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Looking in the Mirror

By Avishai D. Don

To the editor:

It’s hard to know what to make of Daniel J. Solomon’s op-ed, “The Hillel Problem.” Is his thesis that there are too many Orthodox Jews at Harvard—in which case, I wonder how he would react to a similar statement about Muslims, Mormons, or Catholics? Or, did he simply desire an opportunity to bash a denomination of Judaism that he fundamentally disagrees with, but—as evidenced by his editorial—clearly knows nothing about?

For example, Mr. Solomon insists that Orthodox Jews “busy themselves more with medieval concepts like mesirah—a prohibition on ratting out Jews to secular authorities—than with tikkun olam—the Jewish idea of social justice.” This statement is offensive precisely because it is so ignorant. Had he spoken to a single Orthodox Jew at Harvard, Mr. Solomon would know that while the concept of “mesirah” is completely irrelevant to our daily lives, charity and volunteer work are not. In my time at Harvard, for example, I built houses with Habitat for Humanity, distributed food to the homeless in Cambridge Common, and volunteered at the Harvard Square Homeless Shelter. It is nothing short of demeaning to hear that I could not possibly care about repairing the world because of my Orthodox faith.

Mr. Solomon goes on to say that the differences between Ultra- and Modern Orthodox Jews are “cosmetic,” not “ideological,” and that “there’s nothing modern about having an all-Hebrew prayer book.” Leave aside the fact that the author has clearly never opened the prayer book of Harvard’s Student Conservative Minyan, which—shockingly enough—also happens to be all in Hebrew. Mr. Solomon is apparently unaware that while Ultra-Orthodox Jews discourage attending secular colleges like Harvard, Modern Orthodox Jews aim to interact extensively with the outside world while remaining firmly committed to Jewish law. Tensions between modernity and tradition may often exist for us, but I wish that Mr. Solomon had bothered to research the work of thinkers like Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and Eliezer Berkovits before baselessly and shamelessly concluding that “there’s nothing modern” about Modern Orthodoxy.

I deliberately attended Harvard instead of a college with a larger Orthodox community because I wanted to interact with Jews different than myself. At Harvard Hillel, for the first time in my life, I encountered and dined with openly gay Jews, Reform Jews, and even unabashedly secular Jews like Mr. Solomon. We often had our disagreements—sometimes heatedly—but every interaction dispelled stereotypes and left me enriched for having expanded my horizons.

Mr. Solomon has four years to spend at this wonderful institution. I urge him to take full advantage of the unique opportunity afforded to him by Harvard Hillel, and venture beyond his comfort zone to interact with Jews that look or think differently than he does. If Mr. Solomon genuinely seeks to combat narrow-mindedness and bigotry among American Jews, he should start by looking in the mirror.

Avishai D. Don ’12

New York City, New York

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