This seems to be the best of times for religious Jews.
Our numbers grow constantly, as do our achievements. We have an array of attractive and impressive newspapers, magazines and websites. Yeshiva and day school enrollment expands each year. The advancement of formal Torah study in yeshivas and day schools is matched by the advancement of informal Torah study in shuls and at home, as tens of thousands of adults devote significant time to shiurim or to study with chavrusahs or alone at home. The ArtScroll phenomenon is a singular achievement in Jewish history.
Orthodox Jewry has a remarkable number of chesed activities – many and probably most depending entirely or primarily on voluntarism – reaching out to needy Jews, whether their needs are economic or emotional or physical.
Religious Jews have succeeded in business and in professional life, earning respect for their firm adherence to the principles and requirements of our Torah. Secular Jewish organizations and leaders pay attention to our community, as do public officials.
Surely, this is the best of times for our community and for our people, and the outlook is for further growth and new accomplishments.
There are, of course, problem areas, some of them serious. We have significant pockets of poverty that have an impact at home, in schools and at other communal institutions. Many of our schools seem unable or perhaps unwilling to meet the needs of children who do not do well academically or families that do not conform almost perfectly to religious expectations.
We experience the defection of too many who were raised in religious homes and who no longer are observant. There seems to be a steady flow of bad news about the bad behavior of Jews who are readily identified as Orthodox. Although the eagerness of the general media to pounce on every Orthodox misdeed is inexcusable, at least as inexcusable are the misdeeds themselves.
While not excusable, these defects can be explained as inherent in the territory called life. As the Torah teaches, poverty will never be eradicated, nor will our obligation to assist those in need. We live in an open society, so that inevitably there will be the abandonment by some of religious life. In fact, the degree of attrition from Orthodox Judaism appears to be far below the attrition rate for other religious and ethnic groups. (Racial groups are an exception because while all other groups experience significant assimilation, race, for obvious reasons, is a barrier to assimilation.) As for our schools, even the most perfect will not be perfect for all students.
And character defects that result in wrongdoing are an aspect of each of us having the ability to choose, at least to an extent, the path that we take.
In the aggregate, it remains that we religious Jews have much to be proud of, especially when we consider predictions less than a century ago that we would be extinct on these shores. Our religious life may not be perfect, but surely this is the best of times.
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Or is it? Does the reality correspond to the rosy picture? For a long time, I thought it did. Now I wonder.
In New York, long identified as the leading Jewish city on the planet outside of Israel, City Hall appears to be engaged in a determined battle to challenge religious practices. The most serious issue is metzitzah b’peh, which refers to the oral suctioning of blood from the wound during the bris. New York’s Board of Health believes the practice raises serious health concerns and that every effort must be made to curtail it. Parents must be forewarned that if they opt for metzitzah b’peh, they will be putting their son’s health at risk.
There are, of course, risks associated with a bris milah and they are clearly recognized in halacha. The problem with the Board of Health is that it is engaged in overkill, to an extent suggesting that its dislike of the procedure generates highly questionable statistics about the degree of risk. It needs to be underscored that the issue is not whether I or any reader would choose metzitzah b’peh. A great number of religious Jews do not and, even in the yeshiva world sector the estimate is that about fifty percent do not utilize it. However, there are many Orthodox Jews who insist on the procedure and their religious rights should not be trampled on.
Each day in a typical New York City hospital there are more questionable practices inimical to the health of patients than occur in a span far greater than a year in the practice of milah. The Board of Health should devote its resources and utilize its authority to improve hospital practices and to confront far more successfully than it has so far the multitude of serious health issues facing many New Yorkers. I am certain the policy it has adopted with the active approval of the Bloomberg administration arises far more from antipathy toward metzitzah b’peh than from the desire to protect anyone’s health.
Even more egregious, though far less publicized, is the action taken by the New York City Commission for Human Rights against chassidic shopkeepers in Williamsburg who have posted signs announcing that scantily dressed women are not welcome in their stores. Dress codes are, of course, subjective. This fact should give leeway to those who are willing to forgo business and profit in order to abide by the precepts of their religion.
In the contemporary period, when modesty is not only forsaken but mocked, it is evident that chassidim and others who go against the grain will be regarded as fair game by those who profess to be liberal and concerned about human rights but whose liberalism and concern for human rights ends when persons whom they regard with distaste would be the beneficiary of human rights. I am appalled by this action and by the apparent complicity of the Bloomberg administration in targeting the chassidic community.
To my knowledge, those who have charged Williamsburg chassidim with discrimination have not challenged black-tie events that exclude persons who do not meet the required dress standard. I am also certain that Mayor Bloomberg has been involved in activities that exclude persons with more clothing on than what was being worn by those who were not permitted to enter the handful of Williamsburg shops. It is, in this case, the faux proponents of civil rights who are guilty of discrimination. The chassidic storekeepers are the victims.
Another illustration, this one far more widespread and publicized, is the apparently inexorable movement to promote gay marriage. I acknowledge that apart from the question of marriage, a strong case can be made for promoting gay rights. What is indicative about the powerful trend in the country is that what most religious Jews stand for is contrary to what is happening in states and communities across the nation. This battle has essentially been lost in most states with a significant religious Jewish population.
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Interestingly, although the gay rights issue seemingly suggests heightened public interest in protecting the rights of those who might be subject to discrimination, there is presently negligible interest in protecting the rights of Orthodox Jews, whether in the workplace or in other situations. For many years now there has been no advocacy to speak of on behalf of the rights of observant Jews. Because we do not advocate, no one else cares. Workplace discrimination against Sabbath observers is common at a time when government and the media focus carefully on the victims of discrimination.
The effort begun more than a half-century ago to permit governmental funding of the academic program of religious schools is nearly as dead as the dodo. Here, too, there is little advocacy, although from time to time our major organizations issue press releases or suggest in other ways that progress is being made, when in fact we have lost this battle. There are yeshivas that manage to benefit from government funding, yet this does not alter the reality that the majority of our most vital institutions must go it alone, relying overwhelmingly on tuition income. As a consequence, the tuition crisis grows each year and, as a further consequence, the number of children raised in Orthodox homes who attend public school grows with it.
The sorry state of day schools with an outreach mission is a further reason for concern. I will soon conduct another census of yeshivas and day schools – a project I undertake every five years – and the data will certainly show that enrollment in outreach schools or those that serve immigrant populations has declined sharply.
At the same time, mainstream Orthodox schools, including those that are centrist and modern in their orientation, enroll fewer students from marginally observant homes than used to be the case. The Orthodox day schools that for decades served as an effective instrumentality for outreach and kiruv are forfeiting that mission.
This decline is, in turn, mirrored by the weakened condition of the kiruv movement. While of course each individual who returns to Judaism represents a wonderful achievement, in the aggregate the number of those who embrace religious life has declined. Far more than we may be willing to acknowledge, kiruv is enveloped in an excess of publicity and claims, while the reality is in the other direction. This said, I acknowledge the devotion of those kiruv workers who toil with meager resources and against considerable odds to bring Torah into Jewish homes.
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Our being on the losing or defensive side on public issues that are critical to our belief system and the wellbeing of our community seems not to have affected the mindset of our community or, for that matter, our leadership. Especially during election seasons, we act as if candidates for major office are our best friends, when in fact on the major issues that count for us they do not support our positions. This is true of gay rights, it is true of government aid to parochial schools and, at least by their silence, it is true of just about every other public issue that is important to us.
Nonetheless, our organizations play-act as if they are best friends with top officials and members of Congress, with meetings and press releases proclaiming what are termed to be great achievements. As sure as we have yomim tovim on our yearly calendar, the two main Orthodox organizations have their macher trips to Washington, meeting with congressmen and senators who tell them what they want to hear and then do nothing. Photo-ops and press releases are lame surrogates for meaningful achievements.
During election time, candidates invariably have their Orthodox groupies around them, men who dutifully smile and jump around as if they are on display. Chassidic Rebbes, including some who scarcely have a following, host candidates and act as if somehow our community derives benefits from these encounters. Our lay leaders routinely endorse candidates who routinely endorse positions that are anathema to us.
Before elections, in places like Boro Park and Flatbush, there are pronouncements signed by a long list of individuals identified as rabbis and community leaders saying that it is a sacred obligation to support a particular candidate. Invariably, there is an equally impressive list signed by persons identified as rabbis and community leaders declaring that it is a sacred obligation to support the opposing candidates. What we can be sure of is that we have an excess of presumed leaders who have very few followers.
What is evident at election time is indicative of a more serious deficit. We are bereft of leadership. We have no transcendent rabbinic leaders, which explains why on just about every critical issue of a halachic or hashkafic nature confronting our community there is a turn to Israeli rabbinic leaders for guidance. I wonder whether in all of our glorious history there has been a community of similar or even somewhat smaller size that has had the leadership deficit American Orthodoxy is now experiencing.
On the lay side, the story is similar. We are blessed with lay persons of enormous wealth, some of whom are generous in their charitable giving. But we have no lay leadership, no person with eloquence or ideas. We have check-writers. Less than two generations ago, during a period when we had great Torah giants, including Rav Aharon Kotler, Rav Moshe Feinstein and the Satmar Rebbe, we also had lay persons with ideas who were willing to do more than write or sign checks. They were determined to lead and they led. They spoke for our community and took positions on contemporary issues, doing so with the clear approval of Torah leaders.
So it seems that, at least in some respects, this isn’t the best of times for religious Jews. I might point out that it certainly isn’t the best of times for the Orthodox in Israel, although there is a greater tendency in Israel for rabbinic leaders in particular to keep their eye on what is important for our community.
In a sense, Orthodox Jewry in the United States operates on two tracks. There is the leadership track, normally comprised of rabbinical figures and lay persons, which is experiencing a serious deficit. At the same time, there is the rank and file of Orthodox life – and in this respect, the news is quite good. The rabbinic deficit is compensated to an extent by our reliance on the inspiration provided by the great Torah leaders who gave direction to our community in the post-Holocaust years. It perhaps should not be surprising that there has been a serious decline; it takes a number of generations until rabbinic leadership develops fully in a particular community.
When we look at the ordinary routine of Orthodox life, the quiet devotion of many families and the heavy emphasis on Torah study, what seems to emerge is a religious society in which the whole is greater than the parts. We must not dismiss as inconsequential what is lacking in our religious life, yet what is lacking does not detract from the reality that in important ways this is the best of times for our people.Marvin Schick
About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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