The holiday of Pesach in general and the Seder in particular are not just about recounting a seminal event in Jewish history. Each year, Pesach is a time designated to focus on that which enslaves us and holds us in bondage today and to seek in our own lives the freedom and liberty that our ancestors achieved. For example: Selfishness enslaves, and selflessness liberates. Unregulated use of technology enslaves; the capacity to disconnect liberates. Addiction enslaves, and sovereignty liberates. Stinginess enslaves, and generosity liberates. Chaos and disorder enslave; rules and boundaries liberate.
This year, a new form of captivity and freedom occurred to me as a result of a very unfortunate development in Boca Raton. Prejudice and hate enslave, but love and broadmindedness liberate.
My good friend and colleague Rabbi Ruvi New, together with his shul, is seeking to build a new Chabad center in East Boca at 770 Palmetto Park Rd. Their application is fully compliant with city codes, recommended for approval by city staff, and has been unanimously approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission. The new location is zoned as a commercial property and doesn’t interfere with any residences in the area. Rabbi New is an outstanding leader with impeccable integrity. He and his shul members are kind, considerate, respectful, welcoming, and very committed to both the greater Jewish community and to the greater Boca community at large.
Despite the shul’s receiving unanimous approval following an open hearing, there continues to be a voice of opposition (hopefully small) that is rooted in nothing other than prejudice, bias, and bigotry.
According to a website called www.bocawatch.org, “a group of concerned citizens established Boca Watch to provide Boca’s citizens with information to increase the voice of citizen in City Government.” A post this week begins by stating that it wants to “discuss the elephant in the room.” The author, who chooses to remain anonymous other than identifying himself or herself as a Reform Jew, goes on to state, “I have lived through and witnessed what happens when an Orthodox Jewish synagogue comes to an otherwise diverse town filled with all religions. This is not a slow progression. It is swift and pervasive. The beach town that you know now will not look or feel at all the same.”
He or she continues by explaining exactly how: “It will be located within walking distance to several upscale neighborhoods that will undoubtedly become predominantly more Orthodox in nature… The Orthodoxy practice modesty, meaning, there is a strict conservative dress code for both the women and men. Remember, this is a beach community with half clothed people walking up and down the street.”
The author describes the impact to housing and says, “Certain ritualistic practices, such as taking ‘mikvah’ will need to be available, housed in close proximity to the Shul, perhaps even in a private home that will be converted for that specific use. Essentially, mikvah is a cleansing bath-house for women.” He or she continues, “Large families with many young children, carriages and the like will be walking through the neighborhoods to get to temple. The neighborhoods which do not have sidewalks will soon have large groups of walkers on the already narrow streets, getting to and from temple. Walking to temple will require an ‘eruv’ around the community and one will need to be installed.”
Whether or not the post accurately depicts demographic trends in the growth of Orthodox Jewish communities is entirely irrelevant. What matters is that Chabad of East Boca has both a legal and moral right to pursue its dream of a new home, and posts like this are nothing short of bigoted, prejudiced, and intolerable.
Can you imagine if an African American Church submitted an application to build, and a blog post described what would happen to the neighborhood if all these African Americans moved in and how because of their culture and practices, “The beach town that you know now will not look or feel at all the same.” There would rightly be outrage and indignation. This post is no less deserving of the same reaction and response.
We are blessed to live in a country that provides religious freedom and invites diverse religious practice, as long as it is consistent with American law. Building an Orthodox synagogue, purchasing homes in its vicinity, dressing modestly, walking with children to services, constructing a mikvah and building an eruv are all lawful and legitimate. Efforts to stifle or thwart the growth of an Orthodox Jewish community should be unconscionable and intolerable to all who believe in America’s foundational beliefs and principles.
Boca is remarkable for its cross-denominational sense of Jewish community and for the genuine friendships shared by its rabbis. This sentiment, so disturbingly expressed by a fellow Jew, is truly an aberration and disruption of the unity we work so hard to achieve. To be clear, the author absolutely represents only themselves and not all Reform Jews just like when an Orthodox person says or does something reprehensible they don’t speak for all Orthodox Jews. I am confident that my rabbinic colleagues of all denominations will show their support to Rabbi New and reject the sentiments in this post that run counter to our shared values and contribute to division and conflict among our people. Commenting on V’hi she’amda in the Haggadah, the Sfas Emes says, “She’lo echad bilvad amad aleynu l’chaloseinu“—when the Jewish people are not echad (one), when we are divided, that alone stands to destroy us.
This unfortunate episode provides not only an opportunity to fight bigotry, but a reminder of how it is incumbent on observant Jews to carry ourselves with dignity, love, openness, respect, and honesty in a way that would make people feel fortunate to have Orthodox Jews live among them and not the opposite.
In the Pesach spirit of seeking freedom, I urge you to take a moment and contact Mayor Susan Haynie at firstname.lastname@example.org and members of the City Council to communicate our tremendous disappointment with the rhetoric being used against Chabad and to call on them to both reject that rhetoric and support the unanimous decision of the Planning and Zoning Commission.