In 1903, a Russian newspaper started publishing articles about a secretive group of Jewish leaders who run the world. Eventually, these articles made it into book form, known as – The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The book caused untold harm to our people. As you all know, this conspiracy theory of Jewish domination is making a resurgence among a growing number of antisemites. But what I want to talk about this morning is the theory’s popularity within the Jewish Orthodox community, the many people in our Eruv and even in this room who believe in it.
What I am referring to is the frequency with which I am asked questions like, why don’t the rabbis do X? Why don’t the rabbis do Y?
The number of people in this community who believe that in some back room of I don’t know, Tov Pizza, a group of rabbis get together to plot how to lead the Baltimore Jewish community is astounding. So let me disabuse you of some conspiracy theories:
- It would be nice if us rabbis had that much power, I really wouldn’t mind. But we don’t. Virtually every initiative, organization and institution that exists in this community was started by people who are not rabbis. Some of these people shared their idea with rabbis, some may have even asked for their advice before starting. Many others never bothered with getting any form of rabbinic approbation whatsoever. And that’s okay.
- The Vaad HaRabbanim, the Orthodox Rabbinic group here in Baltimore, gets together as often as we can, which is not always so often. We also try very hard to get along, but being… Jewish, we don’t always agree on everything. Also, okay.
- Lastly, we are rabbis. We have rabbinic ordination. We are qualified in telling you if your chicken is kosher. Many of us are lousy politicians. I find the notion of rabbis being Machiavellian plotters rather comical.
“What’s Rabbi Motzen referring to?”
“He sounds pretty defensive, I hope he’s okay.”
Why am I telling you all this?!
I’m telling you this because the more we believe in the Protocols of the Elders of Orthodox Jewish Baltimore, the more we put our faith in a fictional group who run this community, the more we sit around waiting for someone else to do something, the less we all do. If someone else has the keys to this community, if someone else is pulling all the strings, if someone else is in charge, then the way to affect change is by waiting for them, maybe even lobbying them, but there is nothing I can do without them. And that mindset is fatal to the health of our beloved community.
It’s also in direct opposition to everything the Torah stands for. The entire book of Bereishis is a sustained assault against this idea of waiting for leaders to do something. In the ancient and not so ancient world, it was the eldest brother who was the de facto leader of the family. Kayin and Havel, Sheim, Cham, and Yafes, Yishmael and Yitzchak, Eisav and Yaakov. Over and over again, the assumed leader, the elder, is not a leader at all. The leader shirks his responsibility and someone else steps in and saves the day. The Book of Bereishis begs us to not look up for change, but to look within.
This theme comes to a crescendo in this week’s Parsha. The eldest brother of the tribes is Reuven. The Lubavitcher Rebbe in one of his sichos suggests that Reuven was the holiest of the brothers. After he sinned, according to Chazal, he spent his nights and days repenting. When things started to unravel for them in Egypt, it was Reuven who immediately recognizes that it was G-d punishing them for selling Yosef. But that’s all he does; he prays, he lectures, he casts blame. But he does not act.
Imagine if the brothers would sit around paralyzed, waiting for Reuven to take charge. Maybe they’d write a nasty social media post. Maybe they’d talk about his lousy leadership at their Shabbos table… The brothers would live and die in the land of Canaan and Yosef would never reunite with his family.
But thankfully, that’s not what happens. Because one brother doesn’t wait around for the ‘leader’ to do something. One brother sees a problem, rolls up his sleeves, and takes responsibility.
And so, when Binyamin is taken captive by Yosef’s men, it’s Yehuda, the 4th brother, who stands up to Yosef, and ultimately causes Yosef to reveal himself. And it’s Yehuda’s descendants, who are far from perfect, who aren’t necessarily the most righteous, but who consistently take responsibility, and thereby become the kings of Israel.
Two weeks ago, I posted on Facebook, asking people to suggest the names of individuals in this community who are making a difference. Baltimore’s community is filled with ‘Yehuda’s’ – people who see issues but don’t just criticize, they step up and take responsibility.
I remember my first exposure to this was immediately after Hindy and I got married. We were both students, living mostly off of wedding gifts, and we had virtually no furniture. One day I noticed a sign in Ner Yisrael that said, “Free furniture.” Apparently, someone had realized that there were many people who wanted to get rid of furniture, and there were many people, like Hindy and me, who needed furniture but couldn’t afford it. I called the number and was told to show up at a storage center on Reisterstown where the furniture was kept, and who was there to meet us, who was the man behind this all? Our Bat Mitzvah girls’ father, Yossi Burstyn.
Yossi, did a rabbi call you and ask you to do this?
I didn’t think so.
Let me share with you some of the responses I received on my Facebook post:
Rochel Ziman and Shoshi Glazer were nominated for starting an organization called, A Single Impact. What is A Single Impact? It’s a fairly new organization created to support, provide resources, and advocacy for frum singles. They coordinate meet and greet events with multiple dates resulting from each event. Beautiful, right?
Stacey Goldenberg got nominated for all the incredible work she does for the Jewish Caring Network, an organization dedicated to helping people through illness – and their families. Work that she can never tell anyone about due to its sensitive nature.
Another person listed was Dovi Ziffer who davened here last week. He is involved with countless organizations, but most recently started something called the Baltimore Chesed League, a fun way for middle schoolers to be exposed to all the Chesed in this community and to start training them to be leaders.
Shushi Ehrenfeld and Yona Openden who started a branch of ORA, an organization that helps vulnerable women in our community.
The list goes on and on and on. I feel bad that we just don’t have the time to read each one. They’re all remarkable. There are so many Yehudas in our community! Personally, I find it both humbling and inspiring. It pushes me to do more. These are all people who saw the same problems we do, but didn’t just complain, they act.
But there is one person who got the most votes on this post. Hands down. And that is Adina B.
As a side note, she was nominated like twelve separate times in the same thread. Here’s a little primer on how to use the internet – before you post something, you need to scroll up and see if fifteen people just posted the same thing!!! If they did, all you have to do is press ‘like.’
Here are some quotes – “She is the most giving person that I know.” “A true friend to so many.” “Adina B is the best.”
We are extremely privileged to have Adina B in our community, both Baltimore at large, and in the Ner Tamid community. In just a short amount of time, you have befriended the entire shul, you recruit more members than I do, almost immediately after joining you assumed leadership of the Sisterhood, and you help run virtually every event and project of Ner Tamid. Thank you!
Tehila, you asked me to speak about your mother, so I did. Well, what you actually said was that if you were going to be embarrassed, I should embarrass your mother as well. Done. Now I’m going to talk about you.
Tehila and her mother came to meet with me last week. I was running a little late and I asked them how long they were waiting outside. It was really cold that night. Adina said, “We weren’t even waiting!” But Tehila with a sweet little smile said, “We were out here for a very long time.”
But behind all the fun and games, behind that easy smile, is an exceptionally thoughtful and sensitive young woman. Someone who uses those qualities to look out for others. When someone in your class needs a kind word, you’re there for them. When your family needs you, you step in. You’re constantly looking around to see who could use you a smile, a kind word, a little hug. Unsurprisingly, you have inherited the qualities of a Yehuda. You told me you don’t know what you’re going to do professionally when you grow up. Neither do I. But I am confident that you will continue to use those skills to not just sit around and complain, to not just point out all that’s broken, but that you’ll make a difference. A real difference in the world.
The truth is, maybe I was a little too harsh on the rabbis of this community. They all work very hard to do what they believe is best. And we do try, when we can, to work together to affect change. But don’t sit around waiting for things to change. Don’t fuel the toxic conspiracy of the Elders of Orthodox Jewish Baltimore. You can be a righteous Reuven and see the ills of the world better than anyone else, or you can be a Yehuda, a change-maker who takes responsibility on his or her own and fixes those problems. You can’t be both so choose wisely.