Hashem and Man at Yale

Hashem (a euphemistic name for G-d used in daily conversation) finds there is room for Him in a club founded by an African-American student and a Chabad rabbi.

Rafael Castro

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My life was changed by an institution that exposes Yale students to the values of Judaism. Shabtai was founded in 1996 by an African-American Jewish student and a Chabad rabbi. It is the Jewish counterpoint to the Elizabethan Club, which since the early 20th century draws Yale’s intellectual elite to discuss literature and arts over tea.

The Elizabethan Club embodies the aristocratic ethos of the old Yale. An invitation to its premises allowed me to meet an octogenarian gentleman with fond memories of his European Grand Tour. The finely-clad student-librarian who let me glance at 17th century Shakespeare manuscripts did so with grace and polished remarks. However, having managed to bond only with the courteous butler, I was never invited again.

There is nothing in these words able to avert the envy of fools and the hatred of the blind. However, I hope they will help you...
Shabtai embodies the meritocratic ethos of the new Yale. Students at Shabtai discuss literature and arts. Yet deeper passions are stirred by foreign policy and legal philosophy debates. The involvement of Yale’s most gifted minds powering discussions into the late hours of the night. Yet what drew me to Shabtai was not just intellectualism.

I was intrigued and fascinated by Rabbi Shmully Hecht and his wife Toby. They embodied values I felt both near and remote. Their faith, outlook and attire as a Hassidic family lay at the antipode of my horizons. At the same time, their warmth and hospitality made me feel closer to home. Therefore, every Friday evening I religiously trudged through the streets of New Haven to attend Shabbos dinners at the Shabtai House. The sight of Rabbi Hecht donning a black hat to bless the bread and the wine in an ancient tongue made me marvel. Unease at the foreignness of these rites coalesced with awe at the reverence and devotion they roused.

The faith and value-system of Rabbi Hecht and his wife seemed quirky to me. I was genuinely disappointed by Toby’s tepid delight at my gift of Swiss Lindt chocolate.  That Shmully would not shake the hand of female students struck me as absurd. Just like the fact my offers to cook vitello tonnato were repeatedly rebuffed.  In due course I understood these quirks are subject to a rigorous logic. 

Friday morning Shmully would gather students interested in learning Talmud. As we delved into Bava Batra, the dialectical beauty of its pages made me sense I was scratching the surface of an august tradition.

Almost twenty years have passed since those heady days. After leaving New Haven I returned to Italy, and then studied in Jerusalem where I worked to fight corruption in the West Bank. Now that I have settled in Germany, I am involved in pro-Israel advocacy and regularly contribute columns to the Jewish media. My non-Jewish children all bear Hebrew names.

In the wake of the recent murders of devout Jews I felt the urge to send my rabbi and friend Shmully Hecht the following message:

Since college days, religious Jews have taught me to express esteem with aid rather than with praise. Nevertheless, the repeated assaults against your community make me feel the time is right to write a few words on what I, an Italian Gentile, owe your community.

Religious Jews have taught me that reason and faith are friends; that doubt is holier than certainty and that there is no question too daring or impertinent to be asked from either God or men. Religious Jews made me appreciate faith as a faculty of the mind and reason as a faculty of the heart.

Religious Jews helped me remember that tears will always surrender to hope and that the lessons hardships teach are essential to mature and become a true mensch.

Religious Jews taught me to help the poor while respecting the rich, since kindness and success are both crucial to build a better world. The rabbis I listen to insist that charity provide not alms, but education, values and jobs, since real poverty is not measured by material want, but by an empty mind and a spirit too feeble to face the world.

The religious Jews who hosted me in their homes sometimes skimped six days on food to make sure chicken broth welcomed me on the Sabbath. These Jews did not ask me whether I was Jewish or not, or whether I would repay their hospitality by abjuring my beliefs. They just ladled soup when I was hungry and made sure my heart was gladdened by joyous lechaims.

From religious Jews I learned to love the Torah and to revere Judaism. Through them I discovered an adult faith in God and the bearings needed to lead a richer and more meaningful life.

There is nothing in these words able to avert the envy of fools and the hatred of the blind. However, I hope they will help you recite Aleinu with a little more zeal and greet strangers with a broader smile. In the meantime please remember that true friends look forward to you becoming an even better version of who you already are.