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.