The summer before I left for Israel to study in Mayanot (a baal teshuva yeshiva in Jerusalem) for the first time, I had gone to a Shabbos lunch at a rabbi’s home in St. Louis, where my parents live. At first, the lunch went well, and I was enjoying myself. Everyone was very friendly.
But then, they asked me what I was up to that summer. I told them that I was going to Israel to study in yeshiva. They asked me what yeshiva. I told them, “Mayanot.”
And I remember one of the people looked up at me, eyebrow raised, and said, “Isn’t that a Chabad yeshiva?”
And I nodded, like the innocent baal teshuva I was, and looked back down to eat my food.
He kept looking at me, though, and when I looked up, I realized that they were all looking at me.
Within a few minutes, they were spending their time trying to explain to me why I shouldn’t go to Mayanot. They were careful not to disparage all of Chabad right away, but they spent much of their time arguing that it was important to go to a “mainstream” yeshiva. Otherwise, I would be in danger of being on the “outside”. And, they were worried for me. They wanted me to be a part of the majority.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. I still went to Mayanot, but the thought that I might be out of the mainstream of Judaism stuck with me.
As I started to meet more people in different yeshivas, and learned with some people outside of Mayanot, I continued to hear this theme: “Mainstream Judaism” is where it’s at.
Eventually, I asked a friend if I could speak to someone about studying somewhere else. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Chabad, but I didn’t want to pigeon-hole myself.
This friend set up a meeting between me and his rosh yeshiva.
I went to his place in Har Nof, sat down with him and listened to as he explained to me, in much the same way as the people in St. Louis tried to explain to me: Chabad was on the outskirts. And, hey, he didn’t have anything against Chabad. No, no, really. He just wanted to allow me to be open-minded. Kind of like a person who goes to college shouldn’t major right away or something, so they don’t get stuck in a career they don’t want.
And again, the idea of “mainstream” came up.
It was interesting sitting there, listening to him parrot the words of the same people in St. Louis, of experiencing this feeling of deja vu as he spoke, hearing him tell me how I would be left out of something important, of how this choice was important for marriage, for life, for happiness.
What was even more interesting, though, was that as he spoke, I felt a completely different reaction than the time I heard the guys talk to me in St. Louis. Now, instead of being scared, I almost laughed. Instead of taking him seriously, I couldn’t help but feel, intuitively, like he was full of it.
I didn’t understand why I felt like that at the time. I remember being even more confused as to why I would react that way.
And as I thanked him for his time, and walked out, knowing I would never speak to the man again, I tried to interpret my reaction.
It took me a few months to fully understand what happened that day.
But as I spent more time in Mayanot, and as I spent more time exploring Israel as an on-the-scenes reporter for Chabad.org, I remember starting to slowly understand my own reaction.
St. Louis is a different place than Israel. In St. Louis, there is one main contingent of orthodox Jews: Litvak (their beliefs stem from a Judaism that originated in Lithuania) Ashkenazim.
And while almost all of them are extremely accepting of others, and few except for those people I talked to at the lunch tried to turn me against Chabad, it’s understandable why they might feel like they’re the “mainstream”.
But in Israel, and especially in Jerusalem, you get a very different angle of vision on the Jewish world.
Walk through Nachlaot and you see colorful hippie-Hasidim, Sephardim, Chabadniks. Walk through Mea Shearim and you see Super-Duper Hassidim. Walk through Katamon and you see rich old Dati Leumi folks.
Then explore the settlements, and you see even more kinds of Jews. Exploring Israel means seeing Asian Jews and Ethiopian Jews, and realizing that Sefardim aren’t one separate group, but countless groups holding different beliefs and traditions.
When I looked and look back on that encounter with that rabbi in Har Nof, it becomes painfully clear why I didn’t take him seriously. He was living in his ghettoized home, his closed off world, trying to convince himself that he was part of some majority, some group of people that set an agenda that other Jews needed to observe.
In Israel, such a belief is so obviously empty, so insanely contrary to reality, that buying into it means not opening your eyes to the world around you.
As a Sephardi Chabadnik, this truth has become even more evident to me.
Thank G-d, Israel exists, and people realize more and more that there is no such thing as mainstream Judaism, and that the people who are trying to turn us into a colorless, white, empty, collection of ghettoized trained monkeys are liars, whether they realize it or not.
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