M y friend sent me an impassioned letter: Was his community really to blame for an ex-pat Israeli’s son marrying a non-Jew? Maybe that’s our wake-up call

“I’m sorry to be writing to you so emotionally, Rav Grylak. I’m just so full of anger, shock, surprise, and discouragement.”

That was how the e-mail began. It was from an Israeli yored who left Israel some 20 years ago and now lives in a certain US city, where he makes a good living, and belongs to the local Orthodox community, which is very strong and mostly made up of bnei Torah who have years of yeshivah learning under their belts. The e-mail continued:

“For all these years, I’ve been oblivious to a particular problem, which was brought to my attention in a painfully embarrassing way. Let me tell you a little about myself and how I was finally confronted with the tragic situation I’m about to discuss.

“My family and I have a good life here. We’re well integrated into our kehillah, and we’ve given our children a Torah education. One of my sons even went to learn in the Brisker yeshivah in Jerusalem. Everything is fine with us, but something is going on here that I wasn’t aware of. It’s like a time bomb, and when it explodes, we’re all going to be very upset and start looking around to see who’s to blame. Not us, of course… but for a tragedy like this, we’ll want to pin the blame on somebody….

“I’m sure you’re wondering not only what I’m talking about, but why I’m writing to you about it. I guess I’m turning to you as a last resort. Nobody in my community seems to have the patience to listen to me talk about this, so I’m hoping you might give me a soapbox I can stand on and scream ‘Help!’

“I work in real estate, and baruch Hashem, it brings in a decent parnassah. Naturally, my business brings me into contact with different sorts of people. One of my recent contacts was a fellow yored — I’ll call him Nati — who’s been living in our city for about five years, but unlike me, Nati was a nonreligious Jew. We met over coffee to negotiate a business deal, but soon our conversation wandered to the main thing we had in common, our identity as Israelis now living here across the ocean. Each of us was curious about what motivated the other to leave Israel. As we spoke, though, I noticed something sad in his eyes, and I also got the feeling that something more was on his mind, something he wasn’t saying.

“Finally I got up the nerve to ask him if something was bothering him. He said yes, as a matter of fact — next week his son was getting married. I innocently replied, ‘Hey, that’s something to be happy about! It might be stressful, but after all, your son is starting a family of his own, you’ll have grandchildren, b’ezrat Hashem.’ My upbeat tone didn’t lift his mood, though.

“Instead, he sighed and said, ‘Yes, but he’s marrying a non-Jewish girl.’

“That took me by surprise. I didn’t know what to say at first, but after a moment I recovered from the shock, and I held my hands out to the sides, palms up, as if to say, what can you do? ‘That’s America,’ I said. ‘That’s the price of living in a free society like this.’

“He didn’t answer, he just gave me a scrutinizing look. He must have sensed the hidden criticism in my gesture, the implication that his son’s choice was a result of his father’s failure to give him a Jewish education. After a brief silence, he said, ‘Well, let’s get this deal closed. That’s what we’re here for, right?’ We proceeded to do that, and although sort of a dark cloud hung over the rest of our meeting, we managed to hammer out the details of the transaction between us. We shook hands, and parted ways.

“And then it happened. He got into his car, and suddenly he opened the window, as if he’d just remembered something important he hadn’t mentioned. ‘Excuse me for saying this,’ he called out to me, ‘but it’s your fault that my son is marrying a goyah. It’s your whole kehillah’s fault!’ All the fury he’d been holding back came out in that accusation. He closed the window with a bang and sped off.

“I was very offended, I’ll admit. I just stood there by my car, stunned. I certainly hadn’t expected a business meeting to end like that. I got back to my office, but I couldn’t get that fellow’s crazy, angry parting shot out of my head. What did I, and my frum community, have to do with the fact that he’d left his kids exposed to secular values? Didn’t he realize that he’d left the way wide open for his son to marry out? What chutzpah, blaming my whole beautiful kehillah, and me personally, for what his son was doing! He must be crazy, I decided. Assimilation is a plague that affects all of American Jewry, and secular yordim, just because they’re Israeli, aren’t immune. So what did Nati want from me? He cooked his own goose….

“My thoughts went around and around like that the rest of the day, and the next morning I was still upset. But then I told myself that the man is angry about something, and he directed his anger at me. So maybe instead of just getting angry back at him, I should try to find out what he meant. Maybe I should talk it out with him.

“I decided I’d call him and clear the air. ‘Nati, I won’t deny that I was very insulted by what you said yesterday. You were upset, I know, but where do you come off blaming me — and my whole community — for what your son is doing?’

“His response surprised me. ‘Frankly, I’m glad to hear you were insulted. Nobody else I’ve spoken to from your kehillah has even cared enough to be insulted.’

“I couldn’t understand what he was so glad about. ‘Nati,’ I said, ‘can you please explain what you’re talking about?’

“ ‘Aaah,’ he said, a bit mockingly. ‘Do you really want to know? Because I haven’t seen much of that here — someone who really wants to know. You know what, come to my house this evening, and I’ll explain everything.’

“I didn’t know what I was in for. When I got to his house, I was surprised to see about 20 men and women in his living room. My first impulse was to leave. Why were all these people here? To help my host explain what he meant by his wild accusation?

“Actually, yes.

“Nati introduced me to his other guests. He told them what had happened between us, and then he turned to me and said, ‘Now each one of these people will tell you, in their own words, what I was talking about when I said what I said about your community.’

“Rav Grylak, I don’t know how I got through those next three hours. Those people had a lot of resentment to get off their chests. I’ll just summarize their message: ‘We all had reasons for leaving Israel. We’ve all managed, more or less, to get past the bumps in the road and get settled financially. But we never thought we’d have a problem keeping our children Jewish. You may look at us as chilonim, but we want to stay in the fold! True, we may not be meticulous in keeping mitzvot, but we want to keep our families Jewish. We thought that if we lived in a place with chareidi Jews, they would help us. We’re not ‘black hats’ like you, but we’d be happy to give our kids some Jewish education. But we can’t afford the tuition in your schools, and you haven’t approached us to help out. Tell your rabbis to open the door to us — we want our children and grandchildren to be Jews!’

“I don’t know what more to say, Rav Grylak. There may be chilonim who don’t want to be saved from assimilating, but here is a whole group of Israelis who feel more traditional about their Judaism, who would want a connection with us. Is there anything you can suggest? Maybe it will help if you print this letter.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 698)