Let me tell you an unflattering personal story.

I got to know Larry some time ago. I was asked to teach his son bar mitzvah lessons, and we developed an acquaintanceship of “Howzit?” and “Your son is doing great in his studies!”

He was a likeable and warm fellow, but there was something that really got under my skin about him. I couldn’t understand why he never came to shulWhy did he choose to be so uninvolved? and why he didn’t send his children to a Jewish school. In South Africa, the Jewish community is fairly traditional, and it is relatively unusual to find a Jew who doesn’t come to shul at least once or twice a year, or who doesn’t send his kid to a Jewish school.

He was such a nice and sweet Jew. Why did he choose to be so uninvolved? This must be addressed, said my righteous indignation. I waited for an opportunity to “give him a piece of my mind.”

When I saw him at an informal farbrengen (chassidic gathering), I decided that it would be a good time to get my point across, albeit indirectly. I stood up and began to sermonize about the importance of Jewish education and involvement with the community. With passion mixed with fire-and-brimstone, I made my case. Obviously, I made it sound as if this was a general idea, not directed at anyone specifically.

I sat down feeling quite good about myself. (Good rule of thumb: self-righteous critique makes the deliverer feel good—which is the biggest proof of its fallacy. If it would be about the person and what he needs to hear, it wouldn’t feel good.)

People were singing a song, others were chatting. Larry, who obviously understood my agenda, turned to me and quietly said, “Rabbi, I need to tell you something about myself. I grew up in a very secular home, didn’t go to a Jewish school, and I don’t know a word of Hebrew. I open the siddur and it looks absolutely foreign and illegible.

“A few years ago, I decided to give shul and religion a chance. I walked into a large shul, sat down in a random seat, and tried to be part of the service, despite the awkwardness. A few minutes after I sat down, someone walked over and commanded me to get out of ‘his’ seat. I never walked into a shul again, not for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur—nothing. It was not for me.

“I might not be observant and a shul-goer. Yet I have a deep and meaningful relationship with G‑d. I talk to Him every morning, and I feel so close to him. I never leave my house before talking to Him. He is very real in my life.

“Recently, my doctors informed me that I have a medical condition that is incurable and a walking time-bomb. This condition can kill me without much notice.”

I had to interrupt. “I’m so sorry, Larry. This must be so difficult. How do you go through your day knowing that your situation is so perilous?”

Larry waved his hand. “It’s okay, rabbi. I have absolute trust in G‑d that everything will be the way He wants it to be. I go through my day, day by day, and thank G‑d for every moment.

“And about my children’s education? My kids are prouder Jews than most Jewish kids I know. They have had to stand up to anti-Semitism in their environment. I taught my kids boxing and other fighting techniques so that they can stand up for their people and fight. They have had more than one fight for G‑d, Jews and Israel. They are proud of who they are. So am I.”

Larry passed away a few months ago

Ashamed, I stood up and addressed the informal gathering once again: “Dear friends, a few minutes ago I spoke passionately and judgmentally. Forgive me for how it came across. In the past few moments, I’ve been taught the greatest lesson of my life, one that has been repeated and drilled into my head for years, but only now has the penny dropped. Never judge another’s relationship with G‑d. Don’t ever think that any single person has a monopoly on closeness to G‑d. Each person has his journey, which is incomparable to the journey of the other.

“I now grasp the concept that everyone is truly a beautiful gem. I am humbled by the sincerity and sweetness of my fellow Jews, and I commit to never be judgmental of a Jew again. If I want to help another with his journey of Yiddishkeit, I must first appreciate his innate perfection and G‑dly soul. Only if I accept you, love you, appreciate that you are beloved by G‑d, and that I cannot begin to fathom your level of holiness and goodness, only then can we begin the journey together. I have learned my lesson. I’m sorry.”

The story unfortunately has a heart-breaking ending. Larry passed away a few months ago.

When I heard the news, my heart was overcome by two powerful emotions: tremendous sadness for a life plucked so young and soon, and awe for the beauty and holiness of that righteous soul. His faith despite his risky health situation, and his love for G‑d, his people and his beautiful children, were an inspiration that I will carry in my heart forever.

Although I don’t consider myself a “close friend,” I nevertheless miss him dearly. He is my teacher in faith, trust and Jewish pride. I find myself talking to him in my head and heart, knowing without a doubt that he is being embraced by his Creator and sitting with spiritual giants on high. What a Jew!

This story has many layers and many lessons that I must continue to process and grow from. But the one that haunts me the most is the fact that such a magnificent Jew was alienated from the synagogue and observance just because someone chose to use the “left hand” of distance rather than embracing him with the “right hand” of closeness and kindness.

I have heard this tale of being distanced and alienated in various forms so many times, and from such a great diversity of people, that I now consider it a sickness—or rather, an epidemic—that is one of the saddest and most foolish causes of assimilation. This must be addressed!

How could this happen? Don’t we realize that as Jews we are all ambassadors of Judaism wherever we go—especially in a shul? Is a seat more important than a soul? How many generations of Jews have been alienated because of rigidity, small-mindedness, self-righteousness and selfishness? How much longer will the holier-than-thou attitude plague our shuls and communities?

A shul should be a place where you’re welcomed with a hug, not a frown. Where there is a welcoming committee greeting you with a smile and offering you a seat, not a bouncer kicking you out. Where we love you for who you are, not for who you can become. Where we show you how excited and blessed we truly feel to have you with us today.

Can we stop judging each other once and for all? Can we stop monopolizing the definition of a beautiful Jew?

The good news is that, of all the causes of assimilation, this one is by the far the easiest to tackle. We can cure it quickly and painlessly, without shots, immunizations and procedures.All Jews are interconnected and indispensable All we need is to switch which hand we stretch out, turn the frown into a smile, remove the condescension and replace it with acceptance, and we will be truly united and blessed. All Jews are interconnected and indispensable—let’s make them feel that way.

Finally, the greatest lesson of all is that before we speak about Jewish education, we must first be educated about the Jew. If you don’t see his luminescent beauty today, please don’t become his mentor for tomorrow.

May Larry be a good agent on behalf of his family, friends and people. May his story be a merit for his soul. Amen.