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Many years ago, when I started applying for a position in the rabbinate, my father half-jokingly told me to watch out for shuls that have self-aggrandizing names. For example, if a shul is named “Rodfei Tzedakah” (pursuers of charity), they are likely miserly. If they call themselves “Anshei Shalom” (people of peace), they are probably strife-ridden. Naturally, this was just whimsical and should not reflect on any particular shul in reality. As a young cynic, I asked my father if that means that Young Israel synagogues are really for the elderly. At least he had a chuckle.

We just celebrated Independence Day. Are we indeed independent or have we created new areas of subservience? Let’s examine a few issues.

Independent Press?

One of the cornerstones of a free society is a free press, independent of outside controls. In the former Soviet Union, the government-controlled newspaper was Pravda, meaning “the truth.” As per my father’s assessment, nothing was further from the truth. The paper reported what the government decided is the truth.

While we do not have a government-controlled press, it is certainly not independent or objective. The New York Times, which always leaned left (and anti-Israel), was nonetheless respected for conveying real news and saved its editorial opinion for the editorial pages. Now it has become a yellow-stained rag. Whether you are a fan of Donald Trump or not, can the paper have any credibility as an objective purveyor of news when over 90 percent of the coverage of the President is negative? Nothing he does is good. All is evil. The same is true of CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, and MSNBC. All the coverage of social and political matters is transparently biased. Fox News is not much better on the other scale, but they cater to a niche audience to compensate for the total leftist bias of the mainstream media. The big problem is that the social, political, and religious agenda is controlled by the press. It has therefore become irrelevant who is in office and which political party has a majority. You call this independent?

Black Lives Matter

Really? To whom? Not to progressives and most Democrats. They are up in arms over the death of a number of African Americans by a handful of bad cops. No doubt that needs to be seriously addressed. But have they shed one tear over the wholesale weekly murders of blacks in the streets of Baltimore, Chicago, and New York? It does not fit the progressive agenda, so who cares? Mayors and governors of these cities are probably responsible for the death of more African Americans than all the bad cops combined – in fact, more than any other group in America. Can we discuss this independently without fear of retribution? Hardly.

COVID-19

Have we in the Orthodox community learned to deal with this disease seriously? Can we freely discuss it without being labeled as too frum or too modern? I have family and friends in the mountains right now who will not shop in the frum-owned grocery stores because they feel like outcasts for wearing a mask. I met someone this past Shabbos, as we were walking, who told me that a chasidish type of young man saw him wearing a mask and asked him, “So you still hold from corona?” Is this what it has come to? COVID will disappear based on whether we “hold” of it or not? Is this an open discussion or a monologue? Can we think independently?

Shul Life

One of the main casualties of our COVID-ridden society is shul life. We have become independent of shuls, drashos, aliyos, baalei t’filah, and regular-paced davening. The lawn minyanim are admittedly very convenient and very comfortable. But synagogue life was always the backbone of every traditional Jew. All the lifecycle milestones, prayers, gatherings, inspirational sermons, and classes facilitated by the synagogue made the Jew what he/she is. Now we are relegated to lawns. How can we get our people back to where they belong – in shul? This is a national, even international problem, and there is no easy solution at the moment. It’s hard to have a logical, independent conversation on the topic when the discussion is concept vs. comfort. But in the long run, if we don’t get our shuls back to fully functioning, we will cease to exist as we once did… for centuries.

So let’s truly celebrate our independence. Let us be able to freely discuss critical issues. Let facts – not politics – speak. Let’s be open about things and not be overwhelmed by the fireworks of the most oppressive law enforcement agency today… the thought police!

My father is right. We too often get caught up in nomenclature that is actually the opposite of what we proclaim. Let us celebrate independence and not be in dependence.


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.