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Issue 207 - Retail Beauty and Wholesale Unsightliness
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
Publication: Mishpacha Magazine

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Several months ago, in my “Wal-Mart” column, I made the point that evolving technology will increasingly force us to compete for the hearts and minds of the children (and adults) in our Torah community. And if you accept the notion that we will be faced with an open marketplace of competing ideas, most of which run contrary to our core beliefs, one of the most important things we can do is to analyze the attractiveness of our ‘product’ just like a town faced with the prospect of a “Wal-Mart” moving down the road needs to upgrade its marketing strategy or face financial devastation.

With that in mind, I suggest that we ought to follow up on the questionnaire I presented in this space in the Mishpacha Pesach issue (#205; “More Than Four Questions,”) and ask ourselves a piercing and painful query: What image are we projecting to the world at large? Is it one of the spiritual and kind-hearted beauty that we know it to be, or is it one that is far less attractive?

While I would like to think that it is the former, the more truthful answer to that question is probably, “It depends.”

On a retail level – as individuals – we do an incredibly effective job of spreading k’vod Shamayim (the honor of Hashem’s name). All those who interact with the wonderful charedi individuals who work in Hatzolah, Bikur Cholim, Tomchei Shabbos, Partners in Torah, Yad Sarah, and on and on – walk away inspired and impressed. In today’s look-out-for-#1 world, the devotion of our idealistic kollel yungerleit and their selfless, dedicated wives are the quintessential expression of Kiddush Hashem.

Sadly, though, while all these beautiful ‘retail’ events are happening, our collective ‘wholesale’ image is taking repeated body blows. Frum people are indicted and sometimes convicted of multi-million-dollar financial crimes. Outwardly observant hooligans are beating women for sitting in the ‘wrong’ section of buses and squirting bleach on those who are not dressed according to their standards. Ugly, protracted succession battles take place in secular courts for the leadership of heimishe kehilos. The specter of high-profile court cases of accused pedophiles looms large in our windshields. All the while, the incredible power of the Internet and the global news cycle is spreading these horrible images worldwide in a matter of seconds; trampling much or all the good will generated by the incredible mesiras nefesh of selfless members of our kehilah kedosha. These public acts of Chilul Hashem represent a crisis in our world – one that we must put an end to.

We ought to do it for the right reasons, for the ultimate k'vod Shamayim is to walk in the derech of Hashem and live a darchei noam life – a life of pleasantness and middos tovos, a life of honesty and decency; a life that enriches the world and brings honor to our Torah.

But even if altruistic reasons do not motivate us to improve our public image, as it should, we had better do so immediately for very selfish ones. Why? Because in the “Wal-Mart” world of a 24-hour news cycle, Internet and emails, these awful scenes in the aggregate present what I feel is an existential threat to the perpetuation of Torah values to our children and grandchildren. I say this because I strongly feel that moving forward, our younger generations – even in the most sheltered communities – will increasingly and inevitably see and judge the Torah world not only through our eyes, but also through the lenses of CNN, Internet blogs and emails. And many of those images are not pretty.

We know that all forms of media tend to gravitate to news that is negative in nature, and that many reporters are biased against members of our community. But let’s not kid ourselves. Perhaps one or two of these incidents could be explained away as an aberration or the distorted view of individual members of the media. Collectively, however, they represent a troubling trend – one that must be squarely addressed.

I have lost track of the many formerly frum people who list these incidents of chilul Hashem as primary or secondary reasons for leaving Yiddishkeit. This is also taking a terrible toll on visibly frum people who regularly interact with secular Jews and non-Jews, as we are perpetually bombarded with questions, when members of our community appear in the media for the wrong reasons. Our souls are shamed and our arms are heavy from having to defend the indefensible and explain the inexplicable.

There are no simple answers to this dilemma. But as I noted above, I strongly feel that it is a crisis of the highest order and must be pushed to the top of our communal agenda.

For as time marches on and technology increasingly pervades our lives, we will find it more and more challenging to transmit our beautiful mesorah to future generations with these stains on our collective sleeves.

Recommended reading:

They Do Not Represent Us

Pierced Teen and I

My Grandfather and I

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