What’s the going rate for an ex-Hasidic, atheist US army veteran to religiously observe a single Sabbath?
One thousand dollars, it turns out.
It also turns out that, like many good stories, this one begins with a single tweet.
Ari Mandel, who grew up in Monsey, New York, has been trying to raise money for Chai Lifeline, which helps children who’ve contracted life-threatening illnesses, by running in the Jerusalem marathon next March. He was having trouble reaching the $4,500 minimum when someone tweeted to him that we would contribute $10 if Mandel would keep just one Sabbath.
@HeathenHassid ill donate 10 if you keep next shabbos
— Am I next? (@efif1) October 27, 2013
“I said, are you crazy? Ten dollars?” Mandel recalled in a phone interview with The Times of Israel this week. “I’m a social media addict, you’re going to give me ten dollars to stay away from Facebook and Twitter?!”
Mandel maintains an active social media presence, and he blogs at “Confessions of a Koifer: The (humble) opinions of a recovering Hassid.” Koifer is a Yiddish term for a heretic.
As luck/fate/divine providence (take your pick) would have it, when Mandel posted about the proposal on Facebook — he goes by the name Rachmuna Litzlon, or “God help us” in Aramaic — he was met with a more serious offer.
“What’s your price?” a Facebook user by the name of Isaac Mavorah asked Mandel, noting that participation in synagogue services would have to be part of the deal.
“I’ll wear a shtreimel [a Hassidic fur hat] and go to the mikvah for the right price,” Mandel replied.
It wouldn’t be Mandel’s first time trafficking in spiritual assets for cash. He once tried to sell his “portion in Olam Habah (Heaven)” on eBay, with the bidding reaching $100,000 before the site canceled the auction.
Although at first, Mandel didn’t think Mavorah was in earnest, it turned out that he wasn’t playing around. Still, Mavorah was insistent on verifying that Mandel would truly observe this upcoming Shabbat, so Mandel offered to have his friend, who has assumed the online persona Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein, serve as his witness.
Schmeckelstein, the author of a satirical blog, takes on serious issues through frequently off-color mock-homilies.
The two have known each other for about a year, Schmeckelstein told The Times of Israel. “We in particular have collaborated on anti-sexual abuse issues in the Jewish community,” he explained.
“Rachmuna will be with me from after Friday night dinner (I will see if I can bring him as a guest for dinner as well),” Schmeckelstein wrote on Facebook. “He will sleep in my MO [Modern Orthodox] house. I will bring him to davening [prayers] with me at my MO Shul. He will eat Shabbos lunch with me. Short of joining me and my Bashert [spouse] in bed, I will certify his activities through Shabbat.”
“I’ve been following his Facebook for a while,” Mavorah said in an email to The Times, “never commenting much then one day he posted about his Chai Lifeline fundraising campaign. Seemingly he was well behind his goal because he said someone was offering a donation if he kept Shabbat, but no one came forward with a significant amount. So I asked him what’s your price? He said make me an offer. So like any negotiation I started low at $260, he went high at $2600. We eventually agreed somewhere in the middle at $1,000.”
“To me, the sum is insignificant,” said Marovah. “One thousand dollars to get a Jewish atheist to keep Shabbat, Mikvah, and praying with a Minyan AND help sick children?”
“Truth is I would have paid double.”
Schmeckelstein also offered to have Mandel prepare a Talmud class if Mavorah got another friend to match his pledge. As it turned out, an anonymous donor gave $500, and Mandel will be giving a class on the origins of Hasidism at Schmeckelstein’s synagogue as well.
Mandel said it would be his first time keeping Shabbat in its entirety since leaving the Orthodox fold about six years ago.
Mandel, who grew up in the Nikolsburg Hasidic sect, said he had an insular childhood and received no secular education alongside his Torah studies. “It was a very restrictive lifestyle,” Mandel recalled. “But it was a fine upbringing.”
Equipped with a naturally curious mind, Mandel started exploring the outside world on his own. “I had been researching and doing homework and all that kind of stuff,” he said. “The more I read, the more the curtains around my eyes began to be pulled back. I kept following my curiosity. It broke apart the foundation on which my entire world was based.”
At the age of 24, Mandel made up his mind.
“It finally came to a point where I didn’t want to be part of that life anymore. So I left,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Mandel’s parents didn’t take it well at first. But “We’ve since reconciled,” he said. “We get along wonderfully now… they’ve accepted me, we get along now.”
After leaving the insular world he had known his whole life, the next step was the US Army. Perhaps surprisingly, military life provided a relatively soft landing for the newly secular young man.
“The nice thing about being in the army, especially in basic training, is that everyone is out of their element, so I didn’t stick out like a sore thumb more than anyone else did,” Mandel reflected.
Still, he said, he had to smile and nod as if he was in the know when conversation turned to pop culture.
He didn’t tell people about his background, or that he was Jewish at all, until they got to know him. “I made it a point of not telling people until they got close. I wanted to break stereotypes with the people I got to know.”
Serving almost five years in the 82nd Airborne Division, Mandel was deployed to South Korea and Haiti. When Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake in 2010, Mandel arrived there with his unit that very night.
Later he forayed into the public consciousness with irreverent activism that straddled the fringes of the ultra-Orthodox world.
“I was slightly known before I got out within the small ‘OTD [off the derech, literally, ‘off the path’] community’ (if there is such a thing),” he said, adding that he became “really well known” after organizing a protest against the “asifa,” the Hasidic rally in New York against the evils of the Internet.
“It got international press attention,” Mandel said. “Then my eBay shtick just took it to a whole other level.”
Nowadays, Mandel’s social media presence has proven to be surprisingly profitable, with the attention the Sabbath deal has brought leading to more donations pouring in.
“Make this one Shabbos as Jewy and holy as you possibly can, I’m game, as long you dish out the shekels,” he posted on Monday, just hours before hitting his minimum goal.
But the exercise is not likely to lead Mandel back to the world he turned his back on.
“I know Orthodox people who have been following the story would love for this to be the case, but I don’t have high hopes. It’s not like I left Orthodoxy because I hated Shabbos,” he said.
“Staying away from the Internet is what’s going to be the hardest,” he added.