"Is this the lady of the house?" asked a pleasant voice.
"Yes," I admitted, rather suspiciously.
"We're conducting a survey on behalf of the Jewish Community Federation. May I ask if you consider yourself Jewish?"
"Well, yes," I answered, caught off guard.
I was feeding the baby at the time, and I really had no excuse not to participate in her survey, so I began answering a flurry of questions. How many children did I have? How much money did we make? What kind of education had I completed? What was my occupation? The questions rolled on unceasingly, and I was beginning to think I had made the wrong choice by acquiescing, when the woman asked a question that made me gasp.
"What, in your opinion, are the main problems in the Jewish community?"
That brought me up short. I've never really been asked that question before. Sure, it's bandied around in newspapers, at conventions, and around Shabbat tables. We all have sighed over the "problems" in the Jewish community, but in a vague, mostly self-righteous kind of way. Now this woman was awaiting my response. She would type it into a computer where it would be analyzed, hopefully, by a qualified person who might use my feedback as part of a decision-making process.
I didn't want to just give a flippant reply. I needed to take a step back and really think about it. But fleshing it out would take time, and making the woman wait on the phone just wouldn't do, so I hastily gave her my response in its infant state.
"In my opinion, I'd say that assimilation and lack of unity are the main problems in the Jewish community."
If I thought she'd be impressed, I was wrong.
"Why do you think that these problems occur?" she read off her question sheet.
These people were impossible! Now I needed to think again, probe a little deeper.
"Well," I told her, "I think assimilation is mostly a result of deficient Jewish education. Many who relinquish their Jewish heritage seem to lack sufficient information about Judaism which leads them to believe it is not important or somehow not applicable to their lives."
"Uh-huh." The woman seemed to be keying in my response as I spoke.
"And the reason for lack of Jewish unity?"
That was a tough one.
"I'd say it must be character flaws. It must be because of pettiness, jealousy, obstinacy, and self-righteousness."
The woman was finally satisfied. She asked another couple of questions, thanked me, and hung up. But long after her call, I sat, disturbed by her question and disturbed by my answers. Particularly by my analysis of the Jewish unity problem. Why is there a lack of Jewish unity amongst us?
Well, they say the only person you can change is yourself, so I directed the question to myself. How did I view my Jewish brothers and sisters, many who do not look, speak, or think like me?
Disunity comes from fixating on our differences. Jewish unity is about recognizing our similarities.
In my definition of Jewish unity, I veered far away from the political. Jewish unity to me was about loving and caring about Jews all over the world. It was about being part of a beautiful whole. It wasn't about condoning or condemning. It wasn't about admiring or acquiescing. It was about the connectedness, the warmth, the knowledge that underneath it all we are one nation, responsible for one for another.
Jewish unity is about recognizing our similarities. Disunity comes from fixating on our differences. When I look at you, do I see another soul who stood with me at Sinai? Or do I see someone whose observances are dissimilar to mine, whose speech and dress are too different from my own? The more I focus on how different we are, the more I drive us apart.
I had occasion to spend a Shabbat in a chassidic enclave known as Kiryas Joel. In fact, my family was hosted by our cousins who are, themselves, chassidic. We, however, although observant, are not chassidic, and our customs, dress, and even language are very different from theirs. I have to say that I felt hesitant, driving into my cousin's community. Would we feel embarrassed? Would they look down on us or try to change us?
One of the most uplifting, beautiful Shabbats ensued. My cousins accepted us with open arms, exactly the way we were. They accommodated us in every way possible. Other members of the community went out of their way to make us feel welcome, although we clearly stood out. And you know the funniest thing? Over the course of that Shabbat, we found out that underneath it all, we really weren't all that dissimilar. In fact, we were very much the same. We had the same struggles, the same triumphs. They also worried about peer pressure, parenting, and nuclear threats. They, too, dealt with laundry stains, expensive food bills, and infectious diseases. My long-standing convictions that chassidim were somehow unapproachable and too unlike us to even get along with, dissolved.
Jewish unity is a vital issue in the inter-communal, national, and global realms. If I felt distanced from my chassidic cousins, who are observant like myself, how much more so could I feel estranged from my unobservant, perhaps assimilated, Jewish brethren. And how much more may they feel hesitant visiting my community. But what do I stand to gain from disunity? Nothing. Disunity just distracts from the real purpose of the Jewish nation, which is bonding together to serve God.
In fact, we are taught that Jewish unity is more than just a good feeling or a catchy slogan. It's actually the essence of the existence of the Jewish People. "All of Israel are guarantors for one another." The Jewish People is bound together as one and therefore, we are liable for one another, just as brothers and sisters are.
The parable is told about a man who took a berth on a ship. As he lay in his cot, he heard an incessant banging coming from the room next door. Upon entering his roommate's quarters, he was horrified to find the man, pick-axe in hand, chipping a good-size hole in the side of the boat.
As he began to rant and rave about danger and imminent disaster, the perpetrator shook his head calmly and began to laugh. "Don't worry," he said, as he raised his pick-axe in the air, "I'm only making the hole in my part of the ship."
When God bound us together and made us responsible for one another, He was teaching that He wants us to be a family, caring for and sharing with each other, no matter who we are or where we live. Instead of existing with an "each man for himself" philosophy, we are part of a cosmic whole.
This has practical ramifications. When my "sister" in South America is poverty-stricken, or my "brother" in Haifa has lost a relative in a terrorist attack, I need to feel their pain and do something about it. Because they are part of my family. If I choose to ignore my ties to the Jewish People, I am no better off than the fool who fails to realize that when one part of the ship springs a leak, the entire ship is bound to sink.
Jewish unity empowers us as a nation. It empowers us as individuals within the framework of a whole. It makes us stronger, better, deeper people. We just need to recognize its value and work on strengthening the bonds between us.
If there's one important question that the telephone surveyor didn't ask, it's: "How do you think we should go about changing the problem of disunity in the Jewish community?" For whatever the possible reasons for lack of Jewish unity, I must focus on working to "be the change I want to see in the world." How can I do this? The next time I meet another Jew, I hope I can circumvent the barriers I may have previously erected around my heart. Instead of accentuating our differences, I will try to focus on our similarities, to do my small part to bridge the gaps of Jewish unity.