An Open Letter to Michael Steinhardt

Dear Mr. Steinhardt,

I read with great interest, but also with a sense of profound disappointment, your recent address to a group of Jewish parents and educators on “The Future of Jewish Day Schools.”* Let me begin by expressing enormous gratitude for all you have done for the Jewish people. Hakarat hatov—“recognizing the good,” and expressing gratitude for it—surely is one of the fundamental Jewish values that you eloquently describe in your essay. You have done much to alter the landscape of Jewish identity. Perhaps most importantly, your pioneering efforts in creating and nurturing the remarkable Birthright Israel program have transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Jews. You are a true ohev Yisrael; your vision, tenacity and conviction have emboldened and enlightened our people.

It is precisely because of the enormous impact you have had in formulating the communal agenda that your recent comments on the future of Jewish day schools were so deeply troubling. You posit a Jewish world in which the forces of “denominationalism” are somehow arrayed against those fostering “a sense of Jewish belonging.” And yet, despite your articulated desire to break down denominationalism, you repeatedly, deliberately, bifurcate our community into the Orthodox and the “non-Orthodox,” as if the Orthodox stand apart from, and fail to relate to, the broader Jewish world. No fewer than nine times in your remarks are the words “non-Orthodox” used adjectivally (“non-Orthodox students”; “non-Orthodox leaders”; “non-Orthodox families”; “non-Orthodox Jews”).

I must admit that I find your effort to demarcate, indeed to segregate our community into “Orthodox” and “non-Orthodox” components both divisive and, more importantly, fundamentally counterproductive to achieving what I know you strive to accomplish.

You write, for example, that “[w]e need a cadre of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders who are able to think broadly about how to engage the rest of the community.” The clear implication is that Orthodox Jewish leaders are concerned only about their own community; that only the “non-Orthodox” are capable and willing to engage with all Jews. And so, you direct your remarks regarding the future of Jewish day schools—a future that is of critical importance to all Jews— exclusively to the non-Orthodox world. Your fundamental premise, however, is conceptually wrong, and factually erroneous. Most importantly, it robs the broader community of the energy, the dynamism, the talent and the commitment that the Orthodox community brings to the entirety of the Jewish people.

I have the privilege of serving as the executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (OU), the umbrella organization of some 800 Orthodox congregations in the United States. Our members are fully committed to Torah observance, to support for Medinat Yisrael and to engagement with the society in which we live. We are also dedicated to the well-being of every Jew.

The Orthodox Union has and will always place the needs of Klal Yisrael—all of Klal Yisrael—at the forefront of its agenda. You recognize that “a day school education gives a young person the literacy skills and sense of Jewish connections that increase their chance of ongoing Jewish involvement.” Quite so. But so do a myriad of other life experiences: summer and camping programs; youth programming; experiential education; college campus programming; and, of course, Birthright Israel and Birthright Israel follow-up programs. Each year, tens of thousands of young people participate in a broad array of OU programs designed to engage non-observant Jewish youth and collegiates with their Jewish heritage, foster their Jewish identity, spark their Jewish pride and incorporate Jewish values in their lives.

Consider the following:

1. NCSY, the youth movement of the OU, engages with over 19,000 Jewish teens annually.Thousands of these young people participate in over 200 Jewish Student Union public high school clubs in communities across the country. These students are overwhelmingly non-observant and unaffiliated. Each summer, we take 500 public school teens to Israel on the Anne Samson Jerusalem Journey, TJJ. It is a truly transformational trip. Recently, sociologist Professor Steven Cohen surveyed ten years of TJJ alumni: teens with little or no background in Judaism; teens on the verge of falling off the radar screen of the Jewish people; teens on the way to becoming cold statistics in the journey to Jewish oblivion documented in the Pew Research Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”; teens waiting for someone to ignite the fire of Jewish identity within them. The results, Professor Cohen’s study found, were remarkable. TJJ spurred quantum leaps in the Jewish identification of the majority of the trip participants. Over 60 percent of TJJ alumni reported that they now participate in some form of Jewish learning at least weekly; 93 percent of TJJ alumni said it was important to date only Jews; 83 percent said it was very important to raise their children as Jewish.

2. Yachad, the OU’s program for children and adults with special needs, provides a broad array of social, educational and vocational services to hundreds of participants in communities throughout the United States, Canada and Israel. Yachad participants and their families come from every segment of the Jewish community.


Why do we spend millions of dollars each year on programming outside the Orthodox community? The answer can be summarized in one word: areivut.


3. Our Harriet & Heshe Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC), now on twenty-three campuses throughout the United States and Canada, places educator couples on campuses to provide robust Jewish learning opportunities for collegiates. In partnership with Hillel, OU-JLIC is open to—and utilized by—college students of all denominations seeking to expand their Jewish learning and literacy. And on dozens of other campuses, our renowned Heart to Heart program provides peer-led Shabbat and holiday meals to hundreds of additional collegiates seeking joyful and meaningful Jewish experiences.

4. Israel Free Spirit—the OU’s Birthright Israel program—is an integral part of our programming efforts. Now one of the largest Birthright Israel providers in the United States, the award-winning Israel Free Spirit program brings over 2,000 young men and women to Israel annually—the overwhelming number from non-observant, non-affiliated backgrounds. And, of particular significance, we then provide a wide variety of meaningful follow-up programs, events and Jewish learning experiences for Birthright Israel alumni that capitalize on their often transformative Israel experience.

Why? Why do we do this? Why do we spend millions of dollars each year on programming outside the Orthodox community? The answer can be summarized in one word: areivut. Every Jew is obligated for every other Jew. Areivut means that my obligations, and those of every other Jew, are interrelated and intertwined; that enmeshed in my own personal obligation to God is a larger, broader responsibility to the entire community. Areivut means that as long as Natan Sharansky remained a prisoner of conscience, each of us was imprisoned; that as long as Gilad Shalit was in captivity, we were all in captivity; that when three Israeli teens were kidnapped and murdered, the pain and grief were shared by us all.

Our faith, our areivut, our sense of communal obligation, compel a profound responsibility to our fellow Jews—not just to respond to the decimation of Jewish identity, the results of which leap off the pages of the Pew report, but instead to affirmatively and vigorously seek to prevent it with all the means at our disposal.

Mr. Steinhardt, the Modern Orthodox community is uniquely well-suited to carry out this critical responsibility. You bemoan the fact that Jewish professional leadership is, for the most part, incapable of telling “the Jewish story” in a way that allows the mainstream of uncommitted American Jews to see themselves in that story. With all due respect, your view is myopic. The Modern Orthodox community is positioned and uniquely prepared to engage with our less observant co-religionists. The vast majority of us have been privileged to receive an outstanding yeshivah education. We are Jewishly literate. And we are secularly literate. We are Jewishly committed, and our commitment is genuine and contagious. And we are equally committed—as you are—to success in the secular world; we see that success as a kiddush Hashem. There is barely an industry or profession in which we are not well represented (except perhaps for professional sports). We are filled with energy and passion.

I graduated Columbia College, summa cum laude. I hold degrees from Harvard Law School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. I chaired one of the largest and most prestigious law firms in the country. And following my retirement from the practice of law, I now head one of the largest Orthodox organizations in America. I can tell you unequivocally that I am not at all unique. To the contrary, we live in a society where a candidate for vice president of the United States writes a book about the importance of Shabbat; where the secretary of the Treasury is a regular shul-goer; where the former American ambassador to the Czech Republic complained about the difficulty of finding kosher mozzarella cheese in Prague.

You may find it comforting to banish Orthodoxy to some walled-off corner of the Jewish community. But before you do, before you mistakenly condemn us to outsider status, consider the impact on what you hold most dear: fostering a sense of Jewish belonging; developing Jewish literacy skills and ongoing Jewish involvement. If you can see past the talismanic application of denominationalism, you will discover that we share a mission and that areivut is a compelling motivator. You will discover our dynamism and our passion for our fellow Jew. You will discover common ambition and common commitment. And you will discover a wealth of talent and skill—the very talent and skill that you dream of infusing into the world of Jewish education and Jewish communal life.

Before you separate us from “mainstream Jewry,” come discover who we are and what we stand for. We invite you to meet. Bring your friends. You will be pleasantly surprised.

*The article to which this open letter responds, “The Future of Jewish Day Schools,” can be found at ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-future-of-jewish-day-schools/.

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This article was featured in the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Action.
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