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The Enduring Power Of Orthodoxy


William B. Helmreich

William B. Helmreich

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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.

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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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