web analytics
July 6, 2015 / 19 Tammuz, 5775
At a Glance
InDepth
Sponsored Post


The Enduring Power Of Orthodoxy


William B. Helmreich

William B. Helmreich

In 1964 the eminent sociologist Marshall Sklare declared Orthodoxy to be irrelevant. His view was that Conservative Judaism was the wave of the future in America.

How wrong he was. Orthodoxy has become a powerful force in American Jewish life. And its power center is New York City, where, according to the latest census figures, the Orthodox comprise 40 percent of the Jewish population. At the same time, 60 percent of Jews living in the city are either nominally affiliated or have no religious identification with Judaism.

A few months ago I chanced upon a remarkable book by Philip Fishman, A Sukkah Is Burning: Remembering Williamsburg’s Hasidic Community. It is a rich and detailed account of life in that Brooklyn neighborhood during the 1950s. The chassidim who came during this post-Holocaust period found an entrenched Modern Orthodox community with a different approach to Orthodoxy and, predictably, tensions ensued. Fishman, who is Modern Orthodox, was part of that community and attended Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, a school that became a flagship institution for a third community – strictly Orthodox or, if you will, yeshivish Jews.

During this period the Orthodox community was weak. The Modern Orthodox were a small group and the survivors who made up much of the immigrant Orthodox were burdened with rebuilding their own lives. In that sense it’s not surprising that no one could foresee the movement’s future.

How did it happen? How did a community seemingly marked for oblivion revive and thrive? The answers lie in an understanding of the internal dynamics of Orthodoxy and a comprehension of developments in the larger society.

* * * * * Every successful movement requires charismatic leaders – people who can inspire others. The refugees had many problems but ultimately they had come, as Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, put it, “from the land of the gedolim.”

The Jews of Europe revered rabbinical leaders for both their knowledge and their personal attributes, their middos. Though America had originally been spurned as the “trefeineh medinah” in the early 1900s, it now became the new home for 140,000 European Jews who elected to rebuild their lives here.

Included in this group were chassidic rebbes and Lithuanian/Polish roshei yeshiva. In addition, several gedolim – Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Yitzchak Hutner, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik and Rav Mordechai Gifter, among others – were already here. Many of the new immigrants flocked to these leaders and eagerly enrolled their children in their yeshivas, most of which already existed before the war.

Fishman’s book provides richly textured and invaluable first-hand accounts of the colorful figures who inhabited this world, from the Sigheter chassidim to the Pirchei leader Rabbi Moshe Lazar to the Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, who officiated at his bar mitzvah. (The book is also a model case study of the conflicts between different factions that were to roil Orthodox communities then and which, as he describes, have continued to the present time. The truth is, the many strands of Orthodoxy give people options. Without them, a good number might leave the fold altogether.)

The late 1940s were an era of prosperity. As a result, more people could afford to send their children to yeshivas. Before this period fewer went, and those who did were mostly boys. By contrast, Orthodox Jews today who don’t provide their children with a Jewish education are the exception to the rule. (I should add that the near astronomical costs of such an education have spawned the birth of Jewish charter schools, which could be used to great advantage by the Orthodox. But that is beyond the purview of this essay.)

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once said that the most amazing thing about the survivors is that they were still willing to bring children into a world that had treated them so cruelly. For many it was a religious imperative. The desire to deny Hitler a victory by ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people was also a consideration, as was as the desire to lead a tangibly normal life. At any rate, the Orthodox Jewish birthrate rose, even as it declined among the non-Orthodox.

Yet another factor in Orthodoxy’s growth was the tolerance in post-World War II America for cultural expression. In the 1920s and ‘30s the prevailing view was that everyone should assimilate. By the late 1940s, when the postwar generation arrived, that perspective had changed to one where ethnic and religious identity was perfectly fine so long as it posed no threat to the country’s national security.

About the Author: William B. Helmreich is professor of sociology at the City University Graduate Center (CUNY) and City College of New York. His many books include “The World of the Yeshiva: An Intimate Portrait of Orthodox Jewry,” “Against All Odds: Holocaust Survivors and the Successful Lives They Made in America,” and “What Was I Thinking? The Dumb Things We Do and How to Avoid Them.”


If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “The Enduring Power Of Orthodoxy”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Rings with Islamic State slogans on them.
Shin Bet Foils ISIS Terror Cell in Negev Bedouin Town
Latest Indepth Stories
President Obama

Sources say seemingly irreconcilable differences between the 2 main parties, Washington and Tehran.

Seder at the White House. The one without the kippa is President Obama.

Instead of accepting reality, the President is trying to hold on to an illusion.

peace in our time iran

Those who suggest further capitulation to Iran are wrongly harming the interests of the West.

Haneen Zoabi (L) and Basel Ghattas (R), Arab members of Israel's parliament, both participated in flotillas attempting to break Israel's legal naval blockade of the Gaza strip.

Few Arab Israelis found anything positive in the decision of its MKS to join any Gaza flotilla.

US Jews prefer to be like their non-Jewish liberal friends complaining about “settlements” and Bibi

New Israel Fund & its supporters must be countered; Israel’s in the midst of an unprecedented storm

PM Netanyahu this week identified ISIS and Iran as Israel’s primary threat. It is a planetary threat that carries the promise of peace.

Haym Solomon, overlooked hero of the Revolutionary War, was America’s “Funding Father.”

Latvia, July 4, 1941 they forced many Jews in the shul putting it on fire; everyone was burned alive

There’s blood on the reporters’ hands AND New Israel Fund for funding groups feeding lies to the UN

Respect & appreciation for our country is not only a civic value but an essential Jewish one as well

When words lose meaning, the world becomes an Orwellian dystopia; a veritable Tower of Babel

Israel, like the non-radical Islamic world. will be happy see the ISIS beheaded for once.

Kids shouldn’t have “uninstructed” Internet access, better to train them how to use it responsibly

What if years from now, IS were to control substantial territory? What world havoc would that wreak?

Rambam writes the verse’s double term refers to 2 messiahs: first King David; 2nd the final Mashiach

More Articles from William B. Helmreich
If one wants to see ethnic contact, social progress, and true turf sharing in New York City, the experience of a Hebrew charter school in Brooklyn is a perfect case in point.

Most areas of the city have a mix of peoples living in them who have daily contact with one another and who share the space. It just makes sense to have good relations with neighbors.

William B. Helmreich

In 1964 the eminent sociologist Marshall Sklare declared Orthodoxy to be irrelevant. His view was that Conservative Judaism was the wave of the future in America.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/the-enduring-power-of-orthodoxy/2012/12/26/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: