Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


A Tale of Three Congregations

It was the best congregation, it was the worst congregation…

In a medium sized American city housing about 10,000 Jews, there are three congregations which are located only one mile from each other. Yet, the differences among them are so great that it is hard to discern whether they belong to the same religion.

Judaism teaches that all Jews are brethren (Kol Yisroel Chaveyrim), a teaching not lost on two congregations. Whoever attends is always welcome, including those who are not members and who never donated one cent. In these congregations, the rabbi greets everyone and makes a point of talking to the old, the young, women and men, even Holocaust survivors, German Jews, and old people. This is also true of the membership, who makes every effort to support one another. Whenever a member has died, the whole congregation visits the bereaved and participates in the Shivah prayers both morning and night. Food is provided the widow or widower, and every effort is made to console the relatives and friends of the deceased.

In these congregations, old people are treated with dignity, and the Torah admonition is remembered, “…and you shall rise before the hoary (white) head and you shall honor the face of the old.”

No distinction is made between the foreign born, even German born Jews are welcome, and survivors of the Holocaust are not an opprobrium.

In these congregations, all are treated with kindness, and everyone is a participant in all activities and all are accorded the minimum of recognition and are participants in  conversation and friendly greetings. In short, it is a pleasure to attend either of these congregations.  The friendly and supportive conduct comes about because the members believe that all women, all men, all people, no matter who, are entitled to dignity and kindness.  People behave according to what they believe and since Judaism teaches that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” these Jews make every effort to achieve this goal.

About one mile distant from these congregations, there is another, much larger congregation which practices rejection, insult, and humiliation.  Here a small clique of self-important members uses the congregation as an alternative status system.  Here we find that some members are “somebody” and outsiders are nobody.  For example, a well-known teacher of religion died.  She had taught at this congregation for many years and was well known.  Yet, only three members attended the prayer services at her bereaved husband’s house.  No one brought any food, and in fact no one cared.  I know this because I saw it.

In this congregation, “important people” talk to each other but no one even looks at Holocaust survivors, German Jews, or the poor.  The Saturday “service” is poorly attended and “unimportant” people are not even greeted and are certainly not included in any conversation.  “I am somebody.”  “You are nobody,” is the motto of this assembly, which has employed twelve rabbis in thirty-five years.

Here nobody believes that old people are also human.  Here an alternative status system is employed because the membership does not believe that “all men are created equal” and do not believe that “the stranger among you and the widow” shall be respected and treated as equals.  In short, Judaism is not in evidence, and the “milk of human kindness” is unknown.

Only one mile separates the truly Jewish from the status seekers and hypocrites.  Indeed, it is a very long mile.

Shalom u'vracha.

 Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Jewish Community in the 20th and 21st Century (2021).

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