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Reader Response

L'Chaim / Living Jewish
January 12, 1998 / 14 Tevet, 5758

Beachwood, Ohio: Dayyenu

Orthodox Jews not welcomed -- by other Jews

By Susan Rubin Weintrob

"It used to be that only gentiles would make fun of the way I dressed. Now these comments come from my fellow Jews," the rabbi of my Orthodox congregation sadly commented a few weeks ago. The rabbi, in his mid-30s, was referring to his beard, yarmulke-covered head and yeshivische dress.

A woman next to me sighed in agreement. Over the last few years, she and her family have traveled from assimilation to Orthodoxy. Like me, she is new to this world and had never realized the rancor against the Orthodox from liberal and assimilated Jewry.

Beachwood, Ohio, recently has been awakened to this rancor. Recently, liberal Jews mounted a campaign against the Green Road Campus: a plan to build two synagogues, a girls high school and two mikvehs on a 12-acre plot. According to Rabbi Yaakov Feitman, of Beachwood's Young Israel, the campus is located at two major crossroads, nearby to two large synagogues. The reason? Fear of a growth of an Orthodox population in their town.

What has occurred during this past year in the predominantly Jewish Cleveland suburb years ago would have emanated from gentiles wishing to preserve the flavor of their white and Christian neighborhoods. Regulations preventing Jews from living or building in certain neighborhoods was a common restriction in many real estate codes across our country. It was a way of life that harmed both the victim and perpetrator. This situation had occurred in Beachwood in the 1950's when the then predominantly Christian community opposed the first Reform congregation being established there. The congregation had to go to court to build its synagogue.

Today, the situation has changed as this town of 12,000 now has a 95% Jewish population. Unfortunately, the prejudice seems to have remained.

While opponents of the campus claim that this is a land use issue, Rabbi Feitman told me the previous mayor had encouraged the campus plan and the Beachwood City Council had previously approved the rezoning. After the council's approval for the campus, opponents forced a city wide-referendum on November 4, which they narrowly won. Cleveland's Anti-Defamation League director, Clifford Savren, noted that the "easy manner in which anti-Orthodox comments were made" caused the ADL to step in. Savren told me, "Our initial concerns were raised when the issue became a public matter about a year ago. The level of anti-Orthodox bigotry that was unleashed was astounding. The opponents of the Green Road Campus made public statements, some in leaflets, that caused me great concern. One example was that this proposed campus would be a threat to the secular nature of Beachwood, as if they [the opponents] represented a government authority that had a legitimate reason to keep religious people out."

What surprised him, as well as many of the campus' proponents, was the use of code words that racist and fringe groups commonly use. Opponents complained that the town's "delicate balance would be upset by this campus" if built. Savren went on to tell me that the same people would not have allowed these comments if, for example, the issue concerned racial minorities.

Rabbi Feitman agrees with Savren. Although he has been the rabbi at Young Israel for seven years, he told me was unaware of the level of intolerance; during this year, however, "the latent fear of orthodoxy bubbled to the surface."

Fortunately, there was a backlash to the expression of bigotry from major Jewish organizations. Twenty-six rabbis of the Cleveland area, nineteen of them non-Orthodox, took out a joint ad in the Cleveland Jewish News, on October 24 to ask the community to "do the right thing... preserve religious freedom for all members of the community" by supporting the new campus. The ADL and Cleveland Federation intervened to stem the obvious prejudicial rhetoric expressed. They, and a newly established Jewish Unity Committee, held forums to air views and build bridges.

These joint efforts have improved the situation somewhat. Leadership of the Young Israel and Chabad congregations, who had planned to build congregations on the campus, are creating connections with the non-Orthodox community that they hope will be long-ranging. Small groups of Jews of different backgrounds are holding "parlor meetings" to get to know each other.

Rabbi Feitman has already seen some positive results. "Many Reform Jews went out of their way to support us, by donating money and speaking up for the campus. People of good will were horrified by the bigotry shown."

Savren is hopeful that the campus will be built. He also encouraged the obviously split Jewish community to examine itself and find ways to interconnect. Rabbi Feitman was more cautious, and thought there was still an uphill battle, but hoped that litigation would not be necessary. "The process is not over."

Orthodox Jews were baffled and frustrated at the reaction. Rabbi Feitman said, "There is a total ignorance of who and what we are." A representative of the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland, which hopes to build a girls' high school, who is a member of Young Israel, told me, "Many people have said this is not a religious issue. Unfortunately, it is a religious issue." Rabbi Feitman agreed. "The issue has been presented as a land-use issue -- but it is really a smokescreen for classic bigotry."

The Beachwood liberal community's espousal of bigotry is a revealing reversal of liberal Jews' previous public platforms, which cried out for equality and justice for minority groups. Too often, this generation's ignorance of Jewish observance produces the same fears and resentment that oppressed these groups.

Many who dreamed they would have marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., against Southern bigots demanding that blacks keep "their place" might pause to reconsider their own place. Those who confronted the Klan and neo-Nazi groups should reexamine their own methods: they would be horrified to find that they have adopted the code words and prejudice of groups whom they oppose. Those who once fought for an equal place in American society are now erecting barriers to keep their fellow Jews out.

Several thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel wisely advised, "Do not separate yourself from your community." The liberals of Beachwood have removed themselves from the community of Israel by fighting those who maintain Jewish institutions of learning and worship. Worse, they have become that which they formerly despised. The Jewish community needs to stand together and say loudly, "Dayyenu." Greeting bigotry and hatred with outreach and unity will do much to heal these rifts. The positive cooperation that has arisen in Beachwood should be an example of what needs to be happening in Jewish communities around the world.

More by Susan Rubin Weintrob:

12/10/97: Greening Judaism's garden


Susan Rubin Weintrob, a JWR contributor, is based at the National Jewish Post and Opinion.

©1998, Jewish World Review