Elad Nehorai — the writer of the popular blog Pop Chassid and a contributor to the Forward, Haaretz and other Jewish media outlets — was drawn to spirituality from a young age.
Growing up in a secular Jewish home, the outspoken writer and activist didn’t have much experience with the Jewish religion as a child, and certainly not with the faith’s mystical side, he explained to a crowd gathered in the home of Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash, last Tuesday. In fact, the first “religious” or philosophical text Nehorai connected with was the Tao Te Ching; he didn’t even know his own religion had a rich tradition of deep mysticism.
That all changed in his last year at Arizona State University when he went to a Chabad at ASU event and got into a debate with Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel about evolution. Though his views on that particular issue weren’t swayed, the respectful but enthusiastic spirit of discourse the event exemplified had a strong impact.
“I actually ended up being surprised at how much I loved it,” Nehorai said. “I was looking for where to go with my life and ended up going to study at a yeshiva in Israel.”
Nehorai, who has more than 19,000 followers on Facebook, detailed his spiritual growth at two Valley events last week. The first, “How to Break Out of Tribalism and Still Be Proudly Jewish,” was held at a co-working space in Scottsdale. The second, at Yanklowitz’s home, was called “The Change-Making Power of Community” and was co-sponsored by VBM and Arizona Jewish Social Justice Action.
At both events, the Brooklyn-based Nehorai mused on the challenges of being not only a proud progressive and a practicing Orthodox Jew, but also a public intellectual at a time when public discourse has become particularly acrimonious. Though President Donald Trump has a strong following among many in the Orthodox community, Nehorai was an early and fierce critic of the president, which caused some backlash from his largely Orthodox readership. The backlash, he said, turned into harassment and a concerted campaign that encouraged people to stop following his writing and social media. As a result, he lost almost 2,000 Facebook followers.
“That whole time I was getting unbelievable venom thrown at me, such anger and resentment and people telling me what a horrible person I was and essentially treating me like a traitor,” Nehorai said.
The backlash was so severe he feared it would force him to quit writing altogether. Worse still, it made him feel isolated from his community and left him questioning his place in it.
“It’s something that is funny because the Orthodox world is kind of obsessed and scared with the idea of people going off the derech and it’s interesting because at the same time they are making it a reality,” Nehorai said. “Especially if you’re vocal, it’s not easy to stay in the community.”
Then, prominent entertainment lawyer Victoria Cook contacted him and told him about Torah Trumps Hate, an online group she’d established of like-minded Jews, most of them Orthodox, who were experiencing many of the same things.
“We were feeling like no one in our community understood how we felt because it seemed, from what we were looking at, that everyone was thinking the same way and they all supported Trump,” Nehorai said. But he learned that wasn’t true, as the group exploded to thousands of members.
“One of the things it really taught me was how just because it seems like no one is on your side, it’s actually about who’s willing to be vocal,” Nehorai said. “At a certain point, we understood that there’s thousands of people in this group now, so obviously there’s something powerful here. We realized we now have the ability to change that narrative and to change the way people look at it.”
The transformation from isolation to connectedness was something Nehorai stressed through repeated examples during his talk Tuesday evening, explaining that loneliness can actually serve as a catalyst for building community. In his case, his own feelings of loneliness had drawn him not only to Torah Trumps Hate, but also initially to Orthodoxy.
Another example he offered was Hevria, a group that offers Jewish creatives a chance to interact. Like Torah Trumps Hate, it started as an online community.
“I remember having a conversation with my wife about how frustrated I was because of the issues of being a creative in the Orthodox world,” Nehorai said. “Hevria came about as a practical, strategic and philosophical goal, which was instead of me being on my own, I knew other people who had their own outlets too, so why don’t we come together?”
Now Hevria hosts events such as creative farbrengens in Nehorai’s Crown Heights neighborhood.
Like traditional farbrengens, Hevria’s events are boisterous and last until the crack of dawn. They help creative Jewish members feel connected to their faith and faith community. This is a thread binding Nehorai’s many diverse undertakings — the drive to make as many people possible feel at home in the Orthodox Jewish community.
“What we do is we find people who we know have that creative spark in them and we really just want them to do what they want to do,” Nehorai said. “That allowed us to build a culture, which allowed us then to build an in-person community, which for me was always the goal.” JN