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October 31, 2014 / 7 Heshvan, 5775
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘assimilation’

Keeping Jews Jewish

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

I recently attended the wedding of a wonderful ba’al teshuva couple whose parents are Conservative Jews. One of the honored guests was their parent’s Conservative Rabbi. Although the mesader kedushin (the officiating rabbi) was Orthodox, the Conservative rabbi was quite involved with various Halachic minutia throughout the course of the evening (…none under the hupah). Without getting into details, I have to say that I was impressed. The rabbi was very knowledgeable in Halacha and insisted that it be followed. If one did not know that he was a Conservative rabbi, one could have easily thought he was Orthodox… and not especially left wing either.

I happen to know that this rabbi came through the ranks of the Conservative movement. He was not one of those Orthodox “sellouts” who took a Conservative shul for the money. He came from a committed Conservative home and his primary Jewish education was through the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) where he was ordained. His shul is fairly large and I would guess consists mostly of non-observant (by Orthodox standards) Jews.

This got me to thinking about the origins of the Conservative movement. I fully believe that the founders’ intent was to ‘conserve’ Judaism… from the inroads of Reform that was sweeping the country in those days. Those founders wanted to produce a rabbinate that was in harmony with American values and American culture… in order to better relate to the melting pot mentality of those days.

Although the movement has since undergone changes whereby questionable theologies have become acceptable… I do not believe that was part of the original equation and did not become so until the late Mordechai Kaplan advanced his radical ideas about the nature of God and the Jewish people. Although radical views are not required in Conservative Judaism, they are now accepted or at least tolerated.

I don’t know the theology of this rabbi. But it wouldn’t surprise me if he believed in Torah MiSinai. In any case, I think one can fairly say that Conservative rabbis like the one at the wedding are observant and see themselves in many ways like kiruv professionals for their members. Not that they are able to get their members to observe Shabbos. But that they try and get them to be as observant as possible without alienating them from the shul.

Oddly enough, this is the philosophy of Lubavitch. Although their primary focus is on making as many Jews as possible religious Lubavitchers, they do things one step at a time and often do not succeed beyond merely making non observant Jews merely Lubavitivch friendly. They will say that we all fall short of perfection and that we should all try and improve in our observances… even those of us who are shomer Shabbos!

I think the Conservative rabbi sees himself and his role in the same way. I further believe that he would be overjoyed if any of his congregants become Orthodox via Chabad or any other Orthodox Kiruv group. Indeed he was effusive with praise for this young couple who were going to spend their first year of marriage in Israel with the husband spending time in a yeshiva.

I realize of course that not all Conservative rabbis are like this. But I’ll bet that there are a lot more like him – that actually live up to the original Conservative credo of trying to conserve Judaism.

I bring all this up in light of an editorial by Forward editor Jane Eisner. She too was critical of her own columnist Jay Michaelson for considering Haredism to be the single biggest existential threat to “fabric of American Jewish Life”…. And castigated him for demonizing and alienating one group when there is another threat that is “just as potent.”

Her point was that the many unaffiliated Jews are increasingly opting out of their Judaism. From the Forward article:

As the UJA-Federation of New York’s recent population survey highlighted, the growth of the “unaffiliated” has equally profound and worrying consequences for the future of the Jewish community. Compounded by the shrinking middle — that mixture of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Jews who are, with some notable exceptions, throwing a party fewer and fewer people want to attend — we have a community that is ceding ground to an extreme form of Judaism largely because many of its members don’t care enough to maintain any other form.

The statistics that Ms. Eisner quotes in her editorial are illustrative of the problem. The trend is towards the growth of Orthodoxy and the shrinkage of everything else. It isn’t too hard to predict the future of heterodox movements.

But instead of being triumphalist, I think we Orthodox Jews are better served by reflecting on this massive attrition by so many Jews from Judaism… and seeing if there is anything we can do about it. To my mind it is tragic that we are losing so many Jews to an assimilation that sees any and all religion as archaic and useless.

It is all too easy to write everybody else off and say, “That’s life”! We can’t really do anything about it. Let us therefore concentrate on ourselves – to make our lives holier and re-build Judaism’s numbers by our own propagation. Thankfully there is Chabad and other Kiruv organizations that do not feel this way. But the people they reach are all a drop in the bucket compared to attrition numbers.

Which brings me back to the Conservative rabbi I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The fact is that if there was some way we could work together with people like him, I think our attempts at outreach would be far more successful. Altruistic Conservative rabbis like him I am sure would be eager to do that.

I am convinced that any and every non-observant Jew that becomes Orthodox would be a success story for him – if he were in some way involved with an Orthodox Kiruv movement – even it were nothing more than steering teenagers to NCSY and through them they became observant, that would be considered a victory for him.

I’m not saying that it will be easy to accomplish that. I realize there are restrictions involved because of issues having to do with validation. These issues are real. Virtually all the Gedolim of previous generations, including Rav Soloveitchik, forbade any religious collaboration with heterodox rabbis for fear of giving them tacit recognition.

One may argue that conditions are different now and since these movements are in decline there is little danger of our legitimizing them in any meaningful way. And that the benefit of reaching out far outweighs a now archaic public policy. But it is way below my pay grade to over-rule these giants.

That those on the left wing of Orthodoxy have done so – even if for these very reasons does not make it right. Besides – joint public prayer ceremonies and the like do not really do all that much for outreach anyway, in my view. There is a difference between working with them behind the scenes – and standing in a public arena and thereby by inference endorsing them.

I believe that we should work with them. Those who are sincere about mitzvah observance, like this rabbi, desire to keep Jews – Jewish. And they now realize that their past leniencies like permitting their members to drive to shul on Shabbos was a big mistake. And exactly counterproductive to their goals of preserving Judaism. They have instead created a path out of it… and their movement is now in serious decline.

I don’t know how to co-operate with them in ways that will not violate the will of the rabbinic giants of the last generation. But I’m sure it can be done. The devil – I know – is in the details. But at this point in time – it is worth taking the time to figure it out. There is too much at stake and the time is short. Before long there will be no Conservative Jews to work with. If not now, when?

Visit Emes Ve-Emunah.

Sharansky Opens Agency in Munich, Fears Assimilation

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky opened a new Jewish campus in Munich this week and declared, “The Jewish community in Germany is indeed unique” but faces the challenge of assimilation.

The campus will house the Jewish Agency’s Munich office and the European Janusz Korczak Academy, a Jewish Agency-supported school that integrates traditional Jewish learning with a humanistic philosophy.

The Jewish community in Germany has flourished in the last two decades following a wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union and has grown to more than 200,000.

“In the last two decades the community has increased in size exponentially but assimilation could cause it to disappear just as quickly,” Sharansky said. “The Jewish Agency for Israel is therefore making a special effort to help young Jews in Germany strengthen their Jewish identity and their connection to Israel.”

These efforts include trips to Israel through Taglit-BirthrightIsrael and Masa Israel Journey.

The Book of Esther: A Political Analysis

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

The Book of Esther, which is read on Purim and to which that holiday is dedicated, has been interpreted many ways. Yet there is much to be understood by analyzing the story in terms of political ideology and strategy.

Ahasuerus is the powerful king over Persia and much more. He holds a banquet and invites the leaders of all of the provinces to come in order to wield together his diverse empire by showing his wealth, strength, generosity, and bringing together his political elite in terms of fellowship and equality with each other.

While drunk, he orders Queen Vashti to come to the banquet to display herself. She refuses, for unspecified reasons, and his advisors urge him to depose her and select a new queen. A young Jewish woman, Esther, is among the candidates. Urged by her uncle Mordechai, she conceals her religiosity-ethnicity, enters the competition, and eventually wins.

At this point, the story introduces a new theme. The king makes Haman prime minister. Mordechai, for unspecified reasons, refuses to bow to him. On discovering Mordechai is a Jew, Haman resolves to destroy all the Jews in the empire.

The story provides a sophisticated analysis of antisemitism:

First, Haman’s antagonism toward all Jews springs from a personal and psychological conflict. This has often been true in history including today.

Second, that conflict is then dressed up in political language to justify it to the ruling authority and the masses.

Third, Haman provides the classic, statement of non-theological antisemitism that could easily fit into the nineteenth and twentieth century and even today, mirroring the kinds of things hinted for example by nominee for secretary of defense Chuck Hagel. Haman explained:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples…of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s law, and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” In other words, the Jews comprise what would later be called a separate national group. It is impossible to assimilate them; they are disloyal due to dual loyalty; and despite their apparent weakness they plot against you.

I’m sure that Hagel is not antisemitic in any conscious way yet he echoes the same themes that Haman used. Haman might have said that he was not a “Jewish” minister but a “Persian” minister, who would not bow down to the Jewish lobby whose interests subverted those of the nation.

A contemporary problem in understanding antisemitism today is that hegemonic political, intellectual, and informational forces in the West want to measure antisemitism by conscious intent and not by the use of well-worn historical (these are even in the Bible!) themes, though that is precisely the criterion that they do use in examining just about any other sort of bigotry. They also begin by excluding all non-Western populations from possibly being antisemitic. But Haman was residing in a non-Western society.

Fourth, antagonism against the Jews camouflages a desire to loot their wealth, in other words material gain.

The king agrees—after all, his most trusted courtier has just told him it’s a kill or be killed situation—and issues the decree for genocide.

In contradiction to these claims of Haman is Mordechai’s good citizenship. This would later become a major theme of Jewish assimilation—I don’t use the latter word in a pejorative sense here—that Jews must prove they are the best, most loyal citizens. Mordechai saves the king by uncovering a real plot against him. By his example, Mordechai shows Jews are not subversives and disloyal.Yet Mordechai’s good behavior is useless if the king doesn’t know about it. Suppose mass media existed and hadn’t covered Mordechai’s behavior but reported on all of Haman’s speeches?

Especially remarkable is the behavior of Esther. Warned of Haman’s plan, Esther wants to do nothing lest she place herself at risk. After all, she is a fully “assimilated,” even hidden, Jew. But Mordechai reminds her: Do not imagine that you will escape because of your high position.

It’s easy to suggest that this can be compared to the Nazi desire to kill all Jews on a “racial” basis. But there are many types of such situations. What’s especially interesting is that Esther’s situation shows how individual Jews can try to set themselves apart to be immune or even prosper from persecutions: converted Jews against steadfast ones in medieval times; Modernized, semi-assimilated Jews against traditionalist immigrants in America and Western Europe; and anti-Israel Jews against pro-Israel ones and Israel itself today.

Inspiring Our Youth and the Search for Meaning

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

One of the many themes I talk about here is the OTD (Off the Derech) phenomenon. Going OTD means abandoning adherence to Halacha and often includes abandoning belief in the Torah. Or God. Or both.

It should not come as any surprise to anyone that this is a serious problem in all observant denominations. From Hasidim, to Yeshivish, to Centrist, to LWMO… all have their share of OTD. Not to mention the “Lites” of every denomination.

The reasons one might go OTD are varied and many, including things like having been sexually abused; growing up in a dysfunctional family situation; undiagnosed learning disabilities (like ADD or ADHD); or the inability of teachers to answer hard questions about belief. These and other causes have been discussed here before.

But I would note that the cause of going OTD I have been hearing a lot about lately is the lack of finding any inspiration in the classroom. It doesn’t matter whether the classroom is a Haredi one or a Modern Orthodox one. The lack of inspiration to remain observant is clearly either missing or being missed by students who do not pick up on it – if it is there at all.

This was brought home to me again last night at the annual NCSY dinner here in Chicago. One of the awardees made this point as did my son in law, Rabbi Micah Greenland, International Director of NCSY (as well as Regional Director of the Midwest Region).

He spoke about this week’s Torah portion where the very first Mitzvah given to the Jewish people as a nation was the establishment of the lunar calendar. Although I am not a Kabbalist and avoid references to the Zohar for many reasons (which I am not going to go into here) Rabbi Greenland made reference to the Zohar’s explanation for God giving this as the very first Mitzvah to His people. He compares the Jewish people to the phases of the moon. The moon waxes and wanes every month. And every month when it renews its waxing and waning cycle we bless it.

The Jewish people have their own moments of waxing and waning. Sometimes that occurs simultaneously. As is the case in our own era. On the one hand we live in unprecedented times. There are more Jews learning in religious day schools, high schools, and yeshivos post highs schools than at any time in history. There are more books published in English on every possible variety of Torah subjects than ever before enabling masses of people to access Torah unlike any time in history. There are tons of shiurim on the internet on every Torah subject and for every level of student – from the most sophisticated advanced student of gemerah to the novice.

On the other hand this is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of Jews who don’t know anything about their own religion and don’t care. They do not know an Aleph from a Beis. Not because they reject Judaism. But because they never had the slightest exposure to it… other than tokenism. If I am not mistaken the figure Rabbi Greenland used is 90 percent.

Ninety percent of all Jews fall into this category. And more than half of them intermarry. In many cases this is even a cause for celebration. In a country that celebrates both diversity and assimilation at the same time, a mixed marriage is the quintessential example of how that works.

Who can forget the image of Chelsea Clinton under a chupah with her talis wearing, Yarmulke wearing chasan! The pop culture media salivated with great joy over that event. This is a media that includes many Jews. And many of those are themselves intermarried. As nice as it might seem for our standing in this country for one of our own to marry the daughter of a President, an intermarriage is not something to celebrate.

What we end up having is a twofold problem. Reaching out to the unaffiliated and reaching in to the uninspired. There is a lot of good work being done in the former. But what about the latter?

Rabbi Greenland said that NCSY addresses both problems. Although the majority of NCSY attendees are from non observant backgrounds, there are many from religious backgrounds who attend religious schools. While they all are taught the basics of Halacha, and how to study Torah in all its various forms many students just go through the motions. Once they graduate high school and move on to a university campus, the lack of having had any inspiration can easily cause them to drop observance altogether.

The Future of Judaism

Monday, January 7th, 2013

From time to time, my views are challenged by both those to my right and those to my left. That happened recently in discussions about going ‘Off the Derech’(OTD).

The right constantly challenges me about why I do not discuss what they perceive to be a much larger instance of Going OTD among Modern Orthodox Jews. I am not prepared to concede the point. As many people have pointed out, there have been no studies (at least that I am aware of) that breaks the OTD phenomenon into percentages or numbers of individual groups. But I will concede that it is very possible that the MO community is the one that goes OTD is the larger of the two, at least in terms of percentages.

The Left keeps challenging my contention that I see Charedim to be the wave of the future. Again there are no studies that I am aware of that speaks to this issue.

In answer to the first question, I speak about Charedim because I believe them to be the wave of the future. Their current large numbers and exponential growth over the years would seem to confirm that belief. Lakewood Yeshiva has grown from a few hundred students in the 60s when I was in high school to over 6000 today with plans to accommodate an increase in growth to over 10,000 students.

That Charedi Mechanchim out-number MO Mechanchim is a simple fact of life which is bolstered by the fact that Charedim tend to go into Chinuch a lot more than MO Jews do. Some MO schools hire Charedi teachers in fact for lack of finding enough teachers that are MO.

Charedi family size is clearly larger on the average than that of MO Jews since they are encouraged to have as many children as they can. Nine or ten children per family is not an unusual number for Charedim. Not so for MO. The Charedi rate of growth will no doubt continue along those lines and increase exponentially with every new generation.

The only real question in my mind is what form Charedism will take.

I have expressed my views on this many times –views which were first noted by Rabbi Berl Wein. I firmly believe that Charedim will increasingly take the form of moderate Charedism. That means that Charedim will employ (and in many cases already have employed) many of the modalities of Modern Orthodoxy. Like having professional careers requiring university educations for example. That’s why places like Touro exist and flourish.

I can’t understand why anyone would deny this reality. Is there anyone who thinks that Charedim will suddenly reject the values they have been indoctrinated with and suddenly become adherents of Torah U’Mada?

That Modern Orthodox Jews have a sizable number is also true. But their rate of growth is a fraction of the Charedi rate of growth. The very nature of a more open society that is a hallmark of Modern Orthodoxy creates an environment that is more conducive to assimilation.

Those without a firm grounding in the values of observant Judaism can easily abandon it in college where the pressure to conform to the campus social life is very strong. Especially in those schools with little or no Jewish presence.

Who among MO will fall prey to these negative influences?

I believe that many MO Jews (those who I call MO-Lite of which I think there are a great many) do not provide their children with the kind of grounding that can withstand the pressures of campus life. By opting for the best university they may sacrifice a strong Jewish presence other schools might have – and hope for the best.

On the other hand committed MO Jews on either the right or the left will survive and so will their children. They will opt for YU, Touro, or a university like Penn with a strong Jewish presence.

In the Charedi world where observance and fear of outside influences infecting their Hashkafos is always the primary concern – they do not fall prey as much to assimilation because they fight it tooth and nail… preferring isolation over any exposure at all.

True, Charedim have other problems much of which is caused by that very isolationism. But even if you even leave out the attrition rate of both MO and Charedim, the exponential growth rate of Chareidim over that of Modern Orthodox Jews definitely points to their numbers increasing and comprising the lion’s share of Orthodoxy.

An Existential Analysis

Wednesday, December 19th, 2012

There were 4488 page views (‘hits’) on my blog yesterday. Of those 1429 were unique visitors. Unique visitors are the actual number of people who accessed my blog during Monday’s 24 hour period. Of those, 307 voted on my poll. Which asked to choose the biggest existential threat to Judaism from a list of 7 possible choices. The results were: Chilul HaShem 78 (25%) Education 127 (41%) Feminism 11 (3%) Internet 13 (4%) Poverty 22 (7%) Sex Abuse 14 (4%) Tuition 42 (13%)

Not surprisingly the largest number of votes by far – 127 (41%) went to educational concerns. A full 25% of the votes went to concerns about Chilul HaShem. The third biggest concern was the Tuition crisis. The rest of the respondents were in single digit percentages poverty being the biggest concern among those.

The bottom three concerns were about the impact of sex abuse, the internet, and feminism.

First let me address the fact that a lot of factors were not included. Among them were: going OTD, divorce rates, dysfunctional families, sexism, the move to the right, the move to the left, the Shiddach crisis, assimilationist influences, isolationist influences, the State of Israel, increased divisiveness between Hashkafos… all serious challenges to Judaism. I could not list them all. That would have made the poll almost meaningless dividing the vote into small and insignificant numbers. I chose these because I believe that although they are not all inclusive – they do represent a wide variety of issues often cited as existential threats.

Not that these results are all that significant. The sample was relatively small and not random. It was also heavily biased in that respondents were people who read my blog. And only a small fraction of those actually voted. So for these and many other reasons, this poll cannot be taken as representing what the actual percentages of all Jews believe regarding any of these issues.

That said, I like to think that my readership consists mostly of Orthodox Jews that are intelligent, well educated, care greatly and have strong feelings about issues affecting the Jewish world. Although this blog’s demographic skews heavily in favor of Modern Orthodox Jews, there are many Charedim among my readers too. As well as non Orthodox Jews and even a few non Jews. I strongly feel that the majority of those (at least of those who comment) are fair minded, keen observers of the Jewish world whose opinions should be valued. So even though this is not a random sample of all Jews, it is a sample of thinking and caring Jews.

It was a little surprising to see how few people there were who thought that sex abuse was the most important issue of the day. Considering the fact that this issue is the most hotly debated issue in our day… and that the fact that the slightest taint of it in any institution will cause a tremendous outcry… and considering the damage that it causes to victims – sometimes permanent psychological damage… and the damage it causes to the victim’s families, and even the abuser’s family… and considering revelations about the far greater number of victims than anyone ever suspected… and the fact that so many of the victims go OTD… I would have thought sex abuse would have gotten a much bigger vote than 14 people.

I guess the reason for that is that as bad as sex abuse is… and as great the damage it does to so many people – even beyond the actual victim, that issue alone is not seen as an existential threat to Judaism itself. But still, the way religious leadership across the board has dealt with it in the past – and even now cannot but have a deleterious effect upon our existence. Many iconic names – religious leaders across the spectrum of Orthodoxy have – by word , deed, or lack of action – have disappointed victims and their advocates. This disillusions people about Orthodox Judaism. Sex abuse is a serious problem in need of our immediate attention. It should have ranked a lot higher than 5th out of 7 – totaling only 4% of the vote.

That Chilul HaShem ranked number 2 is no surprise. If anything can disillusion people, it is when prominent Jews get caught in wrong doing like fraud, tax evasion, and money laundering. Whether it is Rubashkin, the Spinka Rebbe, an elderly Sephardic Rabbi in New Jersey, or of late, Rabbi Yehoshua Pinto – it does not inspire a love of Judaism when such high profile rabbis who are supposed to be role models and teachers end up being crooks.

What Is the Biggest Problem Facing Judaism?

Monday, December 17th, 2012

This week Mishpacha Magazine had an article that asked what may be the most important question one could ask about Judaism. What is the biggest existential issue plaguing the Jewish world in our day?

They asked a number of prominent respondents from a wide spectrum of Hashkafos. From Rabbi David Neiderman, a prominent leader of Satmar that heads many of their organizations on one end – to Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the OU and Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried, Associate Professor of Psychology at YU’s Stern College for Women.

Mishpacha received a wide variety of answers. Interestingly none of them said it was the move to the right.

More importantly, no one said that sex abuse is that issue. I tend to agree. Of course to the increasing numbers of victims and their families – that is the biggest issue plaguing Judaism today – a Holocaust in fact. While I agree that this is a major problem and the one in most need of immediate action, I do not see this by itself to be the biggest issue. Although I do believe it is a major contributor to it.

The respondents each stated what they thought. I will briefly list what each one of them said.

Jonathan Rosenblum thought it was the idea that too many of us do not think about honoring God. In a nutshell he says that this leads to not thinking about which of our actions constitute a Kiddush HaShem or Chilul HaShem. In many cases we tend to think only about ourselves and our own limited communities and never give a thought to how those outside of our word see our actions and how our behavior impacts on their perceptions of Judaism as a whole. I think he’s right.

Rabbi Niederman (without saying so directly) spoke about the dire poverty he must constantly encounter in his Kehilla in Williamsburg. His point being that without a means of sustenance, spirituality doesn’t even begin. Ein Kemach Ein Torah. To him, poverty is the primary existential threat to Judaism.

Rabbi Weil spoke of the spiritual holocaust of assimilation. A holocaust that he says causes more Jews to be lost from Judaism than the actual Holocaust. 56 percent of all Jews are intermarrying. The great boon to Jews in America is its biggest bane. Because of our broad acceptance – it is easier than ever to become completely assimilated. The largest bloc of Jews under 40 are choosing not to live as Jews. The American ideal of freedom and our widespread acceptance is in fact the double edged sword that is both helping us and skewering us. On the one hand observant Jews have been so accepted that we are invited to serve at the highest echelons of government. But at the same time the freedom this country offers allows us to shed any semblance of our Judaism.

Rabbi Zecharya Greenwald, a published ArtScroll author and head of a Jerusalem based women’s seminary, says that our educational system is failing us in the self esteem department. Our students are being brought up to believe that if one does not attain the ideal state of a Jew as defined by the particular Hashkafa of their schools, they are not worthy of God’s love. The push to perfection has created an entire population of young people who feel themselves unworthy, no matter how accomplished they are, they feel they fall short of the ideal expected of them. Thus feeling worthless!

And finally there is Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried. He takes a typically academic approach rejecting all anecdotal information that often inspires various media to become experts about what is or isn’t important. He says we ought not try and isolate issues. Instead he says that all issues need to be studied by professionals which include the entire spectrum of the Frum world – rabbis and lay leaders. Such studies ought to include an interdisciplinary team of professionals – along with ‘a social scientist or two’. After clearly studying and defining those issues – we can develop solutions to them.

Of all the approaches mentioned, it’s hard to argue with Dr. Fried. What better method can there be for determining that than a scientifically designed study that will be objectively conducted and analyzed by the widest variety of people and professionals available to us.

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