Saturday, March 15, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - March 2003

We constantly hear and read about Jewish unity or the lack of it. Unity refers not so much to the absence of disagreement, a state that is unattainable in human relations, as to a sense of community or commonality, the feeling that however much we Jews may differ, we are one people, am echad. This ideal remains a goal, but in practical terms it is a far off goal and nowadays it is a rhetorical device, perhaps the topic for a sermon. In view of what has transpired in contemporary Jewish life, inter-Jewish unity is illusory. Our unity – our am echadness – has been shattered by the wholesale rejection of our traditions, beliefs and practices by a large segment of American Jews, many of whom are of questionable halachic status. We can hope that we would be one, but we aren’t.

What about Orthodoxy unity, the internal relationships of the ten percent of American Jews who identify themselves as Orthodox? They should have a sense of community, in part because of their limited numbers and also because of their commitment to halacha and to Torah studies.

From the look of things, the Orthodox are beset by intensive, seemingly ceaseless, conflict. Their divisions are real and they are not trivial, for they intrude into nearly all that occurs within Orthodox life, including education, attitude toward Israel, relations with the non-Orthodox, reaction to modernity and lifestyle. Worse yet, the situation is worsening, as our different parts are increasingly set apart and bereft of any cooperation, a point that was underscored during last year’s Washington rally for Israel.

Nearly forty years ago, I sat in the Staten Island home of Reuben Gross, along with Rabbi Moshe Sherer, both of blessed memory, and we devised what came to be the National Jewish Commission of Law and Public Affairs or COLPA. I was the first president of this volunteer group of Orthodox Jewish lawyers and social scientists. We played a pivotal role in forging a body of law that can be described as the rights of religious persons, most notably the rights of Sabbath observers. That was one of our major achievements. Another important accomplishment was the spirit of cooperation among major Orthodox groups, ranging from the Modern Orthodox to the yeshiva world. Our legal briefs – and they were quite a few – were on behalf of a united Orthodox community.

In the 1960’s I was active in both the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel. While I was alone in this, at least such a pattern of voluntary organizational activity was possible. It no longer is.

Sadly, as the Orthodox community has grown in confidence and accomplishments, the sense of community has eroded. In an ironic way the growth itself may be a catalyst for the loss of cooperation because as subsections within Orthodoxy have become stronger, they have gone their separate ways.

Religious conflict among people who are relatively close and yet also separate partakes of the same psychological dynamics that often make family conflicts so intense, even brutal. As the Orthodox have become stronger, they have in a sense turned on each other, coming with regard with greater distaste those with whom they share much than how they regard other Jews who are more distant on the religious continuum. While we may understand the emotional roots of what is occurring in our community, Orthodox in-fighting is no more pretty or comfortable than family in-fighting.

Apart from the emotional aspect, intra-Orthodox divisions do, in fact, occur over serious issues. These issues can be summed up as the divergent reactions to modernity, with the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors increasingly distancing themselves from what is occurring in the host society, while the Modern Orthodox embrace as much of modernity as they can somehow rationalize as consistent with halachic requirements. To complete the picture, the centrist Orthodox accept certain aspects of contemporary life and reject others. There is even an ultra-Modern Orthodox fringe that constantly attacks the rest of Orthodoxy and this group appears to be far more at home with irreligious and even anti-religious Jews than they are with most other Orthodox Jews.

There is scant reason to promote friendly relations with this well-funded and publicity-hungry fringe so long as it conducts an on-going campaign against other religious Jews. However, with respect to the rest of Orthodoxy – 95% or more of the community, there is now an obligation to promote unity, to emphasize the feeling of one-ness and being part of the same religious community, even in the face of diversity and a measure of conflict.

In particular, it is to be strongly urged that the era of bad feeling that has prevailed for far too long among the various segments of Orthodoxy come to a close. The yeshiva world and the world of Yeshiva University needs to cooperate more even as they pursue somewhat divergent paths. This means that each sector must recognize that the preserving and building of Torah Judaism in this country is a partnership. This partnership is often evident at the local level, in our shuls and schools and in other activities, as well. What is absent is a similar feeling at the larger communal level.

There is much that separates Yeshiva University and the yeshiva world and this is not going to change anytime soon. I am not advocating that we ignore the differences. I am advocating that we look at what brings us together in the common goal of preserving our great heritage.

Kiruv and Chinuch

What follows is the sort of story that most yeshivas and day schools would trumpet. Rightly or not, at RJJ we have strictly adhered to a policy of modesty in public relations for thirty years, issuing no press releases and reserving mention of our achievements for the Newsletter. We do not like hoopla or hype and while we have been told that we have suffered as a consequence because too few knew of our good work, that’s the way we are.

Now to the story. It’s my view that the separation, especially in the yeshiva world, between chinuch (Torah education) and kiruv (outreach) is damaging to both vital activities. Contemporary Jewish life requires that these two primary modes of preserving our heritage be integrated, even intertwined, particularly in our schools. They are integrated in the small number of day schools that serve immigrant or newly-observant families. In some of these schools, nearly all of the students are from marginally religious homes. Without wanting to diminish the importance of what these day schools have achieved, the Judaic benefits often are not lasting.

It’s preferable to have “kiruv” students mainstreamed in regular yeshivas and day schools. Unfortunately, most of these schools are not interested in such students because of space limitations or the inability/unwillingness of parents to pay the asked for tuition or simply because they don’t want them.

Of the students at the Staten Island schools, notably JFS, 122 are placements through Oorah, a fine kiruv organization that encourages marginally religious parents to send their children to a Jewish school, rather than public school. Oorah subsidizes part of the tuition – about $1,500 per student – which obviously is far below what it costs to provide an effective dual religious and secular educational program.

These students – and they aren’t the only ones we have from marginal homes – are not separated or labeled as outreach students. They are mainstreamed in every respect, although they do receive tutoring and other Judaic enhancements. The results over the years at JFS have been just short of spectacular, as the students have grown in their religious commitment and nearly all have continued on to Jewish high schools. Few day schools in the U.S. match JFS’ remarkable record.

Mainstreaming works because it is the better way. JFS also has the benefit of the talent and commitment of Rabbi Richard Ehrlich, the Dean, and his devoted staff. Zev Wolfson, the noted philanthropist, and Staten Island’s own outstanding outreach leader, Rabbi Nate Segal, have provided support for the special attention that these students receive.

We hope that our parents and supporters are proud of what has been accomplished. As I think of it, what RJJ did for JFS not very long ago is a glorious chapter in the history of American Jewry.