was an attack, and we should believe them given the context, and thus not rush to make judgments," I don't feel that I have anything to hide.

In stating your case, however, what also comes through is that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye between the two congregations, a lot of history and resentment which led to the split.

The split between YN and Achva happened several years ago, while I was in graduate school in Chicago. So in that sense, I'm a neutral party; I returned to find two congregations where there had once been one, and chose the one to which all of my close friends had migrated. The fact that I'm now a strong believer in independent, lay-led minyanim, and that Achva allowed me to join such a minyan, was icing on the cake. As I wrote before, I am quite skeptical that the Masorti movement's current strategy is a wise one, and lobbied strongly for Achva not to join Masorti when it came up for a vote several months ago. Three or four years after the split, there remains a great deal of resentment, anger, and animosity on both sides. I know that many Achva members completely distrust members of Yedid Nefesh, and are adamantly opposed to even forming an official non-profit organization for Achva, given their bad experiences with parliamentary procedure at Yedid Nefesh meetings. Yedid Nefesh members, by contrast, seem quite upset to have lost the majority of their active membership, and see us as petty and spiteful. I do know that on at least one occasion, a Yedid Nefesh member joined our (Achva) internal e-mail list under an assumed name, presumably in order to learn what we were saying -- which isn't all that interesting, I assure you!

From my perspective, I think that it's a great thing that Modi'in has multiple traditional-egalitarian minyanim, and would like to see many more such minyanim flourishing, here and in other cities, regardless of their official affiliation. I think that the only way religious pluralism will make inroads into Israeli society is by being ubiquitous, which requires a dramatic increase in the number of minyanim, as well as a reduction in the dependence on rabbis and foreign fund-raising.

That being the case, since I don’t know the first thing about that history, there is potential for a lot of sinat hinam here (nice timing, this being the 17th of Tammuz) – and the issues are too great, the stakes too high in terms of pluralism in Israel, for such important things to become sidetracked by internal squabbling.

I agree that such squabbling is silly at best, and hurtful at worst. But it really pains me to see people make accusations that strike me as baseless, that contradict the police inquiry, and which fly in the face of too many other logical possibilities. If the police determine that this was indeed a religiously motivated attack, then I'll be the first to protest it. But to claim that an attack occurred, when it is far from obvious that this is the case, will eventually hurt the cause of religious pluralism, rather than help it.

By the way, we just got another two weekly local newspapers delivered, of the three we get on our doorstep each week. Two ignored the story entirely, while the third ("Gal Gefen") made it the front-cover story, with extensive quotations from the police and fire department, as well as the municipality, all stating explicitly that they believe the fire was vandalism. In that story, the municipality's spokesman was quoted as saying, in part, that they "utterly reject the attempts of the Conservative movement to present the vandalism of the synagogue building on the corner of Levona and Almogan as if it were attempted arson." The local police chief, meanwhile, was quoted as saying, "The Conservative movement is trying to present things as if there were an attempt to set fire to the synagogue building, to advance internal movement goals, but the reality is quite different."


Where does the truth lie? Who knows. But the end result in the year 70 was not a good one for the Jewish people. Let's hope we can all learn from the mistakes of the past.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

I would like to weigh in regaring this matter. As we are now in the period of the Tree Weeks, I do so with even more caution.
I also do so with respect for, and recognition of, the possible beauty of a variety of pluralistic Minyanim.
I have seen the damage first hand. I have been a party to conversations with the spokespersons of both the Modiin police and the municipality.

Despite what was reported in one paper-the police were clear in their statement to us that they were looking into all possibilities. These ranged from pure vandalism to a hate crime. They were not yet prepared to draw any conclusions.

The municipality, in order to preserve the good name of the city which is justifiably known for its relative tolerance, elected to state, as though they had evidence to back it up, that it was nothing more than a random act of vandalism committed by youth.
Now this is a silly statement. They have no suspects and thus no way to know one way or the other.

The spokespersons for the Masorti Movement have claimed that we suspect that the act was intentionally aimed at the synagogue.

Indeed the doors and windows of several Masorti congregations have been intentionally vandalized in the past (Kfar Sabba, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, etc). Congregation Yaar Ramot suffered serious damage from arson just a few years back. The perpetrators were caught in this case and the attack was religiously motivated.

My feeling is that it is most unlikely that this was a random act. But we, at the Masorti Movement, allow for that possibility.

Our concern is the lackadaisical and cavalier attitude of the municipal authorities. There has been too much incitement here in various cities, in recent times, by those who are religiously intolerant. We open the doors to more of this by dismissing the severity of such acts and by not preparing for the worst.

There can be no question but that the majority of residents on Modiin, including those who identify as Orthodox, see no place for intolerance. INDEED, THE CITY HAS BEEN MORE THAN GENEROUS IN COOPERATING WITH THE Masorti Movement over the years. But when evidence suggests the possibility (as the police have said) it must be fully investigated.

This was the very same city where Ulra-Othodox thugs attacked a group of young teens in the local Mikveh who were undergoing conversion under the auspices of a Masorti Beit Din.. The Mikveh was used with the OK of the authorities. Here too no charges were brought.

The Masorti Movement condones all vandalism to any institution, religious or other. We call for the best effort to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

We do not claim with any sense of certainty who carried out the acts and what were the motivations. That said, my own experience teaches me that the chances of this having been a random act are few.

The Masorti Movement did not have this story covered on TV and did not blow it up out of proportion. The Hebrew coverage was largely limited to the local press.

It is my sincere hope that "God will bless His people with peace." May we see the factions with individual Minyanim learn to respect one another. May we see all Jews live with tolerance for each other.

Rabbi Andy Sacks
Rabbinical Assembly in Israel