As they say, no good deed goes unpunished. The other day, I forwarded an email to a local community listserv from a local pizza restaurant offering to donate 20 percent of proceeds to a well-known Jewish charity. And with that, I had ignited a religious firestorm.
The listserv was started by an Orthodox woman in our town and, though I assume initially it was comprised of mostly Orthodox women, word has spread and it has grown to nearly 200 women who span the range of religiosity. I was added to the list about two years ago. For me and for many others, it is our go-to place for community recommendations like babysitters or doctors. All three painters who provided an estimate to paint my house were recommended by women on the listserv. When I was cleaning out my playroom, with a quick email to this group, I found an eager taker for many of the toys my children had outgrown. When a friend from California posted on Facebook that she was looking for a bike to borrow or buy cheaply for use during an upcoming New York visit, I was able to hook her up through this list. People post about anything from asking for a last minute ride to the train station to finding out which streets have been plowed in a snowstorm, from promoting a local Torah class to offering sheitel (wig) cleaning services. Though I have never met many women on the listserv, including its founder, I love that they are out there and that we are all willing to help each other out.
Which is why I was so surprised at the reaction to my email. Within minutes of posting, one woman responded to me directly to point out that this restaurant was not kosher, stating that she didn’t think anyone on the listserv would go there. A few minutes later two more women sent replies to the entire group questioning why I’d send an offer for a non-kosher restaurant. Feeling like I had totally done something “illegal” by the unspoken listserv rules, and not wanting to engage in a religious debate, I quickly sent an email to the entire group: “I am sorry if my email offended anyone. My apologies.”
But more and more emails poured in–some continuing to rebuke me for touting a non-kosher restaurant, some confused as to why a Jewish charity would make an offer to a non-kosher restaurant, and many defending me. My defenders urged the women to allow for differences in religious observance and to respect all of us who use the list. They criticized people for turning my well-intended email into a debate about Orthodox vs. others. They reminded the women that our ability to come together regardless of affiliation is what makes our community so special. A few of my more religious friends reached out to me directly to say they thought the email chain that had developed was crazy since I had done nothing wrong, and I appreciate their reassurances. Truthfully, the whole thing escalated and got out of hand quickly, and I couldn’t believe that my small effort to help a Jewish charity get a little more money had started it all.
The Jewish community in my town is strong. There are five synagogues within walking distance from my house: two Orthodox, one Conservative, one Reconstructionist, and one Reform. I love the plurality in my neighborhood and that so many of us can call this area our home. The Jewish diversity and tolerance, along with readily available Jewish services such as multiple Jewish day schools, kosher butchers, and Jewish day camps, was an appealing factor in my decision to move here. The listserv also seemed like a representation of my community and even a virtual extension of it, and I hate that an email I sent brought out the worst, instead of the best, of my people. It felt like a Jewish version of mommy wars and I do not want to be a soldier in that battle.
I have faith in this community. I hope that the viciousness that spewed was an aberration that will end by the time I finish writing this post. I hope that we can as a community remember that kol Yisrael arevim zeh la’zeh, “all of Israel helps one another,” and we are lucky to live in a neighborhood that enables that. We should use that privilege to treat each other accordingly, with respect and acceptance. I am sure the majority of the women on this list are familiar with the phrase V’ahavta Leraecha kamocha, “treat your neighbor as you’d like to be treated yourself.” Here’s to hoping we can all live by that rule.