Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Forty Years Later

This column appears on the front page of this week's issue of The Jewish Press.

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.

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?

As with most historical questions that ask why this or that happened or did not happen, there is no simple or single answer. No one planned to derail that which was unfolding a generation or more ago. Part of the explanation is in lifestyle changes, in conditions that have reduced our ability to advocate what we believe in. Not in our religious life but in public affairs. Volunteerism is in decline in America and so is the role of ideas. Within Orthodox life, askanos or lay leadership is nearly as dead as the dodo. Most of us who might be active or creative are too busy and we leave the job to organizations whose agenda inevitably revolves around their self-interest, to the detriment of the larger community.

This is evident in the evaporation of intra-Orthodox cooperation in the crucial area of public affairs. Yes, there is greater internal unity than there was when sparks flew over membership in rabbinical bodies with the non-Orthodox and the draft of young women into the Israeli Army. But there was, back then, an ethos of cooperation on public affair issues. Our major organizations joined in COLPA's briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts.

There is little contact today, however, whether directly through meetings or over the phone. Strange as it may seem, among the yeshiva-world Orthodox there is a greater likelihood of sitting down with Federation and secular leaders than with other Orthodox. In short, the abandonment of cooperation has resulted in the diminution of our influence.

This is linked in turn to the root cause of current Orthodox feebleness in public affairs. What I wrote forty years ago holds the key to what has changed. We had then broken away from mainstream American Jewry, explicitly not wanting to be part of what had harmed the prospect for Jewish continuity. We insisted on our independence, on the right to advocate religious interests and to challenge the establishment. We weren't interested in being popular or having access. Being outsiders was just fine, if that status would yield results. Emphatically, we did not exalt being outsiders as a goal unto itself; rather, we recognized that by their abandonment of what had kept Judaism alive, the Jewish establishment made us into outsiders.

The tax relief legislation just enacted in New York resulted largely from the efforts of the Sephardic Community Federation, a Syrian Jewish organization that deliberately presents itself as an outsider. Without its advocacy, there would be no legislation. This group is also searching for creative approaches to the constitutioal issues raised by governmental activity that assists parochial schools. Here, too, mainstream Orthodoxy is asleep.

The abandonment of advocacy is also evident in the neglected field of protecting religious persons in the workplace and elsewhere. This neglect has harmful consequences because hard-working religious Jews are often stuck in jobs that offer no advancement, while others cannot get jobs for which they are certainly qualified. Strangely, the rank and file of Orthodox Jewry derives little comfort from the stream of organizational press releases announcing phantom achievements.

One fantasy advanced by those who have little to show in the legislative and legal arenas is that there are behind-the-scenes achievements that are so "top secret" that they cannot be discussed. Of course there are private arrangements, but to maintain that the key interests of Orthodox Jews are being advanced in this fashion is to promote a falsehood. Legislation and litigation are public activities.

What about the Federations and the expanding world of Jewish foundations? There, too, we have abandoned advocacy in exchange for meaningless access, as in the shameful silence when the New York Federation two years ago terminated basic grants to yeshivas and day schools. There is the collateral shamefulness in the snide attitude toward the few of us who are willing to challenge what Federation did to hurt Jewish schools that are struggling to get by.

I might note that in recent years, even as certain of the Orthodox have achieved access to Federation, there is growing Federation support for intermarriage-related activities and other dubious projects that are promoted as "continuity."

Our recent paltry record can be contrasted with what was achieved about forty years ago. Camp Sternberg, which has assisted thousands of Orthodox families, was established because pressure was put on Federation. Nowadays, Federation gives a pittance to Sternberg.

But that's not the story I want to tell. Several years after Sternberg opened, Federation attempted to gain control. This effort was publicly resisted and defeated. Ohel Children's Home is another example from around this period. Its establishment and recognition by governmental agencies came about because dedicated people who were more interested in meeting our communal needs than in being popular fought Federation's efforts to derail Ohel.

If situations like Sternberg and Ohel would arise in 2006, it is doubtful that our leadership would have the courage to fight for our community's needs. There would be Orthodox insiders cautioning, "Be quiet, don't make trouble. We have friends at Federation and we will make a deal."

After all, they haven't fought Federation on behalf of yeshivas and day schools -why, then, should we expect them to take on the establishment when the stakes are even smaller?

As Jewish philanthropy has shifted toward private foundations established by persons who have amassed great wealth, once more the Orthodox community is missing an opportunity, although insiders have exploited their contacts to benefit the institutions and organizations in which they are involved while failing to advocate on behalf of our schools and other broad communal needs.

Working with one foundation, I have achieved much for yeshivas and day schools, without using my contacts to benefit the institutions affiliated with the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, which I serve as president. It saddens me that there isn't another person in Orthodox life who has even attempted to do likewise. If we do not make our case to philanthropists who have the means to help, how can we expect them to support our schools?

The record is worse yet with respect to restitution and Holocaust funds, a field where "top secret" does apply as Orthodox insiders have quietly sed their access to produce immense benefits to their own groups, while purposely neglecting the more legitimate needs of our schools and the larger community. I am certain that this is a story that will never be fully told.

Today's Orthodoxy - call it the new new style of American Orthodoxy - craves access and acceptance and has a fawning relationship with those who are hostile to religious values and practices, as was evident at the Siyum Hashas when honor was accorded to Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and others who have fought against religion and what Orthodox Jewry stands for.

Our new style is epitomized by Agudath Israel's Am Echad project which is no more than an empty slogan that brings no one closer to Yiddishkeit while it purposely sends out the message to secular Jews - many of whom are not Jewish according to halacha - that despite their opposition to what we believe and practice, we are one people. This despite their acceptance of intermarriage, advocacy of gay marriage and much else that is alien to our idea of peoplehood.

Are we one people today, given the wholesale abandonment of religiosity? Forty years ago, when intermarriage was a small fraction of what it is now and when most Jews still practiced certain essentials of our faith, our Torah leaders did not trumpet an empty slogan of Am Echad. Rather, we asserted our independence.

In the 1950's, when by all counts we should have been weak and when our independence resulted in the loss of support for our yeshivas, we fought, under the transcendent leadership of the great rosh yeshiva of Lakewood, Rav Aharon Kotler, and other Torah giants, against the induction of women into the Israeli Army and we rejected membership in boards of rabbis with non-Orthodox clergy.

These were not popular decisions. They did not make us insiders; instead, they fortified our status as outsiders. They were also courageous actions and ultimately they had beneficial results.

I do not advocate that we be militant for militancy's sake. We must continue to do outreach and we must reach out to secular Jews in other ways. Much of my time is spent working with persons outside of Orthodoxy, but this emphatically does not entail the stifling of advocacy of our causes, particularly the needs of our schools.

We must have the dignity and the courage to assert our differences. We must have the wisdom not to embrace access and popularity at the expense of our dignity and independence.

When we crave acceptance by those who in their lives and communal work reject what Torah Judaism mandates, we are less effective. That is or should be the lesson of the last forty years.

As we say in our tefilos, "Baruch hu-Elokainu she-baranu l'chevodo, v'hivdilanu min ha-toim, v'nasan lanu toras emes, v'chaye olam nata b'socheinu." "Blessed is He, our God, who created us for His glory, separated us from those who stray, gave us the Torah of truth and implanted Eternal Life within us."