Time to Bring Back the Communal Cold Shoulder

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

This article appeared in the December 30, 2009 edition of The Jewish Press.

I was brought up in the Italian-Jewish neighborhood of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I vividly recall the sights, sounds and smells of my youth. The kosher deli with its aroma of pickles in a barrel, the Italian deli with its pungent provolone cheese hanging in the window, the barber shop with its background of Italian opera, the newsstand offering a selection of Yiddish and Italian newspapers, and, of course, the ever present sounds of Yiddish and Italian that permeated the streets. It was a wonderful and colorful world.

And the people? We all got along in an atmosphere of mutual respect. In the morning, older Jewish men carrying tallis and tefillin on their way to shul would greet the Italian widows, dressed in black, caressing their rosary beads and mumbling the “Hail Mary” on their way to first mass.

I remember the times the shamas cast his net for unsuspecting young men to help make the minyan for Mincha. His “catch” invariably included some of my Italian friends who dutifully went along, donning yarmulkes and sitting quietly with open siddurim in their hands in the rear of the shul. They exemplified the training they received from the nuns in Catholic school. They were polite and respectful.

When the Jewish boys acted out, the shamas would rebuke us by saying we should be quiet like that nice young man, pointing to one of the Italian boys. Our explanation that he was complimenting a non-Jew was ignored. The shamas, with a smile on his face and waving his hand in disbelief, would walk away.

The Jewish boys gave proper respect to the local priest, greeting him with a smile and a “Hello, Fadda” (Brooklynese for Father). The Italian boys, exhibiting true deference, reverentially nodded their heads when the local rabbi walked by. Everyone was warm. Everyone was friendly. Yet I do recall an episode that at first seemed to me out of place in our otherwise tranquil world.

We lived on the third floor of a four-story walk-up apartment building. A young couple moved in. Oddly, no adult, Jew or Italian, would speak with them. No one would bid them a good morning or even smile in their direction. This unusual behavior was soon explained to me by my mother.

The couple had intermarried. He was Italian and she was Jewish. They each had, according to my mother, turned their back on their religion and culture, bringing anguish and shame upon their families. So disrespectful of collective communal standards was this to their neighbors, that neither Jew nor Italian would speak with them. They moved out two months later.

Today that type of communal behavior no longer is acceptable. Those who violate communal standards, even those who commit crimes – including violent crimes – are welcomed back into the community with open arms.

When I served in the Rabbinate in the UK, I witnessed this phenomenon taken to new heights or, more to the point, new depths. A primary school “rebbe,” after serving time in prison for involvement with child pornography (he had made films in which he “stared”), returned home only to once again sit in his prized seat in the shteibl he had formerly attended. His fellow worshipers warmly welcomed him back into the fold.

I believe there is a place in society for the communal cold shoulder. It sends a message that certain behaviors will not be tolerated by the community at large and will have consequences in the life of the perpetrator. Society is not required to embrace people’s foibles and improprieties – and certainly not their unlawful deeds. One way it can express its distaste is by not interacting with an individual who has transgressed community standards or broken the law.

My mother’s explanation made me begin to seriously consider my responsibilities as a Jew and my obligation to pass on the rich legacy of our Jewish heritage to yet another generation. Eventually this contemplation over several years brought me to the acceptance of a Torah-true lifestyle.

Political correctness has infiltrated the Orthodox community. We are no longer willing to give the cold shoulder to those whose immoral and illegal behavior has contributed to chillul Hashem and to the diminution of respect others have for the Orthodox community and for the Torah itself.

At times this attitude leads to confusion in the minds of our own children regarding the Torah lifestyle we wish them to emulate. Reducing Torah observance to a lifeless skeleton of ritual devoid of life-giving flesh, blood and sinew – of its essential moral and ethical character – leaves our youngsters little to hold on to when confronted by the turbulent and complex world of relativism that surrounds them. They lose sight of the lofty and inspiring collective goal of our Jewish nation – to sanctify itself through God’s commandments, to be a holy people, a light unto the nations.

Modern-day mores would have us simply forget the indiscretions (and worse) committed by individuals in our community. The conventional wisdom of our day insists that we overlook or ignore the pain and scars their actions have left on their victims and on the good name of all frum Jews.

Worse, a mere utterance of a perfunctory “I’m sorry” on their part cleanses them of all guilt and elevates them to a position of goodness, precluding any recrimination whatsoever. Anyone who dares protest their behavior – and who recognizes the consequences of that behavior to the entire community – is condemned.

Sometimes the old ways – in this instance the communal cold shoulder – prove to be much more effective than the political correctness that has spread to every corner of society, including the way we teach our children the essentials of proper behavior as we attempt to imbue in them the sacred values we so cherish.