When It Feels Like You Aren't Welcome.
"Regarding the recent post on the NJ Ordinance:
I'm not defending this. I will say that first and foremost I wholly disagree with the ordinance. My question is, LT, how do we fix the relationship between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish in this area of NJ?
Unfortunately, in the last 20 years this relationship has gone south, capstoned by recent events in Lakewood. I speak of this not from newspaper reading, but from actually living there and having friends who've lived there all their life. Wanting to be able to use your local pool or park and not being able to because of tourists - pausing to remove the religious affiliation for one second - is a reasonable concern…
I think you'd find if you spoke with the NJ residents they too aren't anti-Semitic. They are certainly anti-outsider; it just so happens that this case the outsiders are Jewish. Unfortunately, when it is a majority of one particular group that suffers, it is the de facto rule to say that it's racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and the like. And it is always important to look at the spirit of the rule/law/decision as well as the history to see if there is in fact and underlying bias or hatred that is driving the rule/law/decision. But what if - in all sincerity - there is no bias?
Circling back to NJ in particular, what give and take is necessary to fix the relationship? Maybe it's just a rhetorical, because I don't even know the answer. What I do know is that right now, it's not getting better."
Thank you for your message. I want to express from the very beginning I believe the sincerity of your message in the lack of overt Anti-Semitic views within these communities.
I also want to make it clear I have never visited this area and therefore cannot honestly say I have an intimate grasp of the dynamics within the community.
With all of that said, I will try to over some insight and answer your questions to the best of my ability.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, once said, "One should walk with two notes in their pocket. One note should say 'The universe was created for just me.' The second note saying, 'I am nothing but dust and ashes.'"
In his parable, the 19th Century Hasidic Rabbi is describing the balance one must maintain in order to live harmoniously with the rest of the world.
There is indeed benefit to believing that the universe was created specifically for just you. To some degree, there is truth in this belief because there exists no other you in the known universe.
The belief that the world is yours for the taking is a testament to the inherent ego-centric or narcissistic side of human beings. No matter how altruistic any of us may believe we are, indeed we all are inherently self-centered. For example, if I told a person they had to make the choice between rescuing 100 unknown children or one of their own children from a burning building, the overwhelming bulk of people would choose the life of their child.
Indeed, a healthy dose of self-love and confidence is important for people to have. Without these characteristics, none of us would ever dream or believe we could do great things in this world. Not to mention, that without these inherent psychological beliefs, humanity would have stalled and failed to progress tens of thousands of years ago.
With that said, if self-love is disproportionate it leads to the belief of superiority.
This is where the second note comes into play. Understanding that each of us is nothing more than "dust and ashes" represents the counterbalance to the first note or developing a mindset of superiority.
The second note says to us that each of us is unique amongst everything in the universe. However, so is every other person as well.
Essentially, at our fundamental level; not wealth, popularity, or material possession ultimately separates us from each other. You will never see a moving truck or armored bank car following a hearse. Instead, at the end of the day, we all will meet the same eventual fate.
Rebbi Mendel of Kotzk's quote speaks to the very existential core of life... Life is about balance. The balance of superiority and inferiority; sustainability and charity.
So how what exactly does a 19th century Rabbi's quote have to do with the questions or concerns you expressed?
Well... the town of Mahwah is out of balance.
For a moment, let me remove the cultural or religious background of the visitors to the park. As some of the town’s council members and you yourself expressed, the problem fundamentally in lies with the fact that the local citizens of Mahwah feel as if they do not have access to their town parks because of outside visitors.
In fact, this was the exact sentiment expressed by Mahwah City Council President Rob Hermansen when he said the town’s ordinance was meant to “put Mahwah residents first,” and not specifically target Jews.
The residents of Mahwah, indeed have a legitimate claim to their town’s park, as I assume that city taxes are what is used to maintain the upkeep of these areas. I will not argue this as being factual, at least from a contemporary superficial view. However, for a little bit of a more introspective view, I will now turn to another famous Jewish philosopher, Shlomoh Melech Ben David V’Bat’Shebah or…
King Solomon, son of David and Bathsheba.
The Biblical writings found in the book of Ecclesiastes are attributed to King Solomon, and they are said to represent his thoughts of reflection as his life begins to come to an end. Ecclesiastes is one of the most overlook chapters by the Abrahamic religions, however, the text expresses some of the most profound philosophic wisdom in the entire Bible.
From the very first verse, Solomon conveys the kind of existential contemplation that is often only engaged by those who recognize the reality of their mortality and begin to inventory the body of work that comprises their entire life.
“What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” – “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new?’ It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them” (Ecclesiastes 1.3-4; 9-10).
What King Solomon is expressing here is that at our essential core, nothing in this world ever really belongs to us. Instead, we simply occupy a timeframe in which we exist and maintain a degree of stability or instability over our environment.
I hate to point out the irony here, however, the concept of transient ownership of the earth is something that the town of Mahwah, New Jersey, should understand very well.
The name of the town, “Mahwah” comes from the Unami; an Algonquian language that was spoken by the indigenous Lenape people who once held claim to the very lands in which the small New Jersey community currently sits.
On August 31, 2002, when Edward Thompson of the Delaware Tribe of Indians passed away, the Unami language effectively died as well. Mr. Thompson was the last known fluent speaker of the Lenape’s native tongue. The Lenape’s culture and language have been effectually rendered extinct. Essentially, the city’s name, Mahwah, is one of the last remnants of the indigenous people of these lands.
To a large degree, it isn’t that the citizens of Mahwah, or any other person for that fact, are oblivious to the fact that many generations of people have fallen to the same fate of the Lenape people, and have been all but erased from history. Indeed, people may not explicitly consider this, however, all of us for a large part implicitly or unconsciously are aware of the frailties of our existence.
This recognition in human frailty is profoundly the core concern among the residents of Mahwah, and indeed it is the root of all prejudice and bigotry. Again, this relates to another narrow walk that all people must take in life and try to balance.
This is the balance between trust and distrust.
As babies, we learn to depend on having trust for our caregivers to fill our basic needs. As we grow older into adulthood we understand that trust is a vital part of social life.
However, as we grow older we also discover that some people cannot be trusted and that trust is a highly contextual issue. Often we find ourselves realizing that it is safer to mistrust others than it is to trust them.
Regardless, if 99 people you meet are good, the reality that 1 could be bad, makes us willing to distrust the entire group of 100.
Failure to mitigate the delicate balance between trust and distrust always tips toward the side of distrust. Very easily, we all can cultivate overdeveloped schemes of willingness. This causes a person to conceive that they are vulnerable and others are vicious. That assumption then breeds the belief that trusting others is dangerous and can lead to being attacked.
In the end, we simply accept the idea that it is better to not trust others. Especially, when those “others” differ from ourselves. The more the difference, the more inclined we are to distrust someone or something.
Ultimately, all of these inherent human susceptibilities Shepard us into having a tribal mindset, or in effect, the universe was created for me and those who are unlike me are out to take away my universe.
These sets of beliefs are not isolated to individuals. Rather, human beings are indeed a social species. We crave and thrive on interaction with other human beings. As a result, it isn’t that individuals develop isolationist views for themselves or their family. Rather, groups of similar individuals and entire communities can develop a collective consciousness of isolationism.
Once we are firmly amongst those in our “tribe” and the collective consciousness of imbalance has taken hold, this can ultimately lead to the most damaging and disturbing of all human psychological abilities.
“The Lucifer Effect”
The term “The Lucifer Effect” comes from Dr. Phillip Zimbardo’s paramount 1971 psychology study, “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” During his study, Dr. Zimbardo demonstrated just how easy it is for perfectly normal and mentally healthy people toss aside their moral or ethical conscious, and be willing to engage in actions that are sadistic, cruel, or unlawful, whenever one is placed in a position of authority over others.
One of the key influences to The Lucifer Effect is that is that one has a feeling of fear in losing authority over something. In effect, this allows one to condone things they would never normally tolerate on the basis it is necessary in order to maintain the security of one’s authority.
Ultimately, The Lucifer Effect represents one of the most prevailing themes going on right now in the United States of America, and frankly the greater part of the world as a whole.
In fact, it is one of the principal factors that I believe negatively affects my own profession. I believe a great number of police officers, through a disproportionate view of superiority and mistrust with the public they serve, will allow themselves to consider certain behaviors and actions to simply be “the cost of doing business.”
Ultimately, when it comes to my opinion of what we are seeing with the ordinance passed by the city of Mahwah, it is the cumulating effects of all of these very inherent human potentials.
The citizens and de facto city leaders have a view of superiority over their recreational areas within their town limits. As I already expressed, by the letter of the common law they are correct with this assumption.
Additionally, I believe that the citizens have a degree of disproportionate mistrust against outsiders in the perception that their transitory involvement in the community causes the citizens to experience a loss.
Lastly, I think that you can see the “The Lucifer Effect” in the city leadership's willingness to pass ordinances that specifically prohibit items associated with one class of people. In this case Orthodox Jews.
This also explains the willingness of some people to diminish the fact that laws have been passed to prohibit one group of people; something in itself is unconstitutional, illegal, and immoral. This is based on the basis, “We aren’t really banning Jews, we’re banning outsiders. It just so happens that the outsiders are Jews, so the law needs to be written to target them.”
Ultimately, this is exactly why laws such as the 1964 Civil Rights act have been put in place. Because, if you looking closely at the statements of some of the city leaders of Mahwah, who opposed the ordinance, their reasoning wasn’t rooted in ethical or moral concerns. Rather, it was focused on reasons regarding legal or civil liability.
This brings me to your other question, “How do we fix this?”
The first thing starts with leadership taking a tone of empathy on both sides.
Now, I am a Reform Jew, and not an Ashkenazi Orthodox Jew, like the ones visiting Mahwah. I am, however, a Jew none-the-less. Therefore, I face all of the same problems or Anti-Semitism as any other fellow Jews. As such, I have no problem whatsoever going to the Jewish communities in that area, speaking with Rabbis and leadership to remind them that, as Jews, we of all people should know what it can feel like to have “outsiders” come in and take over your lands.
Additionally, as Jews, we are commanded to show empathy towards everyone, regardless of their faith, race, ethnicity, or cultural background. This is commanded in multiple instances throughout the 613 separate Mitzvot Jews are to adhere to as outlined in the Torah.
Essentially, it is incumbent upon the local area Jewish communities to understand the concerns and tensions that other area residents may feel.
In addition, I urge empathy and understanding from the leadership and citizens within the city of Mahwah or any other areas that may have these similar concerns.
Understand that the Jewish people have felt like strangers in strange lands now for thousands of years. We have been told we weren’t welcome at some point in virtually every place we have been since being forced into Diaspora.
In fact, the Eruv’im that were prohibited by the Mahwah city ordinance is an example of orthodox adherents of the Jewish faith desperately trying to hold onto the cultural attributes of their past, while still living in the present. In this regard, both the Orthodox Jews and the citizens of Mahwah share a commonality.
Beyond empathy for each other, what else can be done to alleviate these concerns?
Well, going back to the root problem that has ultimately allowed for this entire situation to steamroll downhill and now into a lawsuit being filed by the New Jersey Attorney General’s office for civil rights violations. What is the primary concern that residents have expressed? The loss or reduction in access to recreational areas for the citizens by transient visitors, correct?
Ok… well let’s stop allowing anyone to lose out. Let’s see what we can do so that everyone can gain!
The problem, as you expressed yourself, isn’t Anti-Semitism, rather it is the inability to use local services that are being used by the out-of-town guest. Well, it sounds like to me the problem doesn’t need to be solved by reducing the number of people allowed access to these areas. Rather, the problem is there aren't enough areas available for the number of people that want to use them.
Essentially, city leadership needs to be examining what it can do to expand their parks or recreation facilities. If there are financial concerns… cool, I get that. The good news is we already engaged in the task of communication and empathy towards each other’s concerns. Therefore, we are in a position to work together for positive outcomes.
Now, honestly, I am not familiar with these specific areas. However, I am going to assume the reason that large numbers of the Orthodox Jewish community would come to these locations in New Jersey, is because there are not comparable locations in their own neighborhoods in New York.
Now personally, I'm not going to violate the Mitzvot of being impartial towards my fellow Jews over anyone else (Leviticus 19.15, Deuteronomy 24.17). Therefore, if large portions of the New York Jewish community are coming into areas of New Jersey, I do not think it is by any means unreasonable to sit down and discuss ways in which the Orthodox Jewish community could assist in funding new expansions for parks and recreational facilities.
In fact, there is a host of ways that the two communities could work together and both sides end up having more than they did beforehand.
Ultimately, the Mahwah city ordinance banning Eruv’im will be struck down by the New Jersey judicial system. In my opinion, the worst thing that could happen would if this was to happen that the locals be forced to accommodate Jewish visitors by legal decree.
The only outcome from this will be the continuous downward evolution of the relationship between the non-Jewish and Jewish people in these areas. What may not be Anti-Semitism now, will eventually become full-fledged bigotry towards each other.
However, I adamantly say this does not have to be the outcome nor does this even need to be a course of action that is allowed to continue to go on. Instead, let’s work together on this and put an end to any more divisiveness.
In conclusion, I truly believe that the small town of Mahwah has an opportunity right now to be a leader for the rest of the country in demonstrating how people can come together, with empathy and williness to work together to achieve positive outcomes.
In fact, there is no single word in the Hebrew language for the concept of “coincidence.” The concept doesn’t even appear one time in the Tanakh or Jewish Bible and only is mentioned once in the New Testament.
Now, I mention this, because, in the Unami language, the word “Mahwah” translates to “meeting place.”
Thanks again for your message, and Shalom…