Rush to Misjudgment

Four months after Reb Menachem Stark, Hy”d, a beloved member of the Williamsburg community, was brutally abducted and murdered, an arrest has been made in the case.

Kendel Felix, a 26-year-old construction worker and resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was indicted for his involvement in a killing that sent shockwaves throughout the Jewish community and plunged its members into deep mourning.

Word that one of the murderers has been caught — it is believed that at least two others are still at large — will not bring back the devoted son, caring husband, and affectionate father of seven. It is his progeny, and the countless acts of chessed performed by the niftar and posthumously l’ilui nishmaso that will prove to be the real consolation for his grieving family.

At the same time, the impact of the long-awaited knowledge that one of the culprits in this reprehensible crime will be brought to justice should not be underestimated. For each day that passed without the perpetrators being caught poured additional salt on open, painful wounds.

We commend the NYPD for the progress they made, and we hope that the other culprits are swiftly apprehended and charged as the investigation continues.

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This is also a time for us as a community to look in the mirror and reflect on how we dealt with the aftermath of the tragedy. During the past four agonizing months of waiting for law enforcement to crack the case, we were exposed to an onslaught of speculation, rumors and media reports which pointed fingers in numerous directions.

Invariably, these claims were either attributed to anonymous sources both inside and outside law enforcement or to no source at all. In the absence of concrete developments or established facts, too many individuals anxious for information swallowed these claims hook, line and sinker. In the process, the reputations of innocent individuals were besmirched, and the pain of a devastated family was cruelly magnified.

As we noted at the time of the tragedy, we are well aware of the gravity of the sins of motzi shem ra and lashon hara. We are familiar with the tragic plight of the victims of slander, and of how gossip started by reckless individuals can wreck the lives of innocent people.

It is not a secret that tabloids, agenda-driven news blogs, and social media groups don’t seek the truth as they pursue a “scoop,” regularly passing along blatant falsehood as fact. Yet, we allow ourselves — consciously or otherwise — to be influenced by what they state and even pass these scurrilous claims along. Slanderous accusations pass through numerous mouths, and the final recipient is often unaware of the source’s identity.

For some, buying into ugly and unfounded implications that the victim was in some measure responsible for his tragic fate helps mitigate their subconscious fear of being next. This precludes the sometimes painful but required challenge of engaging in introspection and self-improvement in the wake of a tragedy; it is more comfortable to pin the tragedy on a “cause” unlikely to have any connection with them, thereby assuring themselves that something similar could never happen to them.

Bloggers and purveyors of social media regularly engage in character assassination in a matter of mere seconds, oblivious to any moral responsibility to take the time to weigh each word before disseminating. Contemporary culture is all about instant communication, leaving no room for thinking, let alone serious contemplation.

In some cases, the facts and private details never become public; in many others, by the time the truth emerges, the damage to lives is irreparable.

While the many facets of technology are an inescapable part of our daily lives, it is up to us as individuals and as a community to decide how much we will allow ourselves to be intoxicated by its poisonous aspects. The same way so many Jewish families have long determined that sensational tabloids and immodest media have no place in their homes, it is high time to ensure that blogs, irresponsible at best, malicious at worst — even when run by individuals ostensibly part of our community — have no place on their screens.

We can’t stop the social media groups from spreading insidious rumors about members of the community, but if at least we shun them, we are doing our utmost to prevent them from influencing us.

Many courageous individuals have taken concrete steps and drawn clear lines separating themselves from the quicksand that pops up with the flick of a thumb on a handheld device.

May we all have the courage to emulate them.