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On Orthodox Insularity

The words over the yeshiva's main doors used to be in English.
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Photo Credit: Matanya Tausig/Flash 90

We davened, on Shabbos, at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin on Coney Island Avenue in Midwood, Brooklyn. It was the early 1980s and the yeshiva was an eight-minute walk from our home. I remember the front of the building vividly, the colored glass windows on the left, the red brick on the right and the words posted over the three metal doors in the center: Jacob C. Cohen Beth Hamidrosh.

Who was Jacob Cohen, I wondered, and why did he contribute to the yeshiva? Had his children attended the school? Was he a philanthropist? A personal friend of the rosh yeshiva?

The older I get the more I notice names on buildings.

Arguably, a name on a school building gives hundreds of kids walking its halls – especially those with a surplus of verve and deficit of zitzfleish – a path to greatness. The name on the wall testifies to someone who achieved material success and channeled that success to a spiritual end, a tangible portrayal of the core Jewish value that the physical is the means and kedushah the end.

The old Yeshiva Chaim Berlin building is gone. It was torn down in the late eighties to make place for the majestic edifice that now stands in its place. Some twenty-five years later, however, I still remember Jacob Cohen.

There is another thing I remember: the words over the main doors were in English.

Recently I visited BMG Lakewood, the school I attended from 1994-2000. The old building on Seventh Street had the name of the institution lettered in both Hebrew and English, with the English lower and more prominent: Beth Medrash Govoha, Rabbi Aaaron Kotler Institute of Advanced Study. But the new buildings I saw had nearly all the writing in Hebrew.

I can read Hebrew and I understood what the words were saying. But there was something there, devarim b’gav. The designers of the old building, undoubtedly, wanted the general public to know what the building was about. They wanted the secular neighbor and non-Jewish postman to know the purpose of the institution. The planners of the new buildings apparently didn’t see that as important.

True, the neighborhood has changed and is now almost entirely observant, a sign of the success of the yeshiva world. But there are gentiles in Lakewood, either residing or doing business there.

There are different opinions about the correct relationship between Jew and non-Jew, about the level of insularity needed to raise a generation that will cherish the Jewish mission and commit to Torah and mitzvos. The left of the Orthodox spectrum says we must engage the world and live as Orthodox Jews in the larger culture. The right says we need a very strong, disparate identity, and that engagement is fraught with danger. But the holders of either opinion, I would think, believe observant Jews should be cognizant of the way they are perceived and, at the very least, leave a window open for the larger culture to see what they do and understand why.

An English-language shingle may be the bare minimum needed to express that we care about how others perceive us.

In Judaism, we have a tradition of not teaching Torah to non-Jews. My Dallas convert friends will attest that becoming Jewish was not an easy process and they were discouraged all along the way.

But does not pursuing converts mean we shouldn’t weigh in on the moral issues of the day? Does it mean we should stand back as the culture craters around us? If, for example, marriage brings us emotional balance and spiritual completion, and opens us up to trust, understanding and the joy of raising children, should we not encourage the larger culture to see the virtue in those values as well?

A connection to God through learning Torah is the pathway afforded to Jews. But is a connection to God something only Jews should experience? If we have a Godly connection and see other people struggling in that regard, should we not share it?

When we see the base threads that run through most of what Hollywood has to offer, and realize not only that tens of millions of people gain secular, hedonistic values from movies and television shows but that secular Jews are often the creative forces behind them, should it not make us want to cry out?

When we see the deconstruction of the Judeo-Christian credo of this nation, and observe that the three Jewish Supreme Court justices comprised the majority of votes that undid the Defense of Marriage Act, does that not make us want to loudly proclaim that Torah-true Jews do in fact believe in traditional mores?

When I lived in New York, I recognized that city as the center of civilization. Now that we have lived in Texas for thirteen years, I have been convinced otherwise. New York is unusual. Its aggressively secular, irreverent culture is not found in many other parts of the nation.

Living in Texas has opened up a new world to me – the world of Judeo-Christian forces fighting a mammoth struggle against secularism, faced with the inherent challenge that a dispirited populace will more readily choose decadence than discipline. I know that it is the Judeo aspect of their tradition that keeps them fighting these battles. And I have come to the conclusion that we should engage these issues alongside them.

Many Jews disagree. I respect them for it. My worldview has been modified by my time in Texas and getting to know its people. My contemporaries in the Northeast often hold a worldview based on the perspective of Eastern Europe and secular New York, both of which mock almost everything the Orthodox Jew holds dear.

In Texas we come in contact with people who to a large extent crave Judeo values – and who don’t understand why so many Jews undermine the very values they gave the world.

In Texas one can’t help but conclude that the battle being fought is not unlike the battle of the five kings and the four kings (Bereishis 14) – which Maharal defines as the struggle between the core physical and the Judeo-inspired – and that observant Jews can help turn the tide.

If most of my brethren do not believe in opening the doors to talk, I pray at the very least they put out a shingle and post the names of yeshivas and shuls in English. It will open a window – a Jacob C. Cohen window – to those looking for an anchor, a framework, a foundation that is Godly. They will see our relationship with God, our commitment to family, and emulate it. And that will be good.

We live in a tumultuous, changing world. What was moral ten years ago is seen by many today as immoral. The tide is turning against us and it will continue to rise.

We should stand up and be counted. Or, or at the least, stand up and be seen.

About the Author: Yaakov Rosenblatt, the author of two books, is a rabbi and businessman in Dallas.


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One Response to “On Orthodox Insularity”

  1. When the yeshiva in Lakewood was first getting off the ground, its students were fed by the local Jewish "egg farmers" (raising chickens for their egg-laying properties); most were first generation immigrants – some post WW2 but many who had come before – who were of very limited observance but had cultural, familial, and emotional ties with the "old world" that Rabbi Kotler represented.

    That Jew is no longer of any concern to the insular yeshivah world; if anything, the only people in the entire spectrum of orthodoxy who show them any attention are the Chabad shiluchim who at least try to be inclusive. But to the black-hat yeshivas and to the rest of the Hasidic world, they could just as well be the Mormons of Utah or the Inuit of the NW Territories of Canada.

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