By: Nadav Heller  | 

Love Thy Neighbors, All of Them

The first person I met when I moved to Washington Heights was not a rebbe, professor, classmate or chavruta. It was my neighbor, Valentina. She welcomed me into the building with what felt like genuine excitement and offered to help me carry my belongings up four sweaty flights of stairs. She made sure I knew which apartment was hers, and invited me to knock anytime for any reason. I felt almost uncomfortable receiving so much warmth from a stranger, especially after avoiding eye contact with anyone and everyone else on the way.

I soon came to realize that this warmth is a cultural characteristic of Washington Heights. 

The next morning, my first morning as a resident of the Heights, I met Daniel and Venaya, a young couple from the neighborhood. They literally jumped up and down with delight upon seeing my curly peyot and peppered me with questions. Daniel showed me pictures of his dreadlocks, which he had shaved two weeks prior. Venaya told me how she planned to use them as the lion’s mane in a biblical art piece of Daniel in the lion’s den, and showed me some of her other artwork. We spoke for 35 minutes on a street corner, and they promised to call me out the next time they saw me in the street. I was delighted, and more than a little surprised.

A few weeks later, I attended Nosotros@YU, an event celebrating Judeo-Latin history. They played music, displayed art and served food that fused Latin and Jewish influences. Many of the guest speakers emphasized the importance of integration between these two cultures.

Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine declared that “we have an urgent need to build ties between the Latino and Jewish communities … this is the place to make that happen.” New York Representative Adriano Espaillat stressed that the Hispanic and Jewish communities need to work together to “make this a stronger neighborhood.” My optimism soared, buoyed by the warmth of shared idealism.

Inspired, I spent the following weeks speaking with friends and classmates about my experiences in the Heights, and asking them about their own experiences. Few of them shared my enthusiasm, with reactions ranging from lukewarm to fearful. I was warned more than once to “just be careful” and adjured to stay on campus, “where it’s safe.”

I was, admittedly, dismayed. My friends painted a rather bleak portrait, one profoundly out of step with the cordial congeniality I found here. Is there not something to be said for the clusters of children enthusiastically coloring the streets with sidewalk chalk, the crowds of men raucously playing dominoes in the afternoons, the bumping block parties that seem to take place every night? 

I spoke to some friends native to the heights as well. “If you want, you can come to our basketball games up on 189th. I’m down to hang with y’all, but I feel like y’all don’t want to hang with me,” said R. Another suggested that Jews are so focused on their own communities that sometimes they don’t even look at their neighbors. “It’s okay to say hello! You can smile at me! I don’t bite!” exclaimed Terrence, waving his cane in the air and rubbing his durag.

When we live in homogenous communities, it’s too easy to alienate the other. I’ve heard kind and compassionate people take on tones of strident particularism when discussing “the goyim.” I’ve heard otherwise righteous people compare non-Jews to sheep, and use the royal “them” as a word to spit rather than say. When Jewish pride devolves into astringent particularism, we debase ourselves more than anyone else. As Jews, as students and as humans, we must expose ourselves to loving and vibrant non-Jewish cultures. Otherwise we are doomed to an eternity of distasteful epithets and self-congratulatory echo chambers.

“If a man acts as though he were terumah (the portion set aside for priests) by secluding himself in the corner of his home and declaring: ‘What concern are the problems of the community to me? What does their judgment mean to me? Why should I listen to them? I will do well (without them),’ he helps destroy the world.” -Midrash Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2:1-2.

This universal Jewish message is particularly resonant within the walls of YU. Rabbi Soloveichik, the ideological polestar of YU, wrote that:

“Chesed ([ovingkindness] is not limited to Jews ... The idea of chesed embraces the entire world and erases borders between nations. We are obligated to love man per se. Even if we have no spiritual closeness to him, even if he lives his life beyond distant horizons and in ways that are foreign to us, even if our thoughts are not his thoughts and our ways not his ways, even if we are separated by differences of culture, religion, language and race … from the point of view of hesed, all racial, cultural, historical and moral differences are null and void."

The conscientious Jew cannot and must not divest himself of the communal ties that ground him in the collective human project. The responsible citizen must toil to form meaningful connections with those who share his land and his society, even (and perhaps especially) if they don’t always share his values. 

I therefore call upon the YU community to do their part: The YU Community Relations page describes one-on-one tutoring opportunities at local high schools, science instruction at local elementary schools, literacy programs, college guidance initiatives, after-school basketball and track teams, all run by Yeshiva students. There’s even a program wherein YU students assist small local businesses with creating websites, developing databases and marketing.

These programs are critical, and I firmly believe that every student could benefit from participating in them, but real change starts in the day to day. Smiling at a stranger and offering to carry their groceries up the subway stairs could possibly be as critical as volunteering in their schools. I hope that through individual investment in the Washington Heights community, students of YU will be able to stifle the protests of, “but I feel like they don’t want to hang with me,” and establish strong relationships with our neighbors across the street.


Photo Caption: Street View Of Washington Heights

Photo Credit: Google Maps