A recent fire has been ignited in the New Jersey religious enclave of Lakewood, where for the first time private school yeshivot have asked for bus drivers - otherwise off on Thanksgiving - to come in to work and to transport students to school. According to the website theyeshivaworld.com, in the past, Lakewood yeshivot had typically waived their rights for bussing that day as a matter of course; however, given that the Lakewood Orthodox Jewish community claims it plans to have 18,000 children in school that day, these Yeshivot felt that they finally had the leverage to take a stand on the issue.
As a result of its position on bussing, there seems to have been push-back from some of the bus companies, who were either reluctant or, at first, refused to send their employees to work that day. Fortunately, as it currently stands, it seems that a compromise has been reached, and that the Lakewood community will get morning bussing.
Nonetheless, headlines having been made, there remains good reason to question the Lakewood community’s approach toward the bussing issue.
From a Jewish legal standpoint, its decision to ask for bussing was misguided because it is against the spirit of how Jewish law teaches us that we are to engage in our relationships with non-Jews. Jewish tradition teaches us that in our relationships with non-Jews we must do certain things “mipnei darchei shalom” (for the sake of maintaining peace) with our non-Jewish neighbors. The Talmud of Masechet Gittin teaches us, for example, that Jews may not withhold tzedakah (charity) from non-Jewish poor, should visit non-Jewish sick, and should help bury non-Jewish dead, all for the sake of darchei shalom. As such, the decision to ask non-Jews to work on a secular civil holiday in which public schools are closed has now created a broken peace and unnecessary resentment between the community and its non-Jewish employees. A resentment that will not easily subside.
The decision of these yeshivot to hold school on Thanksgiving at all seems to reflect a poor overall strategy to emphasize the differences between Jews and the rest of the world, rather than taking this holiday as a rare opportunity to celebrate that which we do have in common. This is disappointing. There are so many ways that the Jewish people celebrate our uniqueness from other peoples of the world in what we eat, in how we pray, and how we learn. However, the American Thanksgiving holiday teaches us to recognize that the very ideas of being thankful and appreciation are not only “middot” (Jewish values), but ones that we strive for as Jews to encourage our entire world to embrace. Has it now come to the point where we will refuse to acknowledge a holiday that espouses our own values and that has its roots in our own Sukkot - because we have to be more different?
Fortunately, for the majority of American Jewish families of all backgrounds (and some I even suspect in Lakewood), Thanksgiving remains a holiday about togetherness. It is a non-religious holiday that enables Jewish families to travel distances without yom tov travel restrictions, allowing us to reach each other’s homes and celebrate being together. Thanksgiving remains a reminder of all the freedoms that we have been given as American Jews, including the rights to build our own day schools, synagogues - and yeshivot in Lakewood - that can operate freely, even on an American civil holiday, without government interference. That is something that all of us have reason to be thankful for this year.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.