Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum and the Hebrew Academy of Cleveland have produced a fascinating book, “The World That Was America, 1900-1945.” It is a work that in pictures and words shows how our people’s great Torah legacy was transmitted to these shores and took root in the first half of the last century. The Rabbi Jacob Joseph School is, of course, a part of the story. Because choices had to be made regarding what and whom to focus on, there obviously are opportunities to question and quibble and also to challenge what is presented as fact. As an example, RJJ was established in 1900, not in 1903 as the book asserts. Whatever its limitations, “The World That Was America, 1900-1945” succeeds, in large measure because of the fairness and generous spirit of the author. This is an inspiring work.
In an immutable sense, the period that is covered was a time of tragedy for religious Jewry, of course because of the European Churban and additionally in this country because of what was irretrievably lost. If at any point during this period statistics were gathered on the affiliation of American Jews, they would show – probably by a considerable margin – a greater number of Orthodox Jews than there are today. Such numbers were misleading for they masked massive erosion and loss. Alien seeds were planted in the first decades of major Jewish settlement in America and they grew into the poisonous fruit of Judaic abandonment that has darkened the American Jewish prospect. What little there was of meaningful Torah education was inadequate to stop the toxic trend. There were few yeshivas and day schools and they were, in the main, of limited effectiveness because the number of yeshiva high schools was fewer still. More tellingly, the Beth Jacob schools for girls were not established until the latter part of this period.
Yet, Rabbi Scheinbaum is right to identify these years as a time of development, a time of important first Torah stirrings. Other seeds were planted by people who in his moving words “refused to accept negativity, did not succumb to apathy, and overcame challenges with resolution and fortitude.” Most were rabbinical figures who came from Europe, primarily yeshiva deans and Chassidic rebbes. There were also pulpit rabbis and organizational heads. The group also included lay leaders, including from our cherished history, Irving M. Bunim.
The Torah giants who provided inspiration and direction during these formative years and then into the decades that followed are all gone, succeeded by men of doubtlessly lesser stature and yet who also inspire through their personal qualities, learning and dedicated communal activity. What has changed enormously is the diminished role of lay people, especially in the world of Torah education. We have check-writers, loyal individuals who are ready to serve and people who come to meetings and follow the direction of Torah leaders. What we do not have or want to have from lay people are their ideas or their initiatives and we do not look to them for creativity and inspiration.
It is as if the relationship that existed in the period covered by Rabbi Scheinbaum was an aberration, a departure from proper norms that was tolerated because religious Jewry was in a weakened state and we took whatever help we could get. Now that we have grown and are more confident, the feeling is that we must go back to the arrangements that we presume to have characterized the role of lay people in previous generations. In fact, in pre-Churban Europe, lay people played important roles, including as leaders.
I think of my youth and how the great Rosh Yeshiva of Lakewood enlisted outstanding lay people as junior partners in his multiple efforts to build and strengthen Torah life here and in Israel. Our current downgrading, even denigration, of lay leadership in the Torah world has resulted, in my view, in a near paralysis of creativity within the day school movement, something that is not evident in the New York area where the high fertility rate produces constant enrollment growth. Elsewhere, the story is of attrition and even worse. Whereas lay people were once vital in the work of Torah Umesorah, they aren’t any longer and there has been a high cost to pay for this in communities where that organization once played an active role.
If we think about it, our greatest creativity and vitality are evident in chesed activities and that is an area where lay people have a direct impact. The picture is different for yeshivas and day schools. I wonder what might be written about the contemporary period if fifty years from now a project similar to Rabbi Scheinbaum’s and the Hebrew Academy’s were undertaken.