Congresswoman Grace Meng Responds To Jewish Community

Ever see a headline like that? Or how about, “Conservative Jew Oversaw IRS Scandal”? Or “Secular Jew Charged With Abuse”? Or “Protestant Guilty of Murder”?

Michael Milken, certainly Jewish, is resurfacing once again as a Wall Street shady figure, having already spent jail time for insider trading years ago. Is he indeed a Reform Jew? Lois Lerner pleaded the fifth and walked away from charges that she denied tax exempt status to right-leaning charitable organizations – an awful scandal under the Obama administration that the press basically dismissed. Is she a Conservative or Reconstructionist Jewess? Do the names Epstein and Weinstein ring a bell? What denomination of Jews were they? All the mass murderers that have plagued American society in recent times, do we know if they are Christians? Do we know what denomination of Christians they are? Do we know anything about the religious affiliation of any of these people?

The answer to all the above is: absolutely not! For the most part, their religion is not relevant to the story. And it shouldn’t be. Yet, as you see from the accompanying articles in the Daily News and The New York Times, it is only with Orthodox Jews that their religion and denomination surfaces.

Did you see the absurd headline of the Washington Post upon the announcement that al-Baghdadi, likely the most brutal terrorist murderer in the world, who headed ISIS, was killed by US forces? “Austere religious scholar at the helm of Islamic State, dies at 48.” The headline clearly gives the impression that a benign scholar died prematurely of a heart attack while at his studies in a library. At first you say this must be a silly spoof. Can’t be that the WP would be that insane. No way they can refer to this beheader of countless innocent people (including journalists), mass violator of women, and internationally feared terrorist as a “scholar.” It turns out, incredibly so, that the headline was for real. It further turns out that the paper was under pressure not to offend the Muslim community. The only reason it was ultimately changed was due to sharp pushback from social media.

This feeds into the theme of my last article, “Permission To Hate.” As I wrote then, there are certain groups that are not in the protected species that are protected from hate speech. Orthodox Judaism is certainly in that unprotected class. The Daily News article is all the proof you need.

Having said that (I usually bristle at that phrase, because it means everything beforehand was just a setup for the upcoming kill line to disavow the thrust of what was said till that point), we as an Orthodox community still need to work on improving ourselves in numerous areas. That’s what makes us unique. We care enough to want to work on improving ourselves.

We Have to Turn Inwards As Well

Sukkos is a beautiful holiday: the busy, makeshift stands on Main Street manned by young men selling the arbaah minim in advance of the Yom Tov; the creatively decorated sukkos; the family gathered around meals cooked mostly by loving Jewish mothers; the lulavim and esrogim carried like victory banners in the streets, culminating with Simchas Torah, create an unparalleled atmosphere of joy. It is a sight to behold!

Yet, a very disturbing sight greets us in Kew Gardens Hills every Sukkos season. Main Street is littered every year with discarded lulav cartons, esrog packaging material, and plastic wrappings of all sorts left by the vendors. That’s how we are forced to welcome the Yom Tov. The mess is not cleaned up until a day or two later by the Sanitation Department or by volunteers from the Doe Boys. It is such a depressing experience to have to wade through the debris on the way home from shul. It is also a massive chilul Hashem. Although it has gotten a drop better the last couple of years, it is still awful.

Since many (not all) of the vendors are not policing themselves, I propose that we force the city to have each sidewalk vendor licensed to sell the esrogim. A simple application with the owners’ contact information will suffice. With the monies received for the licensing, the city should send inspectors daily and especially as Yom Tov begins, to see if their respective areas were left clean. Those who leave litter should be appropriately fined. The only problem with this is that the city, under the current administration, is overzealous with all their inspections and views the minutest violation of any code as a source of revenue. We will have to work with the city to be reasonable with their fees and fines.

Another disturbing issue: Often, we hear from our neighbors in the Jewish community that we are not friendly. Some in the non-Orthodox community complain that the Orthodox shun them. They don’t say “Hello” or “Good Shabbos” to anyone not like them. Undoubtedly, that is a bit dramatized and it cuts both ways. But there is likely some truth to that.

Over Yom Tov, I was told a disturbing story by a certain young man walking alone in the general area of the famed Shabbos Park near PS 164. A white-haired gentleman walked over to him and said, “You people are no good. I live here for years and I am the “goy” in the neighborhood. I am constantly asked at all hours to turn lights on or off in rooms and refrigerators every Saturday. Yet no one even says hello to me in the streets!” The young man told him he doesn’t live there and walked away.

There is no doubt that the elderly man was out of line with his “you people” generalization – a bigoted remark that he would not have said to any other people. But we are the people of Mipnei Chata’einu, it’s “our sin” that causes our own calamity. We really must work on our basic mentchlichkeit. We may never make the headlines for that, but it counts for everything in our ledger.


Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.