When the Bullies Go Low, BRS Goes High: A Sad Update on Matthew Kelly and Boca Raton Synagogue

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At so many points during this past month, I have not known whether to laugh or cry.  As I was assaulted with emails, texts, voicemails, social media campaigns, and numerous videos spewing outrageous and hateful lies, I laughed out loud because of the ridiculousness, preposterousness, and absurdity of what was being said.  When I read and heard about the “special place in hell reserved for me,” how I “dishonor the memory of those killed in the Holocaust,” how nobody should marry my children or come within four feet of me, how I should “be fired and thrown to the garbage” by my community “yesterday,” how I am the biggest rasha, wicked person since Korach,  among many more charming comments, I mostly laughed.

When my wife was harassed, chastised, and instructed to be more like the wife of Ohn ben Peles and stop her wicked husband, I laughed a little less.  When a video posted to Facebook challenged, how could Rabbi Moskowitz repay God in this way after his prayers were answered and he was cured from cancer, I stopped laughing.


And then I got a letter from Matthew Kelly, the speaker around whom this invented scandal erupted, and not only did I no longer laugh, I cried. I literally shed tears.  He writes (see the complete letter at the end of the article):


Dear Rabbi Efrem Goldberg,


It is with a profound sadness that I write to you today to inform you that I have decided not to present to your community this coming Sunday.


Over the past month, at an ever increasing rate, I have been receiving phone calls, emails, social media messages, and You Tube video messages warning me not to come. To summarize, I have been accused of being an "anti-Semitic idol worshipping missionary bozo."


This harassment at first felt like a simple disagreement between people who love God. As this hate campaign continued it has grown in quantity, disrespect, and intensity: disagreements became harassment, harassment became bullying, bullying turned into threats lightly veiled as warnings, and finally, the warnings became all out threats. But woven into every message I have received is fear not courage, and hate not love. What we do out of fear should always be questioned and discerned. What we do without love always has a lesson to teach us.


At first, my concern was for your safety due the hateful words that were directed towards you, but it is now very clear that there is a dark cloud over my own safety. As a result, I no longer feel that it is safe to appear and speak at the Boca Raton Synagogue this weekend.


These critics have lied, taken extreme positions, refused to be distracted by the facts, and promoted the defamation of one good man, and another who is striving to be a good man. You are the former, Rabbi…


It is perplexing that such criticisms were leveled at you and me, given that my presentation was to be in the area of professional development. For more than two decades I have been speaking to people of all faiths and people with no faith. I have spoken to groups of politicians, school children and college students, and the Fortune 500 business community has welcomed my presentations with open arms. In every instance, I have been respectful of the audience and tried to exercise the emotional intelligence necessary to avoid alienating or offending anyone.


But the critics in this situation seem to have focus exclusively on my spiritual convictions, and have attacked me in a way that I would never dream of attacking someone else.


We have so much in common and it pains me that I would be falsely accused of seeking to dissuade the people you lead from the beauties of Judaism. Nothing could be further from the truth…


The individual and his followers who launched and relentlessly promoted this campaign predicated on lies will undoubtedly feel victorious and that they triumphed in what they have explicitly called their “holy war.”  They will surely say they prevented a chillul Hashem by stopping a missionary from speaking “in front of the holy Torahs.”


But here is the thing - Matthew Kelly is a motivational speaker and business consultant and while a proud practicing Catholic, he is not a missionary to the non-Catholic community.  The truth is they have not prevented a chillul Hashem, they have perpetrated one.  They have not “won.” God’s honor has lost.


Through their absurd campaign, the critics who have spread lies, slander, hate, and threats have also ironically spread more of Christianity’s teachings, tenets, and texts to the Jewish community than Matthew Kelly ever has or would.  Through their campaign they have achieved exactly what they illegitimately declared Kelly was going to do – they have driven Jews further away from Judaism.


Civility, derech eretz, disagreeing agreeably, and speaking with dignity are hallmarks of Boca Raton Synagogue and core values of our community.  That is why my BRS colleagues and I have taken the high road.  We have not responded to one nasty or threatening post, comment, email, or message.  We refuse to get down in the mud and lower ourselves to the level of those behind this campaign of lies and distortions and that will not change.


Our BRS community slogan, proudly embedded in our logo and displayed on every single piece of literature the shul produces, is “Valuing diversity, celebrating unity.” Our derech eretz statement, which sets forth our expectation that people in our community communicate their diverse views respectfully and appropriately, is prominently displayed in our bulletin every single week and referenced regularly in sermons, classes, and writings.


This entire “scandal” was manufactured by people outside of our community who have an axe to grind.  While a few have inquired what this is all about, literally not one member of Boca Raton Synagogue has objected to Matthew Kelly speaking or has questioned our judgment or the judgment of our rebbeim to whom we turned to for guidance on this and other matters.


That is why rather than engage these individuals, our response is to affirm our BRS values and dedicate ourselves even harder to promote them in our community and beyond.  In response to this massive chillul Hashem, we will be holding an event centered around civility and derech eretz that I know will prove to be unforgettable.  We look forward to a phenomenal turnout, a clear rejection of the methods and language that has been directed at our community, and a strong commitment to create a community and culture that allows for principled disagreement and debate but insists on respect, dignity and honor.


The people who sought to make my life miserable employed an age-old tactic – bullying.  They tried to bully not only me, my wife, and fellow BRS rabbis, they bullied my rebbeim with harassing phone calls, they bullied the Chief Rabbinate of Israel to reject my conversions, and even tried to bully an Israeli newspaper to run a story on us.  They called on thousands to “disrupt the program and the synagogue” and have attempted to bully our members to fire us or demand we resign.  They must be held accountable for their bullying and their tactics and I hope the broader Jewish community will condemn them and marginalize them.  (For starters, please contact the website that hosts these vile videos and demand all of Yosef Mizrachi’s videos be removed - https://www.torahanytime.com/#/contact-us)


Before the seminal moment of revelation at Sinai, before God gifts us His precious Torah, He says, “If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a mamleches Kohanim, a kingdom of priests, and a goy kaddosh, a holy nation” (Shemos 19:5-6).  Our national mission is to be a people that sanctifies God’s name.  Each time we recite Kedusha, we reaffirm that pledge – “nekadeish es shimcha ba’olam, I am committed to sanctify your name in the world.”


It is not a coincidence that when the Torah warns us “V’lo sechalelu es sheim kadshi, we must not ever perpetrate a chillul Hashem, it immediately enjoins us, “v’nikdashti b’soch b’nei yisroel,” instead we must be dedicated to sanctifying Hashem’s name.  Rabbeinu Yona writes, the only antidote to chillul Hashem, the only repair to the devastating damage it leaves in its wake, is to fill the void with Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of Hashem’s name.


Eliminating bullying and the chillul Hashem that ensues begins with ourselves, our interactions, our digital footprint, and our way of interacting.  Sadly, due in part to social media and in part to other contributing factors, bullying and boycotting are becoming the new normal.  Otherwise kind, good and thoughtful people are unintentionally engaging in bullying and likely don’t even realize it.  When you have a bad meal at a restaurant and you rant about it online and call on your friends not to go there, you are bullying.  When you spread unsubstantiated rumors about local businesses and contribute to conflict, you are bullying.  When you look down on, are cynical about, or condescending towards, those who are not exactly like you religiously, politically, demographically, or in any other way, you are a bully.  When you are insensitive or cruel in your interactions with your spouse or children, you are a bully.


We are each responsible not only for how we speak but for the type of speech we tolerate within our space. Space can mean our Shabbos table, it can mean at the water cooler, and in this moment in time it most definitely means on our social media platforms. When we remain “friends” with toxic people, when we allow hateful and vitriolic comments, we are guilty by association. While there is much we should tolerate, bullying, hate and disrespect are not among them. Our Torah websites must not be platforms for chillul Hashem, our Facebook walls must not be podia for negativity, and our Shabbos tables must not be spaces for lashon hara, gossip, slander and hurtful talk.


Not stooping to the horrifying level of those who have sought to contaminate our community with their venom is not enough.  We must negate their bullying with kindness.  We must offset their grand chillul Hashem with marvelous displays of kiddush Hashem.  We must drown out their negativity with positivity.  We must silence their incivility with a viral campaign of derech eretz and respect.


If we each take responsibility to improve ourselves, to be more pleasant, and to sweeten one another’s lives, the light will dispel the darkness of this unfortunate episode, we can realize our mandate to be a goy kaddosh, a holy people, and we can, in fact, be Hashem’s treasured people.


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