In the early 1970s, a major controversy rocked the entire Queens community. Through a federally sponsored program known as “Scatter Site Housing,” the government decided that the best way to advance the poor is to build public housing for them in middle-class communities. The first site they chose was Forest Hills, a major Jewish community at the time. A 12-story monstrosity was proposed right at the edge of the community where the Grand Central Parkway and the Long Island Expressway meet.
Suddenly, all the liberal Jews became reactionary conservatives. Not in my backyard (Nimby, as it came to be known)! Taking care of the poor was extremely important – provided somebody else took care of it. Led by Jerry Burbach, huge rallies gathered to protest the project. My father joined a delegation to meet with Mayor John V. Lindsay, and there was a classic exchange that I’ll write about some other time. Mario Cuomo rose to prominence by negotiating a deal where the apartment buildings were to be only six stories high instead of 12.
During the protest time, an uncle of mine was the rav of a prominent shtiebel in Forest Hills. As he was walking down 108th Street, a young Jewish-looking man handed him a flyer supporting the projects. My uncle refused the flyer.
“What’s the matter, rabbi, are you against building projects for the poor?” the fellow demanded to know. “Oh, no,” said my uncle, “I’m all for projects, but I’m for projects where you live. Where do you live?” “In Lindenhurst,” responded the young man sheepishly. “Good,” said my uncle. “Let’s have a project in Lindenhurst!” The poor guy had nothing to say, but I’m sure he felt very virtuous pushing the Forest Hills projects. He was able to “virtue signal” to his friends that he is a very caring individual.
That is what’s happening in New York right now. It was great to be known as a sanctuary city – if there weren’t too many illegal immigrants. Now that the Republican governors have called the Democrats’ bluff, the city is drowning and screaming for help. Even blaming Trump!
I believe it was Michael Bloomberg who originally declared New York a sanctuary city. I wonder how many illegals he’s hosting in his multiple mansions. Classic virtual signaling. Good while it lasts.
We are now approaching the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) with the advent of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It is the time of t’shuvah, repentance. We must realize, however, that with connecting to Hashem, virtue signaling carries no weight. It must be the real thing. We must mean it and act upon it.
The Rambam, in the Laws of T’shuvah (Chapter 2:3 and 1), writes as follows: “Any individual who confesses his sins, but does not truthfully have in mind to leave that sin, is like one who purifies himself by immersing in the waters of a mikvah while holding an impure creature in his hand. Until he rids himself of that creature, his immersion is worthless. What is the sign of genuine repentance? One who commits a certain transgression and repents. He can be considered repentant if the opportunity to violate that transgression arises and he overcomes his desire to commit that sin.”
Virtue-signaling does not work in our religion. We must be virtuous and act accordingly. There is a lot that needs to be repaired in our community, both here and in Israel. Unfortunately, we “talk the talk” but don’t “walk the walk.” We denounce baseless hatred among Jews, yet we continue to justify our own disdain. We call for unity…as long as it’s done our way.
We need to find the common denominator among us and work from there. Appreciating our uniqueness as a People is a start. Our common love for Hashem and loyalty to his Torah is another.
Let’s make t’shuvah real. That is quite virtuous.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.