Random Acts of Achdus
Several summers ago, on a Friday afternoon, I was driving up to the Catskills to join some friends at a camp when my car overheated. I had to pull over the side of the road to allow the car to cool down. After a few rounds of this - watching the gauge hit its limit, pulling over, pacing nervously by the side of the road watching the sun begin it’s slow descent toward the horizon - I determined that my car is done for the day (and for the rest of days, as it turned out).
I got off at the next exit, about twenty miles from my destination, and pulled into a gas station-slash-convenience store. I rushed inside and asked the guy behind the counter if he knew the number of a taxi service. I was in Monticello, New York. A chasidishe guy, buying a newspaper, overheard my plight and seeing my yarmulke and asked me where I was going. I told him. “Here,” he said, flipping me his keys. "Take my car.” I was stunned. It took me a second to process what he had said: Take my car. My instinct was to decline his offer, but Shabbos was coming! I accepted, and, after driving him back to his nearby bungalow, I hot-footed it to the camp, racing into the driveway with about two minutes to spare.
When I arrived at the camp, and told the tale, people were amazed. “What terrific luck," one said, "that you ran into a friend of yours at a gas station in Monticello.” "But you don't understand," I said. "I never met the fellow before in my life." Jaws dropped. While they understood the concept of doing nice things for people, they could not comprehend that degree of kindness. A level that does not so much transcend selflessness as redefine the sense of self to encompass the members of one’s nation. This attachment we call achdus.
Random acts of achdus, manifested by acts of chesed, abound. In my experience they are systemic to the Jewish people. What is strange is not that they happen but that they happen with such frequency that no one seems to notice anymore. Groups such as Hatzolah, the various Tomchei Shabbos, and countless Bikur Cholim organizations in communities across the country testify to the commitment that Jews feel to one another.
Beyond chesed groups, the world of business also testifies to this connection. One of the largest Modern Orthodox employers, Howard Jonas of IDT Corp., is renowned for hiring and training thousands of people from yeshivish and chasidishe backgrounds, both in the United States and in Israel. Similarly, the chasidishe-owned and highly successful B&H Electronics in midtown has Jewish employees of all backgrounds.
And then there's the matter of all the dollars and manhours spent on kiruv programs aimed at people who are completely unaffiliated with Torah Judaism. I have heard many debates on the merits of different programming and forms of outreach, but never a word on the wisdom of the overall effort. That the effort is worthwhile is axiomatic. It’s called achdus.
Which is why it's so difficult to swallow the constant chorus of critics who regularly bash Jews for not displaying enough achdus. Many seem to be afflicted by the media's bad habit of always focusing on the exception and never the rule.
Furthermore, Judaism is not always homogeneous, and critics seem to pick up on this when lamenting their perceived lack of achdus. But it would be improper, not to mention imprudent, to confuse divisions with divisiveness. To the extent that there are divisions in Klal Yisrael, they tend to be normal, healthy, and part of the Master game plan. The Jewish nation was initially divided into twelve tribes. As Jacob’s varied blessings to his sons makes clear, this division was not simply logistical. Each tribe was charged with a different mission. Today the tribes break down among different communities with differing customs: Sephardim and Ashkenazim, chassidim and misnagdim, yeshivish and modern orthodox, kollel students and Torah im derech eretz-niks. Each brings a unique and valid approach to serving the Creator. While these approaches will sometimes clash on the playing field of Halachah and society, rarely have they gotten bloody.
Chasidim play a role, Zionists play a role. Kollel students play a role, professionals play a role. That these groups promote their own beliefs, sometimes at the expense of the other, is a tribute to the passion of their positions. And though these distinctions may at times flare into an unethical machlokes, bridges are generally not burned.
Davening in a shtibel in Monsey recently, I watched a chasid reading the latest Rav Soloveithcik release. How did I know that it was the latest release? Because I had seen it the week before at Eichler’s in Flatbush. Prominently displayed. It was also available at Eichler’s in Boro Park. Browsing the main seforim store in Lakewood, I was pleasantly shocked to see the Gutnick Edition Chumash—featuring the commentary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l.
That Friday afternoon, speeding through the Catskills in the borrowed car of someone whose name I no longer remember (and almost forgot to ask), I felt the unity of Klal Yisrael. I was - and remain - fiercely proud to be a small part of it.