Many people don’t realize that there was once an order in the United States to expel all Jews from certain locations. It’s an important pronouncement in more than one sense, pointing to the issue of dual allegiances—being a loyal citizen versus a loyal Jew.

The Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI) course—“To Be a Jew in the Free World: Jewish Identity Through the Lens of Modern History”—examined the present-day challenges of living Jewishly within a modern secular society as part of a six-week course that just ended, drawing guidance from past chapters of Jewish history books.

Chabad centers around the world offer three JLI courses a year—in fall, winter and spring—for a total of 18 classes.

As part of the most recent course, “The Jewish Vote” session discussed competing loyalties between nationality and religion. Do Jewish Americans have an obligation to vote based on U.S. national interests or based on priorities associated with Judaism? While often these ideals blend quite nicely, at times they can collide as well.

“Sometimes, we need to make a choice,” says Rabbi Ari Sollish, who leads the adult-education program and teaches the JLI classes at Chabad Intown in Atlanta. At times, there may be a contradiction between doing what’s popular in society, as opposed to doing something based on Jewish values.

He mentioned particular examples, such as voting for certain political candidates or parties, or the decision to wear a yarmulke in public. Contemporary challenges are examined by seeking guidance from Jewish sources and historical incidents.

While a general in the American Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant called for the expulsion of Jews from his military district in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
While a general in the American Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant called for the expulsion of Jews from his military district in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

One notable example discussed at length during the class was an anti-Semitic order—“General Orders No. 11”—issued in 1862 by Gen. Ulysses S. Grant during the American Civil War calling for the expulsion of Jews from his military district in parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Grant later became a very popular nominee for president of the United States, and the Jewish people in the United States faced a dilemma: Should they take a public stand against someone proven to be anti-Semitic, or support the popular candidate who stood for greater civil rights and liberties in general?

Ultimately, Grant was elected and wound up regretting his former pronouncements. In fact, history has shown him as being a friend of the Jewish people. But the period leading up to that election, according to Sollish, was an uncomfortable time for many Jewish people. He pointed out the text from a sign hung in Atlanta, warning Jews that Grant could be the next Haman—the infamous adviser to King Achashverosh in Persia who sought to destroy the Jewish people some 2,300 years ago.

Melissa Moskowitz has attended almost all of Sollish’s JLI classes since she became connected with Chabad two years ago, including the current course.

“I just love all of it,” she says. About the class and the idea of Jews standing apart, she notes that “the rest of the world must see something in us that we should see in ourselves.”

Originally from New York, Moskowitz moved to Atlanta in 1978, and frankly, says she was shocked at how differently Jews were treated then. While that has changed, she adds, the classes at Chabad give her a sense of pride in who she is. “The older I get, the more important it is to me,” she says.

Friday night, she made it home in time to light Shabbat candles. And she says the experience was a bit different that week: “It brought tears to my eyes. It’s really the classes that are connecting me.”

‘Issues Have a Framework’

Sollish hails from Pittsburgh, Pa.; his wife Leah was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. They lived in New York before joining Chabad Intown in Atlanta. The rabbi notes that he first discusses all topics of a course with his wife before addressing a class.

Rabbi Ari and Leah Sollish
Rabbi Ari and Leah Sollish

“I am so enthralled with the rabbi,” Marti Schallern, of Avondale Estates near Decatur, Ga., about six miles from Chabad, says of Sollish.

Schallern started with a Kaballah class at nearby Emory University given by Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman on Sundays, and then decided to take a JLI class at Chabad. She has been coming back for classes, services and programs for about a year-and-a-half.

“He’s such a wonderful facilitator and teacher,” she says. She marvels at the “enthusiasm and positive energy he extends, and his fabulous sense of humor; plus, he is very knowledgeable.”

Randy Faigin David has been coming to Atlanta’s Chabad Intown, about nine miles away from her home in the neighborhood of Oak Grove, for more than 10 years. She started with a “Mommy & Me” class, and her involvement expanded from there.

“How brilliant Judaism and Torah are,” she says. “It’s just fascinating. The latest and most current issues already have a framework.”

An attorney, she took her first course with Sollish for continuing-education credits. Years later, she still comes to most of his classes for the education—and the enjoyment.

Others participate simply because the subject matter is fascinating and relevant, and because they enjoy the way JLI classes are taught.

“As Jews, we always begin by looking at Torah and Talmudic discussions whenever questions or issues arise,” explains Sollish. “It’s a living, breathing guidebook—a living breathing entity.”

Interestingly, most people take the Hebrew word halachah to mean “Jewish law,” and that’s essentially what it is. However, the root of the word is holech, which means “go” or “move”—as in the parshah Lech Lecha, when God tells Avraham to go out of his land and move to a new one.

In other words, the Torah is meant to continue to inform human lives as they go forward. It moves with them, allowing the laws to move with them and inform their lives.

States the rabbi: “If we allow it, the Torah can have a major impact on our lives.”

Bucking the Trend

A recent class included a discussion of the psychology behind why people tend to conform. “People want to belong, to fit in, and not to be ridiculed,” attests Sollish. “Studies also show that group pressure actually can change people’s perception of things.”

In other words, after living in a certain society for an extended period of time—whether it’s Egypt or America—people become so immersed in the culture that it can cloud their perception. People are unaware that they are being influenced, according to the rabbi.

“It’s not about lacking the courage; many people just don’t know what we stand for as Jews,” he says.

Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Sandy Koufax refused to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The rabbi points to a famous example of someone who stood up and stood out: Los Angeles Dodgers baseball player Sandy Koufax, who is Jewish, refused to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.

At the end of the class, Sollish gave the participants a bit of homework: to find something Jewish they aren’t comfortable doing—and do it anyway.

“We should be encouraged to have the strength to buck the trend,” he says. “Be confident in who you are.”

To be a Jew in the free world requires tremendous inner strength, adds the rabbi. “To remain true to Jewish values despite what the larger society is doing—that’s a hero.”

The next JLI course, Paradigm Shift: Transformational Life Teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, will begin in May. More information about JLI courses can be found at www.myjli.com.