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When I Joined the “High Society” Synagogue

When I Joined the “High Society” Synagogue

Photo: Paweł Żelazowski
Photo: Paweł Żelazowski

I admit I am intolerant. At times I am bigoted towards others.

I judge people by the way they look, the way they walk, the way they talk, and an immeasurable amount of other calculated imagery I build up in my mind about them.

For example, if the first time I meet him he is slow to respond or doesn’t have anything profound to say, I place him into my “not so smart” basket. If the first day I meet him he is not dressed well, I place him into my “untidy” basket.

By the end of the day, I’ve filed everyone away in my mental filing cabinet: this one is a helpful person, this one is lazy, this one is smart, this one is stupid . . . the list is endless. Ultimately, there are those with whom I want to associate myself, those whom I want to include in my circle of friends, and, of course, those who are not welcome.

This new synagogue had a reputation as a place for “the better people”—the rich and famous, the important people, the know-it-alls. Just over a year ago I moved to a new home, several blocks away from my old one. In our lazy world, I cannot walk that extra block to my old synagogue, so I changed synagogues to one a little closer—a whole block closer.

This new synagogue had a reputation as a place for “the better people”—the rich and famous, the important people, the know-it-alls. You know, that file I labeled “the higher society.” I planned to try out this synagogue, and if I did not like it, I would go to another one (a little further away, up a flight of stairs).

The first time I arrived at the synagogue for prayers, I psyched myself up, preparing to encounter egotistical, snobby men, chattering with their close circle of friends. I cautiously made my way to an open seat and began my prayers.

Ten minutes into the prayer service, a man entered the synagogue. He was someone I’d known for many years—a member of the “misfit” file. He’d never made it in life, or so I thought. He seemed to be morose, not interested in much. I wondered what he was doing here. Or, was he, like me, just trying this place out?

One of those “snobby, egotistical” men slapped this man on his back, grasping his hand with warmth and wishing him “Shabbat Shalom,” a peaceful Sabbath. Another macho man exchanged pleasantries with him and they shared smiles. I was shocked. These guys were his friends?!

The first time I arrived at the synagogue for prayers, I psyched myself up, preparing to encounter egotistical, snobby men, chattering with their close circle of friends. A short while later another guy strolled into the synagogue. He is in the “overweight and obnoxious” file. “Misfit” does not even begin to describe this fellow. He was bouncing off the walls, running in and out of the synagogue, as if he could not decide whether to stay or leave. It was a strange scene. He was long on the list of those I do not associate with.

Evidently deciding to stay, he walked from table to table, exchanging a few words with each person, but leaving before anyone had a change to fully respond. From there he went to the next table, then to the next, and then back to the first to finish off the conversation.

But as I watched, he was not treated any differently than anyone else in the synagogue. Everyone responded to him with patience and kindness. I cannot describe how normal these two misfits seemed in the synagogue. There they were not misfits.

I slowly learned that in this synagogue, everyone is equal. There are no misfits in this community.

Today I am greatly ashamed of how I used to think. I became better acquainted with these two individuals, and many others, and have learned that there is much more to people than a label for my filing cabinet. They are complex individuals, with feelings, intellect, needs and wants, just like I have.

Several months ago a member of this synagogue became very ill. He was in a vegetative state in the hospital, while his wife and three children were left without a functional husband and father. On all accounts, it was a horrible situation. Previously this man had also been in my file of misfits, filed in the “never made it in life” file.

What transpired when the man’s illness became known astounded me. I had never seen anything like it. Members of the synagogue visited the man in the hospital daily. Many were deeply involved in the financial aspects of his illness. Every time we met, he was a part of the conversation. The synagogue members constantly said prayers for him. They prepared meals for his family. It is hard to adequately describe the deep sense of responsibility they felt, as if they were all his brothers.

He passed away last night. The communal responsibility and love for another rubbed off on me, and I wanted to attend the funeral home and escort the body to the cemetery. I don’t know why—maybe because I thought most would not be able to take off a day of work.

I arrived a little early, expecting to be the first there. I was surprised, but by now not shocked, to find many synagogue members already at the funeral home. They were not people I could file under “unemployed.” On the contrary, they were well-to-do businessmen. And as the ceremony inched closer, more and more arrived.

Many continued to the cemetery, a half-hour’s drive from Brooklyn. As we stood there, I looked around. Many have the custom that all the tombstones and plots should be the same. In the Lubavitch community, this is strictly kept.

It dawned on me that here everyone is equal. The rich and famous do not get a bigger stone than the poor and unfortunate. There are no files here, just as in my new synagogue there is no filing. Everyone is treated equal in death; so, too, they should be treated in life.

I did a lot of thinking and mental unloading on the way back home from the cemetery. By the time I arrived home, my filing cabinet was much, much emptier, and I intend for it to remain that way.

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Anonymous North America February 15, 2016

Simply an article that says so much. To be treated the same no matter what. My best friend has always been very sensitive with low self esteemm an other issues which aren't life shattering yet she's always got a struggle. She found people in her community who treat her fine even thought she is kind yet the dork of dorks in her words. She said she became uplifted when she realized everyone can be treated with respect. It is special and a real mitzvah to look down on no one for any reason. Reply

Anonymous new zealand December 4, 2014

this is a profound story and I am grateful to Rav Dovid for his honesty and for self-revealing in this way.

We all do this - categorise and make judgments about people and assume we know who people are by their clothes, manners and appearance - and we in fact don't know what they have gone through at all.

Re: other comments, Judaism completely cautions us against this and asks us to be humble, open and love others. It's just that ego, people needing to be holier-than-thou and comparing themselves to others makes us judgmental and critical.

At the same time, we all need to remember that one can be a person who fastidiously meets all 613 commandments but actually be not very nice to others and not be a nice person. I think G-D would favour a person who obeys fewer commandments but with joy and love than a mean person who observes all 613. That is probably the lesson for us in Orthodox Judaism. Reply

Not Stuck Up in Boca April 23, 2014

We Jews have been called many things. Has anyone ever wondered; "Could I be more humble or kind?" My family like many families had it's share of doctors, Lawyers and many other well educated folk. I felt like I had a great pedigree. Except that I'm not a Poodle or Terrier. But I still valued kind people and never went out of my way to pursue the rich. So these days we can have self esteem for being kind or funny without saying; I'm not rich or well educated so I don't matter.
But I"ve been to shuls that really enjoy their rich members best. Each person thinks
for himself.IN truth, if you are stuck up, you aren't really thinking Jewishly. Reply

Chava Bracha Chicago, IL via August 5, 2011

judging others a very poor welcome thank u for writing article. unfortunately, this judging attitude is often how the Orthodox Jewish community is viewed.
Friends tell me they don't have the nerve to even walk into our Orthodox shul. They fear "the look over". This is when a person
quite obviously looks one up and down. One is judged from the hair down to the shine or style of the shoes. Ouch! We need to change this attitude that we are snobs looking down on those that dress less formally. We are hurting others and turning them away from Judaism. Reply

Harry J Shelhamer Allentown, PA August 2, 2011

Intolerant I am one that is all of these men. Sometimes all at once. I am even the intolerant one too. But if one day G-d and I were hanging out I would show tolerance to everyone to gain his admiration and that would be deceptive (not that I could fool him anyway). I could argue that some things or some people or some behavior must not be tolerated but those things, people, and behaviors I do not control or can not escape. I can only control my reaction to things that I can not control. That is my struggle. My intolerance may be valid but it is not acceptable. My intolerance of things beyond my control hurt me. Hold me back. Because of my intolerance I have no peace. Reply

Barry Levine Seagate, NY August 2, 2011

Learning I learned something from this man's letter but what I would like to know is this; when people go into a shul why must they greet each other with an audible greeting, why not just a handshake and a nod. This is one of the reasons that this lost Jew does not go to ANY shul, everyone goes there to talk to each other and if they have a minute to spare they tell the Creator thanks for all HE has done for them and their families this past week,and, He should keep up the good work.
Why are Jews so disrespectful in shul....why??? Reply

Ze'ev Gush Etzion, Israel August 2, 2011

Great Article BS"D
For all we know Rabbi Dovid either took out his own faults which many people share or just said that he has these faults. Anyways, he's a big mentsch in my eyes since he signed his name to the article! We are born with our G-D given talents and faults, some of us are given at birth jealous natures, some are suspicious until the other guy is proven to be nice, some wade through relationships and the biggest insult will run off them like rain off of an umbrella. I see it in my different children.
As Chasidut teaches we attempt to improve continually striving, we in turn make our fellows and our Father happier. Reply

Leah New York August 2, 2011

Good job for realizing your faults and working on yourself. It is very difficult to admit that you are wrong. I am confused as to why other commenters see otherwise. This article isn't a list of who is a misfit and who is successful, it is about a man who once thought that way, but now has realized that he was wrong, and made changes to himself. He realized that everyone is equal and that it's not his place to judge, so he worked/is working on it. Keep up the good work! Reply

Leah Weintraub Boca Raton, FL August 2, 2011

Thank You Dovid, your honesty and self-introspection is outstanding and inspiring. For all of us who have yet to achieve perfection (:-), I applaud your openness and willingness to share your reflections publicly and with such depth and honesty. You definitely make it into my "on the path of Moshiach" file. Thank you. Reply

Anonymous ny, ny August 2, 2011

To anonymous from, Far Rockaway, NY So according to your logic the following statement is not hurtful and judgmental? ;

Scene: Man talking to an overweight man

"In the past I would judge people and make fun of their weight and how disgusting they look, but now my friend don't worry I wont be judging you regarding your clear fatness and how ugly you look to me, I will not be judging you on the fact that obviously you cant control yourself and are probably depressed, no I wont be judging you because now I am non-judgmental"..

To the author of this article:
Please remove those paragraphs where you talk down at the deceased and please apologize to his grieving "misfit" family.(whom found a place to pray where people like you do not mind that they are misfits and just treat them as equals). Reply

Anonymous NYC, NY August 2, 2011

you in my opinion you still got a long way to go brother. you are still a snob i can hear it in your writings. "treat others the way you want to be treated". why you got to make it so complicated? get real. Reply

Anonymous gold hill, oregon August 2, 2011

misfits Dovid, may your healing continue and may you go from strength to strength in this matter. Reply

Deborah J Blacksher Murfreesboro, Tennessee August 1, 2011

spelling I couldn't help but notice that you wrote change instead of chance. Guess you're not perfect.
" before anyone had a change to fully respond." I would probably be one of the people you assume is not too smart if you only talked to me once. It is too bad that humans need to categorize people. Reply

Anonymous Peoria, AZ August 1, 2011

Thank You Thank you for being honest. I know it took a lot for you to share your inner feelings. I wish and pray that we all do as you have done.As a black woman who was raised by a Jewish grandmother I have often thought that most of the Jews I have met have been like you and it caused so much conflict in my mind. We are in laws through Moses, didn't the Jews rally with us in the Civil Rights movement well all that is over with now so why are the Jews I work with, so particular and prejudiced. This does not speak for all of course and I do not mean to generalize. I think back to the meanness shown to me by a Jewish girl in my class at the private school I attended. She could not associate with me because her grandmother and mother said blacks had tails. It hurt and it still does. I guess I will just say thank you for your honesty. Shabbat Shalom Reply

Andrea Schonberger University Place, WA via August 1, 2011

Don't judge the book by its cover A heartfelt written article. This has happened to me so many times--judged for what I'm like on the outside instead of taking the time to see the inside. Reply

Anonymous Far Rockaway, NY August 1, 2011

To George George, with all due respect, you missed the point of the article. Mr. Zaklikowski has admitted that his former behavior of labelling people based on first impressions was totally wrong. He never actually used that insult out loud to anyone, nor did he ever act improperly toward those in his "misfits" file. He sincerely regrets his previous incorrect perspective toward other people.

Rather, Dovid Zaklikowski is telling us that he now knows not to hastily sort people into little boxes, realizing the importance of truly getting to know the character of others beyond a superficial reading.

Mr. Zaklikowski had originally characterized the deceased in his own mind as a "never made it in life" person. This was an internal feeling that never showed on the outside. Over the past months, he along with the members of the shul went beyond any former misgivings to show unlimited chesed to this man and his family. I fail to see how the family can be insulted by this. Reply

Anonymous San Diego, CA via August 1, 2011

Honesty I feel impressed that you begin your article with "I admit I am intolerant. At times I am bigoted towards others." This is a very honest statement filled with self reflection. I believe that the purpose of your article is clear - you are acknowledging the teachings and strength of Chabad - to have uniform gravestones and to see people in death and life as equal - while shining a light on your own weaknesses. You are improved by this religion, and are working on seeing people (as God sees people) for their character and not material worth. You could have shown more empathy towards the family of the deceased but we're all improving one step at a time, right? =) Reply

john smith fort lauderdale, fl August 1, 2011

NOW now if one could take this small group of high society and have the same feelings towards each individual just walking down any sidewalk on any given day ONLY then can we survive. WHY are such deep feelings for only those in a small circle? Reply

zeynep istanbul August 1, 2011

The Body Israel Thank you Rabbi, for the moving article and the honest self-criticism. All this is a lovely demonstration that Israel is one single body. Reply

george nyc, ny July 31, 2011

Dissapointed How can you refer to somone who has just passed as a "misfit"? You are clearly not hiding his identity being that you write what day he passed and at what synagogue he prayed.

What will his wife and children think when they read this article? That their just departed center of their was a misfit? Reply

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