Serving as a Talent Scout for Klal Yisrael – the Community of Israel:
In Part 1 of this letter, I cited the following verse: “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Community of Jacob” (Deuteronomy 33:4). I then discussed the following teaching of the Chofetz Chaim regarding those of our brethren who are unaware of their heritage:
When we help a brother or sister to reclaim their heritage, we are also fulfilling the mitzvah to return a lost object to its rightful owner (Deuteronomy 22:1-3). Just as there is a mitzvah to return lost material possessions, so too, there is a mitzvah to return lost spiritual possessions.
In this letter, I will discuss another way in which spiritual outreach to our brethren enables us to full the mitzvah to return that which is lost. As we know, there are many of our brethren who have lost their connection to our people. When we help them to rediscover this connection, we are bringing these lost brethren back to Klal Yisrael – the Community of Israel.
As most of you know from earlier letters, my parents were radical social activists who were involved in various progressive causes. They were also devoted to acts of tzedakah and loving-kindness. They had a vague awareness that their altruistic values were rooted in Jewish tradition; however, they did not have a Torah education. When I began to discover our spiritual heritage in my youth, I also sought ways to share the insights I gained with the members of my family. This was the beginning of my spiritual outreach.
The desire to engage in spiritual outreach grew stronger when I began to learn about the Holocaust which destroyed about one third of our people. I also became aware of how assimilation was causing us to lose members of our people in a different way. When I became a young adult, I developed a strong inner desire to strengthen our weakened people through helping assimilated Jewish men and women to reconnect to their people and thereby contribute to the fulfillment of our collective mission. The following stories can serve as examples:
During the summer of 1970, I lived with the hippies in the East Village of Manhattan, New York City. Most of the hippies were young people who were rebelling against the materialistic values of modern western society, and who sought to find alternative ways of living which were more loving and spiritual. The hippy movement began in 1967; however, in 1970, the movement was entering a new stage, for many hippies were seeking to anchor their vision in a spiritual path. They began to realize that having altruistic goals was not enough, for they lacked a spiritual path and discipline that could help them to fulfill their vision. There were therefore Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious centers that had opened up in Lower Manhattan in order to attract the spiritually-searching young people that flocked to the East Village and its neighbor to the west, Greenwich Village.
A good percentage of the hippies who came to these neighborhoods were Jewish, yet no religious Jewish outreach center had opened up in the area. The secular-oriented Federation of Jewish Philanthropies, however, established a drop-in center in the East Village where young people could go for emotional counseling and for help with their drug problems. I visited this Jewish drop-in center, and I noticed that the staff had some understanding of their drug problems, but I also noticed that they had no understanding of the spiritual needs of the hippies. It was no wonder that many of these young Jews sought spiritual nourishment elsewhere.
There was a store-front Christian coffee house in the area that became a popular place to hang out, and as I shall explain, it became a place where I engaged in some spiritual outreach to the Jewish hippies that gathered there. There were also a few missionaries at this coffee house who would occasionally attempt to persuade the visitors to adopt the Christian religion. In addition to citing verses from their own scriptures, they would also cite verses from our Tanach – the Sacred Scriptures of Israel; moreover, they claimed that these verses from our Tanach supported their doctrines. Given that most of the Jews they met had not studied the Tanach, the missionaries were surprised to discover that I was familiar with the prophecies in the Tanach. To their dismay, I pointed out that they were distorting the meaning of the verses that they cited. Most of the Jewish hippies at this coffee house would enjoy hearing me quote our Tanach in order to defend our heritage from the attacks of the missionaries who claimed that Christianity had replaced Judaism. With rare exception, these young Jews had never studied Torah, but when the missionaries would begin to argue that only the Christians had the true understanding of Jewish scriptures, their Jewish pride was evoked. They therefore welcomed my defense of the Jewish heritage. In addition, they were quite impressed when I would cite the Jewish teaching that the righteous among all the nations have a share in the World-To-Come.
I also received positive feedback from some of the non-Jewish hippies. One of them was a young Native-American woman who respected Judaism and who greatly identified with the return of the Jewish people to Zion, their ancestral homeland.
To my great sorrow, I met a few young Jews who had adopted the Christian religion, as they were told that only through a belief in Jesus could they “save” their souls from “eternal damnation.” During that period, I was struggling with some difficult personal problems; however, the pain that I experienced when I saw young Jews adopting Christianity and other religions helped me to forget about my own problems. I realized that the Torah was given to our entire people, and that it is through collectively fulfilling the Torah that we make our universal contribution. We therefore need the participation of all the members of our people, for each one contributes in his or her unique way to the fulfillment of our mission.
I had a couple of friends who shared my concern, and we decided to start a Jewish coffee house which would engage in outreach to spiritually-searching Jews. The task was overwhelming and our resources were very limited; nevertheless, I told my friends that we should not get discouraged and that we should do whatever we can. I then mentioned the following ancient teaching from Pirkei Avos (2:21) which is cited in the name of Rabbi Tarfon:
“It is not upon you to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.”
As a result of my involvement with the coffee house, I was hired by the American Jewish Congress to start and develop the Martin Steinberg Center for young Jewish artists. It was located on the Upper-East Side of Manhattan. It eventually became a center for Jewish artists of all ages who were involved in the performing, visual, and literary arts. The Center attracted artists and others who wished to explore their Jewish identity through the arts. My work as the director of the Center led to contact with other groups of Jewish men and women that were exploring their spiritual roots. In my youth, I had the privilege of studying with rabbis who were the disciples of leading Torah sages, and I therefore tried to serve as a bridge between the traditional Torah world and the spiritual seekers that I was encountering. In my own way, I tried to be a friend and guide to these seekers. I thought of myself as a “talent scout” – one who was recruiting sensitive and gifted searching Jews on behalf our people. I therefore felt both love and respect for the searching souls that I encountered.
The problem of lost brethren is still very much with us. Through the universal vision of the Torah, I recognize that our people have a Divine mandate to serve as an ethical and spiritual model for all peoples, and I therefore want to see our people spiritually thriving and strong. In this way, we can merit to experience the fulfillment of the following prophecy regarding the universal role of Zion at the dawn of the messianic age:
“Arise! Shine! – For your light has arrived, and the glory of Hashem shines upon you. For, behold, darkness shall cover the earth and a dense cloud the kingdoms; but upon you, Hashem will shine, and His glory shall be seen upon you. Nations will go by your light; and sovereigns by the glow of your dawn.” (Isaiah 60:1-3)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See Below)
A Related Teaching:
According to our tradition, the People of Israel are in essence one entity; moreover, our individual souls are part of the collective soul of Israel. A reference to this deep metaphysical idea regarding our oneness is found in the following prayer which we chant on Shabbos afternoon – a prayer which refers to the future age of enlightenment:
“You are One, and Your Name is One, and who is like Your people Israel, one nation on earth.” (The concluding statement regarding the oneness of Israel is found in Samuel II, 7:23.)
Although we now seem to
be a divided people,
this is only an external
appearance, for in
essence we are one. The
reality of this oneness
will be fully revealed
in the messianic age of
enlightenment when our
oneness will bear
witness to the Divine
In the meanwhile, we ask Hashem during our weekday morning prayers to protect our nation which in essence is truly one, and we pray:
“Guardian of the one nation, protect the remnant of the one nation; let not the one nation be destroyed – those who proclaim the Oneness of Your Name, ‘Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!’ ”