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The Enduring Power Of Orthodoxy


William B. Helmreich

William B. Helmreich

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.

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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