Like many across the Modern Orthodox community, I read Avi Ciment’s recent three-part essay with considerable interest. While I certainly agree that his message is relevant, I was left with the sense that although Mr. Ciment’s analysis reflects, in certain respects, realities on the ground in the United States, he overlooked a critical aspect of the Modern Orthodox playing field: Modern Orthodox life in Israel – what is typically referred to as dati leumi or Religious Zionist.
I would go so far as to say that one of the primary challenges facing American Modern Orthodoxy is the reality that, baruch Hashem, a growing number of Jews have taken their Modern Orthodox yeshiva education seriously and decided to make aliyah. It is no surprise that Modern Orthodox Jews from North America make up a considerable demographic within the immigrant population, not running from but toward a more inspired religious life. Here they become part of the young and vibrant State of Israel. For this reason, much of Modern Orthodoxy’s spiritual and religious energy is being drawn out of the American orbit and into the fabric of Israeli life.
This reality poses some major issues. It is getting harder each year to find rebbeim/rabbaniyot and teachers for American Modern Orthodox schools, as more and more talented young men and women make their way to Israel. In fact, Ohr Torah Stone’s Straus and Beren Emissary program, which currently has 285 shlichim stationed in Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora, was only able to honor 60 of the 160 new requests for educators this past year. Israeli talent is a solution to this challenge, but we have not yet figured out how to leverage it to keep up with the high level of demand.
The Israeli Modern Orthodox/dati leumi community is not shrinking in Israel; it is growing exponentially. That is evident in the fact that real estate all over Israel is filling up with both young charedi and Modern Orthodox couples. We are developing new or expanding current communities to keep up with the growth. One need only look at the following regions to see the new growth I describe: Gush Etzion, Hashmonaim, Modiin, Kiryat Gat, Baka/Katamon, Nof Ayalon, Be’er Sheva, and even the burgeoning Modern Orthodox community in Tel Aviv.
Israel’s Religious Zionist high school system has more than 100,000 students. As someone who is responsible for a small percentage (approx. 5%) of those students in my role at Ohr Torah Stone, I can tell you from firsthand experience that on an annual basis there are two to three juniors and seniors in the Ohr Torah Stone high schools that are completing Shas – no, not Shas Mishnayot; Shas Bavli. In high school, juniors and seniors are being taught and tested on 20-25 blatt Gemara, with Rashi, Tosefot, and other Rishonim, at a level that outpaces many of their American yeshiva day school peers (not to mention the significantly higher levels of Tanach study).
While formal study is not enough to engage the young person, built into the infrastructure of Modern Orthodox high schools in Israel is that every student has a religious role model as his/her grade dean. When there is an effective Torah personality, it creates an opportunity for the Israeli high school student to have a Torah personality to engage with. It can be an effective way to give each student a central Torah personality.
The advanced level of Torah study in the Modern Orthodox community does not end at high school graduation. Yeshivot and midrashot for post-high school learning are of the highest caliber, and there are more opening up on a regular basis. In any given year, there are more new Religious Zionist midrashot and yeshivot opening in Israel than exist in the entire North American Modern Orthodox community. Similarly, a clear commitment to limmud Torah can be found among adults of all ages, with community batei midrash regularly open for learning and shiurim, and thousands of people (men and women alike) who are on track to finish Shas with the current Daf Yomi cycle.
The Modern Orthodox teenage community in Israel is more engaged in service and community engagement and in giving back than their coreligionists in America are, with a culture among religious teenagers in Israel of investing their energy into giving, not receiving. There is even serious competition among the teen community to be selected for these volunteer positions. Volunteerism and community service are built into the fabric of Israeli society, and I believe this positively impacts the maturity of its young people and their journey towards more meaningful values and purposeful lives.
Yet Israeli Modern Orthodoxy surely has its challenges as well, which take the form of “dat–lash” (a shortened version of “dati l’she’avar,” meaning formerly observant) or “al haretzef” (literally “on the religious spectrum,” individuals who don’t completely identify with Orthodoxy but are still religiously engaged). The scope of this trend has no proper studies to properly analyze its reach, other than one that was politically motivated. But the phenomenon is one that those of us who provide religious education in Israel continually address, and we must develop the proper data so we can employ the right tools to effectively address it.
Ciment discusses the concern of partial chillul Shabbat, a challenge that, in all honesty, plagues both the Modern Orthodox and the charedi community. They continue to feel the pressure, the tyranny of the everyday, instead of realizing that Shabbat is an island in time that allows religious life to recalibrate our souls to our ultimate values and priorities. For this reason not observing Shabbat is tragic in its own right, but my concern is also what such an abdication of central mitzvot leads to. In the Diaspora it can lead to walking away from any religious affiliation and not feeling committed to marrying a Jewish spouse. Many conversion programs in the tri-state area can attest to the fact that those who have left observance, including those who have spent a year or two post-high school in Israel, are approaching conversion programs to see if it is possible to convert their potential non-Jewish spouse they wish to marry.
In Israel, as tragic as it may be for someone to leave aspects of observance, there is a cultural safety net with 80% of the country having some form of a Shabbat experience, over 85% celebrating chagim in some fashion , 92% circumcising their sons, 67% not eating chametz on Pesach, 90% having a Pesach seder experience, 68% fasting on Yom Kippur, and 80% lighting Chanukah lights (see https://tinyl.io/7gss).
Walking away from observance means something totally different in Israel than it does in North America.
I also believe Mr. Ciment’s assessment of American Modern Orthodoxy is not entirely correct. To suggest that the Modern Orthodox community is only engaged in Shakespeare and cannot read a mishna reflects a myopic view. I don’t think that the students in Yeshiva University, Stern College, or Touro University would claim that their limmud Torah is “relegated to inconsequential.” On the contrary, they are committed to what Rabbi Dr. Lamm saw as the crux of a Torah Umada philosophy, namely the “vav hachibur” that holds together our rootedness in Torah alongside our engagement with broader society. (As to Mr. Ciment’s claims regarding the strengths and successes of organizations such as Aish HaTorah and NCSY, it is important to point out that the majority of the leadership of these organizations at the present time comes from a Modern Orthodox background.)
Even so, Mr. Ciment does point to real issues facing the Modern Orthodox community. Most immediately, the deterioration of synagogue life is real. This is not a challenge limited to the Modern Orthodox community, but one that extends to the whole Orthodox community. Tefillah b’tzibbur must be reinvigorated, and doing so requires educating towards the depth and power of prayer generally, and of communal prayer in particular. We need to ensure that our tefillah is meaningful and inspiring, connecting people to Hashem and making the divine presence a real part of our lives and our language.
At the same time, as more and more of life moves online in the aftermath of Covid, our synagogues face the real challenge of being batei knesset in the full sense of the words, serving their original function of bringing community together, be that for prayer, study, charitable projects, youth initiatives, life cycle events, and more. Synagogues are meant to have multiple portals of spiritual entry, so that every member of the community will feel at home in our sacred space. I’ll add, anecdotally, that those synagogues that understood this message of multiple portals from the onset of the pandemic have only seen growth in the past few years.
Mr. Ciment is right in pointing to secular university as a significant challenge, and one that we do not take seriously enough. So many young people are placed in religiously challenging university settings. We need to increase our investment in creating the next generation of student leaders, to enable our students to be better equipped to take on the challenges of the secular university environment.
There is much to bemoan about the fact that there are those, both adults and teenagers, who no longer engage in full blown mitzvah observance. But the solution is not to point a finger at the ideology of Modern Orthodoxy. Those who change the spiritual recipe are not Modern Orthodox. We have to identify why mitzvah observance suffers in certain areas among certain populations, and to work toward bringing people back to a stronger engagement with Torah and mitzvot. Ciment makes it sound like the charedi community is a panacea. There is much to learn from and celebrate in the charedi community. Yet I am grateful that our community has made important strides in combating domestic abuse, particularly in the form of get refusal, and through Ohr Torah Stone’s Yad La’isha, the largest organization in the Jewish world that deals with agunot. I also see that a large percentage of our agunah clients continue to be from the charedi world. While we are all responsible to help solve it, we as a Modern Orthodox community are not guilty of creating such an environment.
That there is room for improvement within our community is undeniable. Modern Orthodoxy is complicated, multi-faceted, and colorful. It is a beautiful way to live, even as we must simultaneously recognize that such a weltanschauung creates challenges that may stunt our community’s growth. Yet Mr. Ciment’s essay, in all three parts, ignores Israel and the rapid growth of the Modern Orthodox community in our homeland. It also ignores some of the solutions that Israel has to offer. While some of Mr. Ciment’s “Modern Orthodox conundrum” issues are correct, wrapping it in a context that the whole movement is flawed seems to me a misguided conclusion. Our community has numerous strengths, and at the same time, leaves much room for growth – no different from any other Torah-observant Jewish community.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network of 30 institutions and programs lighting the way in Jewish education, outreach and leadership.