Sunday, March 29, 2015

Balancing Faith & Practicality In Contemporary Society

People place candles at a makeshift memorial for the Sassoon children.
This time last weekend the headlines were filled with news of the horrific house fire in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, New York that killed seven children from the same Orthodox Jewish family on March 21st.

The focus of the "24-Hour News Cycle" may have moved on but the aftermath of this tragedy is still being felt.

By now seven of Gabriel Sassoon's eight children, Eliane, 16; David, 12; Rivkah, 11; Yeshua, 10; Moshe, 8; Sara, 6 and Yaakob, 5, have been laid to rest in Jerusalem.

His wife Gayle, 45 and daughter Siporah, 15 survived the fire and remain hospitalized in critical condition.

Obviously this tragedy has touched people on multiple levels, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or nationality. The contemplation of losing so many members from one family in a fire that could have been prevented is as universal as it is unthinkable.

It's been hard for me to get this incident out of my head, and it's been on my mind all week.

When I lived in New York City, my friend Shane lost his life back on the night of October 31, 2002 in a fire that he was responsible for setting after he went home and fell asleep on a couch in his apartment with a lit cigarette in his hand.

Obviously the scope and cause of these two different tragedies are quite different, but the knowledge that the fire was preventable has always haunted me.

Last week, in the days following the Brooklyn fire, a lot of media coverage was devoted to important issues this accident brought into focus.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and other community leaders brought attention to the fact that there is no specialized trauma burn center unit in any hospital in Brooklyn and that serious burn victims must be transported to hospitals in Queens, the Bronx, or Manhattan.

The tragedy also sparked an interesting debate on the practices followed by observant Jews who must (in accordance with Jewish law and tradition) abstain from working on the Sabbath.

This includes the burning of fires, cooking, any use of electronic switches, buttons or anything that alters the flow of electric current on the Sabbath (or Shabbos), or during certain religious holidays.

For example, some multistory buildings in New York (and elsewhere) have designated Shabbat elevators that are programmed to automatically stop at each floor of a building during the Sabbath, so that Jews observing traditional law do not have to physically touch the buttons of the elevator in order to come and go as they please.

The balance between faith and modern technology was at the heart of the tragedy in Midwood.

A typical hot plate used to keep food warm during Sabbath
As you probably heard, the fire in Brooklyn last week was caused by a hot plate in the kitchen of the house that had been left on to keep food warm during the Sabbath.

Investigators are still not 100% sure whether the hot plate itself malfunctioned, or if there was a problem in the wiring of the house itself.

Regardless of the exact cause, the fire was complicated by the fact that there were no smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors in the kitchen, stairwell, or on the upper floors of the home that could have alerted the Sassoon family to smoke in the house and given them a chance to escape.

Last Wednesday Josh Nathan-Kazis wrote an interesting article in The Jewish Daily Forward looking at the challenges observant Jews face in balancing religious law with trying to serve hot meals during the Sabbath; if you scroll through some of the reader comments below the story you can get a sense of the complexity and debate surrounding observation of Jewish law in a contemporary society.

There a was really informative radio interview on The Brian Lehrer Show last week with Jewish Daily Forward reporter JJ Goldberg. It's worth a listen if you want to gain some deeper insight into rules governing behavior on the Sabbbath and how this most recent "Shabbos fire" has impacted the Jewish community in New York; and their perceptions about some of the public criticism non-Jewish people have leveled at the Orthodox Jewish community in particular.

As someone who's had some first-hand experience seeing Orthodox Jews balance faith and technology, my sense is that there's been a lot of misunderstanding over the past week.

When I lived in an apartment on 112th street and Frederick Douglas Blvd in New York, my upstairs neighbor was an Orthodox Jew who worked as an NYPD officer. He was a super nice guy who always went of his way to say hello, was never judgmental and had a way of making you feel good about yourself just by talking with him. He was just a cool guy.

One day, I was in my apartment and there was a knock on the door and he was standing there in the hallway with his usual smile, and he asked me if I would mind doing him a favor.

He asked me if I could come up to his apartment, so I grabbed my keys and followed him. He was the only one of my neighbors in that building I really talked with, and certainly the only one whose apartment I ever visited.

We walked up one flight and went in his apartment and he lead me into his bedroom and asked me to open a drawer next to his bed and take his cell phone out for him. It was the Sabbath and he was strict about not using electronic devices.

As an NYPD officer, he had to check in with his sergeant. So he asked me to turn on the phone and find her name in the contact list; we lived in Manhattan but the precinct he worked in was in Brooklyn and his sergeant was a Hispanic female.

So I dialed the number and she picked up and I explained who I was and that my friend had asked me to call her to check in because it was the Sabbath and he couldn't use the phone. She understood and I relayed a couple mundane "cop things" about a shift start time from him to her and vice versa.

And that was it. He thanked me generously and I went back down to my apartment feeling sort of impressed at the depth of his faith and adherence to his religious law. He was intense, but open and non-judgmental about it.

Jewish law allows Jews to have what's called a Shabbos goy perform certain tasks for them on the Sabbath. Things like turning lights on or off, switching on devices; that kind of thing. But a Shabbos goy is not supposed to do like carpentry, or contracting-type work. 

Shabbos goy is a combination of the word Shabbos which is Sabbath and goy, which means a non-national or non-Jew in Mishnaic Hebrew. I've never heard of female Shabbos goys, but he (or she?) is a gentile or non-Jew who can use machinery or electricity on the Sabbath.

When I lived out in LA, my roommate Mitch was a non-religious Jew who told me many synagogues around the country hired African-Americans as a designated Shabbos goy on the Sabbath or for specific holidays.

Some Shabbos goys also work as security personnel or janitors in the synagogue; and they are paid for the service.

A number of famous people worked as Shabbos goys when they were younger including Colin Powell, Martin Scorcese, Mario Cuomo and even Elvis Presley.

I was more than glad to perform the Shabbos goy task for my friend the cop in New York that day, to me it was a neighborly thing to do and that's what neighbors do.

It's too bad the Sassoon family didn't have someone who could have stopped by to turn their hot plate on or off for them last Friday, but in New York, most Orthodox Jews tend to live in neighborhoods populated by other Orthodox Jews, so the complexities of geography (and expense) doesn't really make a Shabbos goy practical for some folks in New York who live in private homes or apartments.

But whether it's a hot plate or lights that operate off a preset timer, or a Shabbos goy, the fire in Midwood lends insight into some of the complexities of modern Jewish life. 

But if you take the time to read Josh Nathan-Kazis' article in The Jewish Daily Forward (click the link above), some of the reader comments reflect a questioning of what not working on the Sabbath really means.

Most of the comments suggest the majority of Jews do believe it means no working and thus no use of machinery or electronic devices and switches.

I'm not Jewish obviously, but in the aftermath of a fire that took the lives of seven children, I can't help but wonder if God would really mind it all that much if a mother or father simply took the time to switch off a hot plate before going to bed in the interests of safety.

Jewish law makes exceptions for Jewish physicians to work on the Sabbath if a life is at stake, maybe such an exception should extend to a designated family member in the interest of home safety as well.

As we now know, a simple switch on a hot plate was indeed the difference between life and death for the Sassoon family of Brooklyn.

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