These past few weeks we in Bergen County have heard a lot about issues that divide our Jewish community. It inspired me to tell this true story of Jewish unity.
I am an attorney. In the past few years, on several different cases, I have appeared before Judge David Schmidt of the New York State Supreme Court in Brooklyn. Judge Schmidt is an Orthodox Jew, a respected jurist, and a brilliant man with an incredible memory. With his big gray beard, pleasant manner, and yarmulke, he looks more like a grandfather than a judge sitting on the bench.
This past year, I was one of the attorneys on one side of a hard-fought case that was assigned to Judge Schmidt. Our client was a major landowner in Brooklyn. On the other side was a business run by a group of Orthodox Jews of varying degrees from modern Orthodox to chasidic. Interestingly, my adversary on the case was another lawyer whom I already knew. He is, like myself, a member of Cong. Beth Sholom (Conservative) in Teaneck. Eventually, as usually happens, both sides got to the point where they wanted to resolve the matter amicably, but settling that case still required months of detailed negotiations. Judge Schmidt, with his endless patience, devoted countless hours to courtroom conferences with up to a dozen lawyers and clients sitting across from him at the table. By that stage of the case, the two sides are still adversaries but, in another sense, we all had a common interest in maintaining good relations and working things out.
My father died in February. A couple of weeks after shiva ended, we all came down to court for yet another settlement conference in that case. As I was still in shloshim (the 30-day mourning period in which it is customary not to shave) they all saw my mourning beard, and everyone on both sides, including the judge, expressed their sympathy on my recent loss.
Well, the conference with Judge Schmidt lasted all that afternoon and we ended the session just before 5 p.m. As the conference was ending and the judge was getting ready to leave, one of the other clients, who always wore a long black coat and a black hat, leaned over and quietly asked me if I had said mincha. I admitted that I had not. This man – one of the men I am suing – then called out to the judge, who was leaving, “Your Honor, he needs to say Kaddish.”
Without hesitation, Judge Schmidt turned and looked at the group, mentally sized up the number of Jewish lawyers and clients, and said, “We have a minyan right here.”
Most of the men pulled out their i-Phones or Blackberries and had the prayers on their screens in seconds. Someone pulled a yarmulke from under his black hat and handed it to me. Another agreed to lead the prayer but first asked, “Judge, which direction do we face?” The judge replied with a smile, “You pray. Don’t worry, God will hear you.”
So on that afternoon last March while I was in shloshim, I stood in a courtroom in the Supreme Court in Brooklyn wearing a borrowed black velvet yarmulke and recited mincha and Kaddish together with my client, my adversary, the opposing clients, and His Honor – a group consisting of Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox, and chasidic Jews – all joining to help me to fulfill a mitzvah.