Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mindfulness or Mindlessness - The Choice is Ours

This is the time of year when everyone is preparing for something new and exciting. Maybe it's a student’s first day back at school or a parent’s first day back at work following a family vacation. Perhaps you have begun to prepare for Rosh Hashana, which seems to be approaching faster than you ever expected. Whatever it is that you are beginning, we all know how important it is to get started correctly. We all hope to start the year with a clean slate, but that takes work and effort on our part and it means trying to improve those things that we fall short of on a regular basis. If there is one area that we all need to work on, it is to realize that even the small things we do make a difference. As we begin another year and use these days leading to the New Year for character development and improvement, we hope that the impact we have on others is positive in nature. Unfortunately, all too often its negative.

This past summer I was privileged to participate in one of the greatest summer programs of my life. I attended the number one program for Jewish teenagers who attend public school .The program is called TJJ or "The Jerusalem Journey," one of the many exciting summer programs run by the OU/NCSY.  Teenagers are given a four week whirlwind tour of Israel and spiritual journey through the lens of traditional Judaism.  As staff, we recognized early on that what we say and how we say something is crucial and it can positively or negatively impact a future generation of Jews.  This was a serious undertaking because most secular Jewish teenagers aren't impressed with Judaism and have no positive Jewish role models to turn to for guidance.  All they know is what they see in pop culture and what they hear about Jews in the media.  So we were charged with inspiring a group of almost fifty teenagers from South Florida, who no one could have expected would appreciate Jewish values and traditional rituals.

Almost immediately, the teenagers started getting involved and excited about things they knew nothing about. Boys and girls who had never opened a siddur were now praying voluntarily with a minyan.  Other teenagers who had never put on Tefilin were now putting them on with a bracha at the Kotel.  Girls who had never opened a sefer were studying one on one with staff on the bus. The atmosphere was electrifying!  As each day passed, new connections were being made to a past that had previously been written off.  How does something like that happen during a summer vacation?  It happens partially because you have a group of committed adults who are showing that they really care for those less affiliated. When you are truly tuned into the feelings and sensitivities of others, then the Torah words can be heard.  This inspiring staff was made up solely of volunteers!   Both the big and little things you do can have a profound impact on the neshama of a Jewish teen.

It was so emotional for the teenagers to board the flight back to the United States.  Everyone was on a high after living what felt like a dream, making great new friends, learning Torah and having experienced the Israel in a way that many don't get to see. I took my seat next to a grandmother and granddaughter from Tel Aviv.  All of a sudden three things happened on the plane which made me realize that you can spend a month inspiring others and it can disappear in an instant if you aren't careful.

Across the aisle there was a religious couple with a bunch of children who had not been seated in close proximity to one another.   The parents asked the flight attendant if there was any way she could try and ask other passengers if they wouldn't mind moving around so that their family could sit together.  Luckily, other passengers graciously agreed to move.  One of the ladies who agreed to move, a secular Jew, passed me as she was moving to her new seat and mumbled under her breath, "and she couldn't even say thank you." I understand what it's like to travel with a lot of kids on a plane and that it's easy to get distracted. It would have been so easy for the mother to go over to the person that went out of her way to assist the family and just say thank you.  This lady was visibly upset and it was an example of how there are many times that we are so consumed by our own lives that we do not take  the time to be considerate of others around us.

A moment later an Orthodox man walked towards the row in front of me, told the flight attendant that he couldn't sit next to a lady for religious reasons and demanded a new seat.  The way that he spoke to the flight attendant was demeaning and completely inappropriate.  I was personally embarrassed and felt like crawling under my seat. Once again he might have had a very legitimate point; however there is still an appropriate way to behave. He just needed to speak nicely!

Finally it was time for dinner and people with special food requirements were being served first. This is not something which is only done on El Al but it has become the custom everywhere.  Usually it is just a few people with special food requirements.  The difference is that on every El Al flight, probably close to a majority of the people order what's called the special kosher meal.  The standard meal on the flight is technically considered kosher, but there are those that require a higher standard of kosher supervision. I think it's a great option and I order the meal myself.  I was mortified when the secular grandmother next to me wanted to know why she had to wait until everyone else was served.  In my broken Hebrew,  I offered her my meal and when she refused, I decided not to eat until she was served.  It took almost thirty minutes for her to be served.  During that time she had a number of outbursts that got louder and louder until the flight attendants agreed to bring her the regular meal before all of the other meals were served.    Why do we, the ones who ordered a “better” kosher meal, need to be served first, if it will most likely produce negative feelings from a secular Jew?   If we want something special, then we should also have the patience to receive it. Diabetics, who have special diets, should get served first. I know there are people reading this who will say, “What is the big deal, let them be patient, why should I have to wait for my meal?” So I'll tell you, my friend, because on the chance that you might push someone further away from traditional Judaism, you have to ask yourself if it's really worth it. Or a second option might be for you to explain to your neighbor that you will graciously wait for them to be served.   The irony is that you will probably dislike the food and you'll complain that you didn't enjoy the meal anyway.

The crazy thing is that this all happened in the row next to me and in front of me. There were dozens of other rows and hundreds of other people on board and I shiver when I think of what else might have transpired on this flight and others.  I remember turning to the yeshiva guy across the aisle and asking him how he felt about what had just happened.  He said that although he witnessed all three things happening, it didn't even occur to him that something was wrong.  I was shocked by his reaction, and then I explained exactly why.  First of all, these particular situations involved individual Jews dealing with other Jews, but just think of the negative impact this type of behavior can have on non-Jews or even secular Jews. The secular Jews already may think that you don’t respect them and this just may confirm that notion.  And those secular Jews who might be on the fence will quickly jump off and stay far away from anything having to do with traditional Judaism after witnessing the way "religious Jews act".   You might say, “Well Josh, this is the real world and that’s just the way it is.” I believe that it doesn't have to be that way. There are Jews looking to return to the more religious roots of their ancestors and they don't need another excuse not to -religious Jews not acting with sensitivity. We spend a lot of time attending shiurim and learning, but we really need to be aware of how we act on a daily basis. You might not believe that you actually make a difference in the world – but you do, as evidenced by what happened on this one flight. It's amazing how easy it is to turn someone on or off.  Let’s do our part and simply think before we act. 

With the dawn of a New Year upon us, let’s hope and pray that we will take the time to show others the beauty of the Torah and present it with genuine care and concern for our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Inspire yourself to inspire others...

Rabbi Josh Broide
Boca Raton Jewish Experience
(561) 702-3864

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