Like all good grandparents, my wife and I happily agreed to join our kids with their kids on their Chol HaMoed trip – of course, just a little bit later than them. You will recall that Chol HaMoed this year was spoiled by the weatherman, who forced almost the entire weeklong span of fun and recreation to be held indoors. It was raining, snowing, or both. And it certainly was cold.
So almost all parents found themselves looking for something indoors to do. Well, my kids found some place in Hackensack that features kids literally bouncing all over the place. It was a bit different from what usually goes on at home, because Urban Air Adventure Park supplies trampolines for every move the kids make. The kids indeed have a blast. The problem is, like most Chol HaMoed getaways in the New York area, hundreds of other families find the same place. When it’s raining outside, the indoor places really teem.
When we decided that it was late enough to join all the fun, we pulled up to the jumping place and noticed a couple of police cars parked outside the building. We figured they were there for security. As we approached the building after parking in an alternate parking lot, we saw hundreds of “Chol HaMoeders” (consisting primarily of chasidish- or yeshivish-looking families being herded out of the building by the police. I was sure it was a bomb scare. I was wrong. It seems that the capacity of the building was exceeded by many dozens of people and everybody had to be evacuated and start a new count to be let back in. The reason it reached such numbers was that everyone was given a wrist tag that lets them know when their time expired. Naturally, many of our good Yiddishe brethren decided that rules are made for goyim and it wouldn’t hurt anyone if they overstayed their time. Thus, the fire hazard.
When we got to go inside, I heard many people complain that this was such a chilul Hashem. No doubt it was. Why must our crowd be so defiant of common courtesy and rules of the proprietor? It is nothing short of g’neivah. You pay for a certain amount of time. If you willfully stay beyond that time, you’re a thief. Period. Mass numbers join in and the chilul Hashem grows exponentially.
Yet, while the underbelly of our people was exposed, I also saw a silver lining. First of all, how many other people even have the concept of chilul Hashem? Did you ever hear about any other religion being so consumed with the idea that this may bring disgrace to their god’s good name? That says something about us. We feel we do represent Hashem and we can’t afford to sully His good name.
Moreover, I noticed that, while I was there, every Jewish kid was well behaved. No one got rowdy. When a kid fell, or bumped into someone or something, there was not one cuss word to be heard. Not even from teenagers. That’s pretty remarkable. No one was being a wise guy or looking for a fight. Everyone was there having good, clean fun. Even when they were asked to file out, they did, and in an orderly and obedient fashion. Indeed, there was one parent carrying on with one of the cops, demanding that he should be allotted extra time to make up for the time lost outside. I don’t know if he was wrong in his complaint, but he was over the top in the way he spoke to the policeman. He even threatened a class action lawsuit. The hapless parent found that he had no supporters behind him.
We were able to arrange for a Minchah minyan in a side room and we went home. It was a nice day. Yes, it wasn’t a great experience witnessing so many frum Jews being forced to leave the premises due to indifference to the house rules, but there is a lot more to be said about our good-natured makeup.
There are probably no people on earth who are more critical of themselves than Jews. We are always worried what the next person thinks of us. But lost in that criticism is that we have a lot to be proud of, as well.
Yet, while the underbelly of our people was exposed,
I also saw a silver lining
I will mention only two areas that relate to our Queens neighborhood. The first is bikur cholim. Visiting and caring for the sick is one of the greatest acts of chesed that a Jew can do for his fellow Jew – or non-Jew. No one does more in an organized fashion for the sick in the hospital than the Orthodox community. Go to any major hospital where there is an Orthodox community and you will see tasty food supplied 24/7, including Shabbos and Yom Tov, for patients and visitors. Lodging accommodations, volunteer visitors during off times, etc., are all part of their routine. The major bikur cholim campaigns are organized by Satmar and other chasidim. But often it is the good men and women of the local community who get together for this purpose. NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Queens (formerly Booth) is such a case. There is a fully functional bikur cholim group run by volunteer men and women. Often it is an individual man or woman who becomes a one-man or one-woman bikur cholim operation.
Yet we sometimes don’t see the tree because of the forest. There are so many homebound individuals who just need a visit or even an occasional phone call to cheer them up and give them a sense of purpose and love. I hear this from people who are involved in bikur cholim. Yet they report that when it comes to their own loved ones who are infirmed at home, we as a community seem to lose sight of them. We really must make that effort to reach out to all the lonely amongst us.
Then there is the plight of divorcees and agunos, who are chained to a recalcitrant husband who refuses to give a get, just to inflict further pain on his ex and family for no good reason. (There is never a good reason to do so.) Although women are sometimes the guilty party in holding back on a get (I have witnessed that), it is much more often the man, and men usually have more resources available to them to resolve their plight. This remains a terrible stain on our Orthodox community. Thankfully, however, there are efforts in our community to raise funds for these women here and in Israel to help with their financial needs.
Chickens For Shabbos is one such organization. Although its primary mission is to raise funds for the less fortunate to be able to afford food for Shabbos and Yom Tov, the funds gathered go beyond that goal. Here in Queens, tens of thousands of dollars were raised over Purim and Pesach, which made Yom Tov possible for many local families, including yeshivah teachers. In Israel, countless divorcees and agunos received help, even paying for tutors to assist in their children’s education.
So let’s not get too down on ourselves. We don’t need a slogan saying, “Let’s Make Jews Great Again!” We are great!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.