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August 30, 2014 / 4 Elul, 5774
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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.

But it was in the 1960s that Orthodoxy’s strength really began to increase. If the forties were marked by tolerance of ethnic identity, the sixties celebrated it. People in general began to express pride in their identity. For the Orthodox, who had always taken pride in their heritage, this was an opportunity to express it more openly. Moreover, many previously unaffiliated Jews, ba’alei teshuvah, became attracted to the Orthodox way of life.

Nothing unites a group more than a threat from the outside. Along with the growth in pride, the 1960s were characterized by movements that reveled in uninhibited sex and drug use, and general opposition to establishment values. This caused the Orthodox to both withdraw from society and more sharply delineate their distinctiveness.

Fishman writes knowledgeably about the history of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, presenting fascinating stories about major figures there such as Rabbis Alexander Linchner and Nessanel Quinn. He also provides an interesting, first-hand account of the anti-Zionism of the chassidim in Williamsburg and of some in the Torah Vodaath community.

While many observant Jews, particularly in the Modern Orthodox community, were happy that the Jewish people had regained possession of their ancient homeland, there was an undercurrent of discomfort – in some quarters downright hostility – to the establishment of the state by the force of arms rather than the arrival of the Messiah and to the fact that it was not run according to halachic principles.

By the 1967 Six-Day War, however, most had at least come to terms with the reality of the state. It has now become the standard for young men and women from all strands of Orthodoxy to study in Israel for a year or longer after high school. Moreover, most of the travel to and from Israel that emanates from the U.S. comes from the Orthodox community. Similarly, the Israel Day Parade (now known as the Celebrate Israel Parade), while supported by the Federation through the Jewish Community Relations Council, is essentially a Modern Orthodox event, serving as a showcase for the day schools that march proudly up Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue every year.

Another reason for Orthodoxy’s success in this country was the political sophistication of its leaders. Led by the likes of Rabbi Moshe Sherer, the longtime head of the Agudah; Rabbi David Niederman of the Williamsburg chassidic community; and the Orthodox Union, Orthodox Jews developed close ties with the larger political establishment that made it possible for it to secure financial aid and other benefits for their adherents.

Moreover, the presence in the political leadership structure of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind, New York State Senator Simcha Felder, former New York City Council member (and currently Civil Court judge) Noach Dear, and the longtime U.S. senator and 2000 vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman speaks for itself.

* * * * * The Orthodox community has become the dominant force in American Jewish life. To be sure, the Orthodox make up no more than 15 to 20 percent of identifying Jews, but they are the only segment that’s actually growing. The rest of the community is dying from within, albeit slowly; their larger numbers reflect only the fact that they were once the overwhelming majority.

This observation ought to sadden every concerned Jew, yet it is inescapable. Just look at the figures. How dynamic can the general Jewish community be when 80 percent of its members have never visited Israel even once? (The 20 percent who have been to Israel are overwhelmingly Orthodox.) That’s up from 70 percent ten years ago because the children have followed in their parents’ footsteps.

Birthright Israel is a great and noble effort, but it’s a drop in the bucket. Moreover, the fact that it must offer free trips to entice people speaks volumes.

Less than half of American Jews today attend synagogue services even once a year. By contrast, the Orthodox attend both weekly and daily. The afternoon and Sunday school movements have failed miserably and even the Conservative and Reform movements now tout the benefits of intensive Jewish education. Unfortunately, for most the train has already left the station.

The intermarriage rate in the general Jewish community – almost entirely a non-Orthodox phenomenon – is officially tabbed at 50 percent, but everyone on the inside knows it’s probably 60 percent. (The establishment groups that pay for these studies have a vested interest in playing down the figures because the bad news reflects poorly on them.) And it makes little difference how intermarried couples identify because every study done has shown that the offspring of such marriages do not, by and large, remain in the fold.

* * * * * In an open society people, Jews included, have the right to affiliate or not affiliate. And Jewish leaders have the right to act or not act in this area. Clearly, the Orthodox are very proactive when it comes to maintaining their hold on the community. Yet they too have limitations and this is one of the most important dilemmas facing Orthodoxy today.

One of the community’s greatest challenges is technology, which is a great boon and an equally great threat to Orthodoxy. Technology has tremendously increased the ability of Orthodoxy to educate its followers and to spread the word about its beliefs and practices. The problem is that cyberspace is like outer space: it’s not controllable.

For example, Google has become a source for information about halachas for thousands of people. At the same time we have the much more troubling issue of some Modern Orthodox youth who text on Shabbos without any compunctions.

In recent years it has become fashionable and widely permitted to use a lamp on Shabbos that can be covered and uncovered to make the room dark or light without switching the electrical power on or off. This is a perfect example of how technology has been harnessed to benefit Judaism. Yet many older observant Jews are uncomfortable using it because this option was nonexistent in their generation.

Another problem is the community’s dependence on the government for financial aid. Many, especially those with large families, have no hesitation using food stamps and generally living on public assistance. Others find it demeaning. This has been a problem for almost forty years as people are encouraged to pursue full-time Torah studies even if they possess insufficient means of supporting a family. The government, here and in Israel, seems to be the only solution, however imperfect and undesirable it may be.

Yet another issue is the defection of some young people from Orthodox ranks. Precisely how many are leaving is unknown because families are often embarrassed to discuss it. Measured against the number who left the community in earlier generations, the rate is probably quite low, but memoirs and articles penned by insiders have provided less than flattering portraits of the community.

All this demonstrates how difficult it is to maintain an insular lifestyle within an open society.

Orthodoxy has many claiming to embody it. But can one say those who graduate from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss, and those who learned in Lakewood’s Beis Medrash Govoha have much in common? Maybe not on the surface – but in a very real sense, yes. Whatever their differences, they pale in comparison with the alienation toward Judaism felt by so many who are nominally Jewish. Modern Orthodox and yeshivish may disagree on how to best be an observant Jew, but not on the importance of being a Jew. And it’s the latter that threatens the survival of the community.

On the whole, Orthodoxy is living through a period of renaissance. The young, whether they’re doctors, business executives, or kollel students, are openly proud of being Jewish. The community has its share of scandals, be they sexual or financial, but they’re the exception and the community deals with them, though not always as well as it could. More people are immersing themselves in Torah studies than ever before. And while the temptations of the outside have never been greater, Orthodoxy has demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt them within a Torah framework or resist them outright.

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.”


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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.

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