On his show April 6, 2011, Dennis Prager said: “I’ll never forget when I was a kid [nine years old]. There was a man who was a high school math teacher, Mr. Joe Salts. What a sweet man. A member of the synagogue. He was hit by a hit-and-run driver on the West Side highway. He was blinded. The synagogue took care of this man for the rest of his life.
“The impact it made on me watching my father have people over to the house to see how much will you give, how much will you give. I have tears in my eyes. But as the state gets bigger, he just applies at some agency and has a bureaucrat take down the details.”
“Here’s another victim of the big state in terms of goodness because they say, why should I take care of my neighbor? The government will.
“This man blinded in the auto accident. The man was a member of the synagogue. The biggest thing DeTocqueville noted was how many free associations Americans made. Because the government was weak, people had strong civil society.
“I remember being a member of the Simi Valley Rotary Club. It was all men. They would get together every week. These guys, almost none of whom were wealthy, they were hard-working middle class. And you know what they devoted every meeting to? What charity they would engage in. But as government takes over more and more of charitable work, what need do you have for these charities? But we need people to join societies. The bigger the government, the more atomized the society.”
On his show Feb. 6, 2012, Dennis said he is the only person he knows who was a member of Rotary. “I have the values of guys who drink mass-market domestic beer.”
In a lecture on Leviticus 16, Dennis said: “We today have retreated further than ever from a sense of collective responsibility. The most obvious example is kids. Kids used to be raised by every adult on the block. If I acted out in front of any adult who didn’t even know who the hell I was, he would say something. ‘Hey kid, you don’t talk like that.’ If I had cursed at the local candy store in Brooklyn, some adult would’ve said, ‘Hey kid, we don’t talk like that.’ Today kids curse freely in line in front of you and you even fear reproving them. We fear that they might hurt you. And we fear what the parent might say. ‘It’s none of your business. I’ll raise my kid.’ The sense that the collective is responsible is a Torah idea.”
It is also an idea that exists solely in non-diverse communities. Dennis grew up in a non-diverse Torah community of Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews. He had no friends who were not Orthodox Jews. From this perspective, diversity can seem vibrant, but you’re not often going to find parents of different races taking collective responsibility for the other race’s children (outside of traditional religion). You’re not going to find parents of different races cooperating to build something in the community. They’re not going to form neighborhood watches together.
The kind of close-knit community Prager advocates is in inverse proportion to racial diversity noted leftist Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam, who was so upset by the results of his study that he didn’t publish it for a decade and only then with a pro-diversity spin. Putnam found that Los Angeles, the most racially diverse of America’s cities, had the least trust, meaning that people in such a racially mixed community tend to pull their heads in, go out less, cooperate less, and watch more TV. By contrast, the whitest cities such as Portland have the most neighborliness.
Steve Sailer (highly regarded by psychometricians) asked: “Can you guess which two cities lead the list of top 50 metropolitan areas in terms of the highest percentage of adults volunteering for charity? And which two cities came in last?” Lilly-white cities Minneapolis-St. Paul and Salt Lake City came in first, while diverse cities Miami and Las Vegas came in last.
Multiculturalism doesn’t make vibrant communities but defensive ones…
Putnam’s discovery is hardly shocking to anyone who has tried to organize a civic betterment project in a multi-ethnic neighborhood. My wife and I lived for 12 years in Chicago’s Uptown district, which claims to be the most diverse two square miles in America, with about 100 different languages being spoken. She helped launch a neighborhood drive to repair the dilapidated playlot across the street. To get Mayor Daley’s administration to chip in, we needed to raise matching funds and sign up volunteer laborers.
This kind of Robert D. Putnam-endorsed good citizenship proved difficult in Uptown, however, precisely because of its remarkable diversity. The most obvious stumbling block was that it’s hard to talk neighbors into donating money or time if they don’t speak the same language as you. Then there’s the fundamental difficulty of making multiculturalism work—namely, multiple cultures. Getting Koreans, Russians, Mexicans, Nigerians, and Assyrians (Christian Iraqis) to agree on how to landscape a park is harder than fostering consensus among people who all grew up with the same mental picture of what a park should look like.
The high crime rate didn’t help either. The affluent South Vietnamese merchants from the nearby Little Saigon district showed scant enthusiasm for sending their small children to play in a park that would also be used by large black kids from the local public-housing project.
Exotic inter-immigrant hatreds also got in the way. The Eritreans and Ethiopians are both slender, elegant-looking brown people with thin Arab noses, who appear identical to undiscerning American eyes. But their compatriots in the Horn of Africa were fighting a vicious war. Finally, most of the immigrants, with the possible exception of the Eritreans, came from countries where only a chump would trust neighbors he wasn’t related to, much less count on the government for an even break. If the South Vietnamese, for example, had been less clannish and more ready to sacrifice for the national good in 1964-75, they wouldn’t be so proficient at running family-owned restaurants on Argyle Street today. But they might still have their own country.
In the end, boring old middle-class, English-speaking, native-born Americans (mostly white, but with some black-white couples) did the bulk of the work. When the ordeal of organizing was over, everybody seemed to give up on trying to bring Uptown together for civic improvement for the rest of the decade…
But what primarily drove down L.A.’s rating in Putnam’s 130-question survey were the high levels of distrust displayed by Hispanics. While no more than 12 percent of L.A.’s whites said they trusted other races “only a little or not at all,” 37 percent of L.A.’s Latinos distrusted whites. And whites were the most reliable in Hispanic eyes. Forty percent of Latinos doubted Asians, 43 percent distrusted other Hispanics, and 54 percent were anxious about blacks.
I don’t think that Jewish neighborhoods are always a good thing for Jews or, for that matter, for our fellow Americans who are not Jewish. In fact, committed Jews living among non-Jews often does more good — for Jews, for Judaism, for Kiddush HaShem and for relations with non-Jews.
Having lived much of my life in Jewish neighborhoods, I think I am well acquainted with the arguments for many Jews living in one area of a city.
…And for Orthodox Jews, there is simply no choice. If you don’t live within walking distance of a synagogue, you simply cannot attend a synagogue on Shabbat or any of the other Torah holy days. And you will be very lonely on Shabbat, as there will be no one with whom to share Shabbat meals…
But there are also powerful arguments against Jews congregating in one area.
One argument is that Jews (and any other ethnic group) often become better people when they live among those who are not members of their ethnic/religious group.
Most people grow — intellectually and morally — when they have to confront outsiders. There are, of course, wonderful people who never leave their communities. But they are the exception. Most people do not grow when they lead insular lives.
In my travels through the 50 states, my favorite Jews have disproportionately been those who live in small Jewish communities.
Having grown up an Orthodox Jew in Brooklyn — having only Orthodox Jewish friends, and having attended Orthodox schools and Orthodox summer camps through high school — I know what insular ethnic/religious life is like. And I didn’t find it healthy. Among many other reasons, the non-Jew (and even the non-Orthodox Jew) wasn’t real.
I first seriously encountered Jewish alternatives to my insular upbringing in my early 20s, when I drove from New York to Texas with my dear friend Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Thanks to the “Jewish Traveler’s Guide,” we found the name of a Jewish doctor in Alexandria, La., who listed himself as providing a place for Jewish travelers in central Louisiana to have Shabbat meals and kosher food…
…It can’t be a coincidence that virtually every great Jewish religious work was composed outside of Israel, when Jews lived among non-Jews. We have, for example, two versions of the Talmud — the Babylonian and the Jerusalem. And it is the former that we study. Maimonides’ works were all written outside of Israel, sometimes in Arabic.
…My wife and I live in a non-Jewish suburb of Los Angeles — so non-Jewish that it doesn’t even have a Chabad House. The closest Chabad House, in Glendale (not a major Jewish metropolis either), is run by the inimitable Rabbi Simcha Backman. He has “appointed” me an honorary shaliach (Chabad emissary) in La Canada.
I think I build the only sukkah there, and when we opened our home one Sukkot, I recall the wide eyes of all the children of Jewish parents who had never seen a sukkah in their lives. Introducing Jews who have had little or no contact with Jewish life to Judaism is another mitzvah that a committed Jew living outside a Jewish neighborhood can engage in.
I live in a cul-de-sac, and my immediate neighbors are an Arab-American couple, whom my wife and I adore. The other neighbor is Korean. My cul-de-sac is what America is supposed to be about. It’s still a good idea.