By now, many of you have heard of my intention to retire from my position as Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. The purpose of this article is not to reflect on my years in the rabbinate or the community. I will save that, bli neder, for another time. Rather, I would like to focus on an observation from the perspective of one who is at the dusk of his rabbinic career.
One of the emails I received since announcing my intended retirement was from a cherished member of the shul who very much has his ears to the political ground.
“How could you choose to retire now, just when you are at the pinnacle of your power and influence?” he wondered. While I was flattered that he viewed me as being “powerful and influential,” it gave me reason to take pause.
My late uncle, Rabbi Lord Immanuel Jakobovits z”l , observed very cleverly: You can have influence, or you can have power – you cannot have both. He expressed that in order to explain his position that there should not be any religious political parties in Israel. It was a controversial position to be sure. But he was right. The religious parties that are part of the government may be very powerful, but they have little, if any, influence. Nobody is inspired because a religious party is powerful.
Yet an organization that has zero power may find itself as being very influential. People can be readily influenced by a group of sincere individuals. Indeed, the government can be swayed to do things in the favor of religious interests due to the influence of a constituency.
Although I have been politically outspoken over the years, especially in this column, I do not know how powerful I was. In fact, I did not seek power. I’m a rabbi, not a politician. I hope I had some local influence.
But I remain very disillusioned in the Jewish establishment arena. I have been writing time and time again of the need for especially the Orthodox organizations to be outspoken on Jewish and Israeli issues. It seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
I have written ad nauseam to the leadership heads, with little or no reaction. One leader was so exasperated with me after I emailed and mailed him many times about issues and his organization’s non-stance. He procrastinated responding to me each time, and he never responded with substance, only dismissal and accusations of being disrespectful.
“Do you realize that you have contacted me 52 times since I became president?” he wrote back, obviously very annoyed. I let him know I would not have to repeatedly contact him if only he would respond to the substance of my issues.
Recently, I wrote an article addressed to the leadership of the Agudah, the NCYI, and the OU. I pleaded with these reputable Orthodox organizations to join forces, at least for common causes. I was very surprised that although I received a lot of “yasher koiachs” for that and many other articles, very few join me in my feelings. The president of that organization must think of me as a nut job. Rabbis and laymen alike seem to be resigned to remaining silent, with the very notable exception of the CJV (Coalition for Jewish Values).
(By the way, have you seen the interview with Ben & Jerry’s Jewish owners, who were totally stumped when asked by the young interviewer why they only chose to boycott Israel’s settlement policy and not, say, Georgia or Texas, which have abortion and voting laws that they totally oppose? It was great watching him squirm but, of course, he remained steadfast. Our organizations continue to be silent on the matter.)
I was indeed very gratified, however, to receive a call from a very prominent veteran of klal work who read that article to the Agudah, etc. and is motivated to do something meaningful about it. So maybe my noisemaking will bear fruits eventually.
In the meantime, I urge all of you to do your part. Write to the organizations. Write to the newspapers. Join local, citywide, and national rallies. Make your voices heard. Maybe I will have some influence after all.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.