How Healing Hatred Mirrors Retail

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, March 8, 2024 / 28 Adar Rishon 5784

Summary: Being an agent of change is never straightforward. While there are many ways to do so, one powerful way is through our personal interactions.

Reading Time: Four minutes

Mel Sirner was my senior rabbi during my first tenure after rabbinical school. It’s likely you haven’t heard of him because he showed no interest in fame, enhancing his reputation, or earning a spot on lists of America’s most influential rabbis. Instead, he consistently dedicated himself to his work, guiding his community with unparalleled steadiness. His aversion to the spotlight, a hallmark of American success, was a natural extension of his character—kind, genuine, and devoid of ego—qualities as rare as they are essential for anyone in the rabbinate. Mel was the embodiment of authenticity, living proof that the ultimate measure of religion is its ability to make us better than we are. Finding someone as honest, modest, or kind as he would be a formidable challenge. On the days I’m particularly disillusioned with the state of American Judaism, I view him as the antithesis of the current trend to mold Jewish institutions into reflections of the business world rather than bastions of spirituality. Mel Sirner is the personification of human decency.

However, Mel’s approach to mentorship was less direct. Learning from him often meant observing his actions rather than his words. This method has precedence in Jewish tradition; there’s a sugiya, or Talmudic passage, where students follow their rabbis into bathhouses, or even their bedrooms, to learn the Torah of derekh eretz—how to embody integrity in all actions, visible or not. A similar narrative exists in Hasidic stories, where disciple visits renowned rabbis merely to see how they tie their shoes.

A pivotal lesson Mel imparted, both in action and principle, crystallized into a maxim: “Judaism is like retail. You make Jews one at a time.” He believed that the essence of our faith boils down to individual relationships. Despite Beth El hosting numerous programs, boasting an award-winning school, and offering robust adult education, it was the one-on-one encounters that profoundly shaped us.

This past Monday, as we hosted several PSU students, I was reminded of Mel. The event, “Healing Perspectives,” part of the Israel360 program and co-sponsored with Hillel, involved PSU leaders—mostly non-Jewish—who visited Israel last summer. They engaged with Palestinians, Jewish and Arab Israelis, explored the West Bank, and were exposed to a broad spectrum of perspectives on the complex, fraught situation both Jews and Palestinians navigate.

Their return marked a shift in their understanding of the Middle East Conflict, which was now informed by a nuanced complexity far removed from the oversimplified portrayals common in America. The catalyst for their transformation was the personal relationships they fostered. Back at PSU, a campus marred by antisemitism and polarized rhetoric, they became advocates for tolerance and understanding. Their efforts to transcend the tribalism that shapes our views on the conflict serve as a powerful testament to Mel’s philosophy: the most effective way to counteract hatred and antisemitism involves both grand and intimate gestures of connection that underscores our shared humanity.

As antisemitism rises, the Jewish community’s public efforts to counteract this ancient hatred are crucial, yet, we’re often outmatched by those harboring antisemitic beliefs, whether implicit or explicit. Given this reality, each of us has the responsibility and ability to act as agents of healing, forging bonds with those less familiar with Jewish people, Judaism, or the complex history of Israel. Engaging in such personal diplomacy empowers us to actively participate in mending society. What could epitomize tikkun olam more profoundly?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. Who has had the most significant impact on you, and how did they accomplish this?
  2. Have you ever reached out to let them know about their influence on you?
  3. Has anyone ever shared with you the positive difference you’ve made in their life? Were you aware of your impact before being told of it?

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.