Maturity and Halacha

“Any man who is under 30 and is not a liberal has no heart; any man who is over 30 and is not a conservative has no brains.”

-Winston Churchill (or not)

Many young people, in the context of college, yeshivah, or seminary, like to spend their time discussing issues of policy. Specifically, in the Orthodox Jewish world, issues pertaining to halacha. During the year that I spent in Israel, I had many such conversations with peers about issues as the kashrut status of Rabanut Yerushalayim, saying hallel on Yom HaAtzmaut, and the role of kiruv within the Jewish community. We also discussed things like tzniut and mandatory army service in Israel.

It’s funny how as a 17 year old teenager, I could be SO convinced that my position was right. Most of my opinions haven’t changed objectively since then, but this past weekend, I had an enlightening experience.

I spent shabbos with a family that I respect a lot. I had never actually met them before, but they are the cousins of a close friend of mine. This close friend and I wanted to spend shabbos together, and she asked her cousins to host. It was the type of place that, after being there for only a couple of hours, I felt like I’d known them my entire life. They told me to make myself at home, and I did. The wife and I spent the entire weekend joking around, as if we were old friends. I teased the 14 year old cousin as if he was my own little brother. I spoke with their 16 year old about various options for college (His school starts having college guidance meetings in 10th grade? What??)

The wife is an attorney at a fancy law firm in New York City. She covers her hair outside of her home, but not when she’s at work. That’s when it hit me. I have dreams of going to law school and working a large firm like hers. I never for a minute have doubted whether or not I would cover my hair. Of course I would. The question was always, how? I don’t really like the idea of sheitels. What’s the point of covering hair with hair?
“It’s a way for women to follow halacha, while at the same time feeling comfortable with their appearances” always seemed like a weak argument for me. In Israel, I decided that I would only cover my hair with hats or scarves-a blatant declaration of my status as an Orthodox, married woman.

I started thinking about her situation, and how odd it was that she didn’t cover her hair at work. Then I thought, what will I do in that situation? Wear a hat, like the 60 year old southern ladies going out for tea? Wear a scarf, like a twenty-something teenage wannabe? I couldn’t think of a single option that would be appropriate in a business environment, with the exception of a sheitel, which, of course, the 17 year old me had decided was inappropriate.

Later on, the issue of national army service came up. Of COURSE boys who don’t want to go to Yeshiva should serve in the army, right? Sure, in theory. But Israel is in the middle of a WAR!! Going to the army means signing up for war. Can I really handle that? Do I want to place my children in a position that forces them to be in life threatening situations? No, not really. No amount of Zionism is going to change that. Land can’t bring back a dead child.

Maybe the year in Israel is for exactly this purpose. Maybe the flipping out is a good thing. Even if people don’t end up sticking with all the changes they make in Israel, they will be able to separate the things they do/don’t do because of halachic ideals from the those that they do/don’t do because of personal comfort. And that’s an important distinction.

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With Streets Paved in Gold

Every summer since I was about 12 years old, I’ve worked in my father’s check cashing store. For those of you who don’t know how check cashing works, it’s basically banking for transient workers. Many times people receive checks, but do not have bank accounts to deposit the checks into. Other times, the banks hold the checks for somewhere between 7-14 days to verify it before dispensing funds, but the worker can’t wait a couple of weeks to get his money. That’s where check cashers come in. The workers bring their checks to the establishment, we verify that the check is legit-a process that some how takes us several minutes, yet takes banks several weeks-and give them the money, minus a small fee. Then, the check casher deposits the check into their own bank account.

I generally work in the verification department. I’ve learned a lot about check fraud from it, too. When the movie Catch Me if You Can came out, I wasn’t so surprised to see what he pulled off, as I had seen or heard about many of those schemes before. One extremely popular form of check fraud is for someone outside of America to send some sort of email explaining how they have unfortunately come into a difficult situation. They own a business in their home country that deals with international clients, and the clients send them checks that can only be deposited in the United States of America. These “business owners” propose that they will send the check to to this contact person, the contact person will cash the check and then wire the money to the business owner in the foreign country, keeping, of course, a small percentage for their troubles. It seems like a win-win situation to the unsuspecting contact person.

The problem is, of course, these checks are complete forgeries. Most check cashers can spot them right away, but apparently, there are still a few that can’t (or don’t). When the check is denied, its up to the one who cashed it to pay back the check, plus a fine, plus serve jail time if the police are called. The one who cashed it, however, doesn’t have the money anymore, as they have already wired it out of the country.

There is an older woman who works in my office, and when discussing this situation, she says, “It’s such a shame that these crooks play to the emotions of caring Americans. All these people want to do is help someone in an unfortunate situation, and they end up getting screwed over.”

For a while, that’s how I thought of the situation as well. That is, until yesterday, when I received such an email. The subject line didn’t read “please help me” or “my friend needs your assistance”. It said “Make $100, just by depositing a check.” For fear of viruses, I didn’t open up the whole email, but my email server shows a preview of the message. It was written in really bright, flashy, colors, with lots of exclamation points, and a decidedly upbeat attitude.

It was then that I realized, these people aren’t playing towards American’s emotions, they’re playing towards American’s greed. They’re not so naïve to think that Americans will really care about some poor suffering businessman in Nigeria, they know that the only thing on the minds of most Americans is how to make an extra buck or two. And by the popularity of their schemes, they seem to be right.