Forty years ago, I wrote an article called “The New Style of American Orthodox Jewry” that was published in Jewish Life, then the magazine of the Orthodox Union. Its opening words were, “It is common knowledge by now that Orthodox Jewry in this country is making rapid advances and is, in a real sense, the healthiest segment of American Jewry.”

This was written at a time when the Orthodox were fewer in number than we are now, and many who identified themselves as Orthodox were so by affiliation and not by practice. They were no more than marginally or nominally observant and soon they or their children would fall away. Among those whose religious commitment was on firmer ground, there was sharp internal conflict over Israel, relations with the Conservative and Reform movements and other critical issues. Day school enrollment was a third of today’s number and the influence of religious Jews in Jewish communal life was limited, as secular and non-Orthodox groups were dominant. The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel did not have Washington offices.

All told, it was perhaps premature, if not arrogant, to describe Orthodoxy as I did in 1966.
Developments and Roots

I was prescient, but not prophetic. What I sensed were developments with roots in the 1950’s. The new Orthodox style was assertive and independent, even militant, as the Orthodox broke away from positions embraced by the larger community.

When Congress in the mid-1960’s enacted the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and included parochial schools in grant programs, Orthodox leaders testified and advocated on behalf of this breakthrough legislation. The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs (COLPA) filed briefs in support of the statute and challenged the claim that opponents spoke for all of American Jewry. Our aim was to promote the interests of religious Jews, not to be popular.

For all of their bruising internal battles, the Orthodox were able to set aside their disagreements and even bitterness to present a unified position on government aid to parochial schools, as well as the emerging field of the rights of Sabbath observers and religious persons. We directly confronted the Federation world, challenging its wretched record of non-support of day schools and hostility to religious causes and institutions.

It’s telling that in 1969, Rabbi Irving Greenberg – even then the hyper-Modern Orthodox leader – led a group of young protestors who disrupted the annual meeting of the Council of Jewish Federation and Welfare Funds to demand aid to day schools. Their advocacy bore fruit.

There were other achievements, arising from our unity on public issues despite our diversity and discord on religious issues. We were willing to go it alone, to be outsiders. Because we were outsiders, we had greater influence.

It is forty years later. We have two Washington offices, access at the White House and in other high places. There are more of us – and more of us have the capacity to be influential. On some levels, there is less intra-Orthodox friction. Federation leaders and Jewish machers break bread with us. They are our buddies. In short, we have made it. We are insiders. Everything should be coming up roses, at least in the public domain.

The record shows otherwise. President Bush and Congress, whose political conservatism matches the political ideology of most Orthodox Jews, gave us the first major piece of Federal education legislation since the 1960’s, the “No Child Left Behind Act.” All religious schoolchildren were left out. In New York, where presumably we have clout, until the recent tax relief legislation there wasn’t anything to follow up on the significant achievements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, primarily the textbook and mandated service programs that have assisted our schools.

Protection of Sabbath observers is all but a dead issue, although discrimination against them is still practiced in abundance. The New York Federation has sharply cut back the relatively little it does for yeshivas and day schools. In 1967 I chaired a conference on “Government Aid to Parochial Schools How Far?” – the expectation being that what had been achieved was a prelude to greater accomplishments. They never materialized.

What happened? Why are we so feeble, even as we have access and visibility, even as we broadcast claims of influence?

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Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at [email protected].