In Jersey City, The Blood Of Our Brothers And Sisters Cried Out


You are not going to see a more bittersweet video than the one shot on a smartphone in front of the Khal Adas Greenville yeshiva on one of this month’s rare sunny mornings. Just days before, just a few feet away from the yeshiva in Jersey City, two shooters transformed a neighborhood kosher grocery into the scene of a massacre, killing three people inside before dying themselves in a shootout with police. On that day last week, some 50 kids were cowering in the yeshiva, listening to the sounds of a gun battle.

On this sunny morning, however, the kids are seen spilling out of a school bus, while their teachers gather on the sidewalk, clapping and singing a song in praise of Hashem, the one true God. The kids wear black kippot, dangling payot — and enormous smiles. They join hands with their black-robed elders for an impromptu simcha dance on the sidewalk. Forget the cop car they had to squeeze past as they stepped from the bus; forget for a moment whatever memories they have or will long retain of last week’s carnage. For a few joyfully defiant seconds on Martin Luther King Drive, their teachers gave them an infusion of the kind of happiness that chasidic Jews insist is essential in their service of God.

Go find the video on Twitter or YouTube; it might help you close whatever distance you might be feeling between yourself and the fervently Orthodox Jews apparently targeted in last week’s attack. I am making an assumption, I know, or at least a confession: I suspect that for the majority of American Jews who are not Orthodox, chasidic Jews feel like distant relatives, both family and Other. Or rather, both sides feel that way. One side is insular by design, designated by distinct dress, institutions, and language. The other embraces acculturation and believes to various degrees in the synthesis of tradition and modernity, change and continuity.

This distance was on display in the days after the shooting, when legions of Satmar chasidim gathered at a Brooklyn synagogue and thronged the streets outside for the funeral of shooting victim Moshe Deutsch, 24. Meanwhile, a service of solidarity was held at a Reform synagogue in Jersey City that same day, with some 250 people in the pews and clergy of various faiths on the bima, but no charedi Jews among them.

This kind of cultural and religious gap may be hard to explain to “outsiders” — we have a hard enough time understanding it ourselves. On the one hand, we are all Jews, bound by history, by destiny, by family, by faith — sometimes all of these things and sometimes one or none. (That expansive definition of Jewishness was the backdrop for a brief communal conniption last week over reports that President Trump, for the purposes of protecting Jewish kids on campus under Title VI, would declare that Judaism is a “nationality.” His order did no such thing, but tried to clarify how a group that itself hasn’t agreed whether it is a religion, a race or a nation is nevertheless protected under civil rights law.) Jews often talk about themselves as a distinct “people” for whom belief in God or adherence to the mitzvot is (usually) irrelevant to membership.

That’s a powerfully binding notion: Because we are not merely a religion, we are forced to deal with each other — and care for each other and defend each other — no matter what we do and don’t believe. The idea of peoplehood has fostered a sense of solidarity that has survived persecution, genocide, assimilation, and radically different versions of what it means to be a Jew. To borrow a term from farming, we are a polyculture, made stronger and more resistant due to our diversity.

It can also be a powerfully divisive notion. We are split along religious, political and dietary lines. We joke, bitterly, about our inability to pray together. We suffer especially from the narcissism of small differences: the people who are otherwise most like us are the very people who piss us off the most. And it is not just a matter of asking, Why can’t we all just get along? Take gender roles: One group is committed to separation and distinction; the other is no less committed to egalitarianism. We can try to respect one another, but functionally are unable to close so wide a gap.

Worse, we often don’t respect each other: charedi Jews when they use coercion as a means to realize their religious vision, or refuse to engage constructively with the majority, and non-charedi Jews when they fail to appreciate the ways the “black hats” are contributing to the Jewish future or are particularly vulnerable to anti-Semitism.

Even the old tried and true — anti-Semitism — exposes these gaps. While there is no disagreement that anti-Semitism is a clear and resurgent danger, there are bitter fights over who is to blame. Even before authorities identified the Jersey City shooters and their possible motives, the commentariat began pointing fingers, trying to implicate their ideological opposites. The victims were all but ignored.

That’s obscene. Jews were killed because they were Jews. Like in Pittsburgh, like in Poway. If for any reason you didn’t see a connection among these desecrations, you need to ask yourself why. Was it the politics or race of the perpetrators? Or the identity of the victims? Family solidarity means we focus first on the unfathomable loss of the innocents, the pain of their loved ones, the fear and resilience in the communities they represent, and the deep wound inflicted on the entire Jewish family.

Need help? Watch that video. Take in those smiles. This is a moment for solidarity, not “hot takes.” 

is editor at large of the New York Jewish Week and managing editor for Ideas for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.