After checking in for our flight we decided to davan at the synagogue in our terminal. JFK is strange in that it has separate chapels for different religions. I hadn’t seen this before. To be honest, I think I might be more comfortable doing my airport davaning in a space that is not dedicated only to Jews. This eliminates the problem of someone else thinking that they have any right to be judgmental about my observances. Also, the room looks like a shul, complete with mehitza. You can see pictures here. This doesn’t bother me when I don’t have to stand behind it, but as I walked towards the end of the hallway where the synagogue was, it became clear that also headed in the same direction was a haredi gentleman, who was headed to the same place.
We got there first and we proceeded to do our thing. The haredi enters and quickly figures out that A Girl Is Wearing Tefilin!!!.
Actually he says hello and is just curious. He has never heard of this, let alone seen it. He asks if he can take pictures. I sigh and reluctantly say okay.
His English is weak and he asks if we speak Hebrew. I answer in the affirmative and the conversation switches to Hebrew.
He’s from Bnai Brak, and his mind is spinning, trying to process what is happening.
-Are we Reform?
-Do we keep halakhah?
Yes shabbat and kashrut and everything.
-You don’t eat milk and meat together? You keep the rules of family purity?
-And you put on tefilin?
Every day… well except for shabbat.
He tells me that his wife is careful to davan three times a day, and actually seems to be quite understanding about women taking on extra mitzvot.
-So how are you different from Orthodox?
Well, we’re egalitarian.
-Apart from that?
Well, we tend to rely on leniencies in halakhah from time to time… (I hadn’t had this converstion in a while, so I did not answer as articulately as I would have liked).
-So do you follow the shulkhan arukh?
Yes, most of the time. Except for places where we don’t.
-Do you have other books that you use?
Yes, we have teshuvot and other codes.
I start to davan, and soon he comes over to interrupt and ask:
-Wait, so you wouldn’t say the blessing that thanks G-d for not making you a woman?
No I don’t. I use a different liturgy (and start to explain the historical origin of the positive brakhot).
He stops me. He’s just trying to figure out how this works. If Judaism doesn’t have to be the way he is familiar with, what has to change and what has to stay the same?
-Are there communities of people like you?
Yes, the shul that I go to gets 150 people regularly.
He asks if we have a problem with assimilation and intermarriage. I answer honestly that intermarriage isn’t generally accepted in the community, but some people do it, and not everyone observes kashrut and shabbat the way that I do.
Throughout the entire exchange he was pleasant. Smiling and not mocking. His questions were genuine and not antagonistic. In fact, much of the time he was unhappy with my answers not for the content, but because I was being defensive- like I had something to prove.
Walking away I was relieved but also sad. I used to be able to have these conversations without being defensive, without preconception for the way that others would react to me.
I’d like to get back to that. I’m glad to be wrong in the way that I think of haredim. I hope that when I run into other haredim, I will be able to assume they are as open-minded as this man. Reading the radicalization of Jerusalem in the press has had an impact on me. Clearly there is no substitute for face to face encounters.