Achdus – Yes! Merger – No!

Rabbi Zev Schostak

I read with interest Dr. Richard Lopchinsky’s essay in the Winter 5757 issue of Jewish Action, advocating a merger of the Orthodox Union with the National Council of Young Israel. I, too, share Dr. Lopchinsky’s sense of kinship to both these mainstream Orthodox organizations: I number among my rabbinical colleagues and friends, individuals who have been among the leaders of the Union, NCSY and its affiliates.  I have long respected the integrity and credibility of the OU as a kashruth symbol, as conceived and developed by its legendary founder, Rabbi Alexander Rosenberg, z”l.  I believe that the unparalleled role of NCSY in “reJEWvenating” alienated youth has been one of the great success stories of the teshuvah revolution.  I also grew up together with the Young Israel movement in my hometown, Detroit, which, with three vibrant Young Israel branches and its own YI Metropolitan Council, is the strongest Young Israel community outside of New York.  In recent years, as National Council has taken a more activist role under the bold and visionary leadership of Mr. Chaim Kaminetzky, President, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Executive Vice President, I joined the National Board as Vice President for Programming.

Dr. Lopchinsky, I agree that if you would walk into “any synagogue belonging to either movement, [you] would not be able to tell them apart without looking at the name” providing that those synagogues are located in major Orthodox urban centers like your Queens, New York. However if you travel to any number of smaller Orthodox communities across the country, you would see why the Young Israel name means so much.  According to a recent Synagogue Membership Report of the Union:

     At the beginning of 1995, we had thirteen non-mechitzah member congregations in the Union.  One installed a mechitzah within the last two months (Akron, OH).  Two are interviewing conservative rabbis and most likely will join the conservative movement.  We have twelve non-mechitzah members, eleven with mixed seating and one separate seating without a mechitzah

Even more critical than this report’s candid admission is its glaring omission: how many more Union synagogues use microphones and keep open parking lots on Shabbat and Yom Tov, or have officers who are not shomrei Shabbat? By charter, a Young Israel branch must have a mechitzah and shomrei Shabbat officers; in practice, none use microphones or have open parking lots on Shabbat and Yom Tov.

Some Union leaders have contended that the rationale for maintaining these marginal synagogues within their organization is that by rejecting them, they would inevitably turn to the Conservative (or Traditional) movements (as a number have done).  By outreaching to these synagogues, they claim, they may eventually return to normative Orthodoxy.  This is not the place or space to debate the merits of this argument; indeed, this is a sensitive issue which best be directed to halachic authorities.  Suffice to say, that I believe, conceptually, this strategy is in keeping with the historic mission of the Union from its inception: Outreach and Inclusion.

The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations was founded in 1898 and “was originally oriented toward the few English, rather than Yiddish-speaking Orthodox congregations.  The original call for establishing the organization was sent from the address of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a few early U.O.J.C.A leaders, preeminently Henry Pereira Mendes, were also identified with that institution… It is probably best known for its kashrut supervision conducted in cooperation with its rabbinical arm, the Rabbinical Council of America” (Encyclopedia Judaica 15:1537).  After World War II, with the decline of Yiddish-speaking congregations across the land, and the emergence of a native-born American Orthodoxy, the Union reached out to numerous congregations, whose rabbi was Orthodox, leadership — old-guard Europeans, and membership drifting towards non-observance and indifference.  With a new wave of American­trained Orthodox rabbis, and later, with the advent of NCSY, the Union revitalized many of these congregations under the Orthodox banner.

By contrast, the mission and message of Young Israel has always been Inreach, to keep Orthodox youth and young adults within the fold.  “It was formed in 1912 by young U.S. Orthodox Jews in New York’s Lower East Side who, themselves Americanized, rejected many of the folkways of their immigrant parents.  All Young Israel Synagogues follow Orthodox practice; they must have mechitzahs, dividers separating men and women, and their officers must be Sabbath observers.  With modern facilities, stress on decorum in worship, and an attractive social program, it brought thousands of young people to the synagogue, many of whom were encouraged to enroll in intensive study courses or enter yeshivot.” (Encyclopedia Judaica 16:859).

Dr. Lopchinsky, clearly the Union and Young Israel have vital missions — Outreach and Inreach — and merger will submerge their identities and unique contributions to mainstream Orthodoxy.  Thus your argument that, in our era of downsizing, where there is a limited number of tzedakah dollars, “there is no justification for duplication or waste” is moot — Young Israel and the Union don’t duplicate each other; they complement each other.  In the spirit of healthy, spiritual competition — “kinat sofrim tarbeh chochmah” — they will both continue to contribute to the Orthodox renaissance in America today.

A closing thought on achdut — unity: We’re all for it! Orthodoxy is so fragmented today that we must all pull together to move forward on issues so vital to our people.  It is my personal dream that one day soon, Young Israel, the Union, and Agudath Israel of America will join together — not in a merger — but in a cooperative venture to fight for the future of our people: supporting the role of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate in preserving the status quo of Jewish identity, reaching out to our millions of brothers and sisters who are being swept away in the tide of assimilation, advocating increased government support on all levels for our yeshivot and preservation of our religious rights and freedoms.

May we all be privileged to witness that day!

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This article was featured in the Spring 1997 issue of Jewish Action.
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