Rabbi Bernard Weinberger

The defining character of a community will not be how much political muscle it has, but how many self-help groups it provides for its people…

What the Warren Commission said of the racial divide that separates black and white America, could be applied to the American Jewish Community as well.  Religious and secular Jews are two separate and distinct groups that are growing further apart. (By religious, I mean the Orthodox community.  Secular includes those who are aligned with the non-Orthodox religions.)  We do, at times, unite on an ad hoc basis, especially as it applies to Israel or to some other crisis area for Jews, but, inherently we remain separate and distinct.  To be sure, there are many within the Orthodox community who would lament what they regard as a sorry state of affairs, but who fail to appreciate the gulf that exists between our differing scales of values.  It is not merely a matter of the secular community being liberal in its economic, social and political orientation while the Orthodox community tends to be conservative.  We could easily overcome such differences, but, our concern is basic core values that touch at the heart of being Jewish, specifically intermarriage.

The level of assimilation and intermarriage among secular Jews has reached such proportions as to justify the prediction of the vanishing American Jew.  Although it didn’t need any special stimulus to accelerate the growth of intermarriage, the patrilineal decision by the Reform Movement certainly encourages many a Gentile wife.  The simple fact that the secular Jew has been admitted to the main-stream of American life has led to his total acculturation and, in some cases, intermarriage.  Even those who escape this scourge themselves are often confronted with the problem when one of their children marries outside the fold.  But the level of tolerance of intermarriage throughout the secular community, even by those who are not party to it, is so unnerving as to make an Orthodox Jew tremble with fear in developing a relationship with secular Jews.

It is true that there have been remarkable efforts to win over our estranged brothers in a whole network of kiruv organizations, all of which are to be applauded.  But, truth to tell, all of these efforts have had only marginal success, at best, and certainly have not met the real challenge posed by intermarriage.  Even to suggest that we have made a dent in the problem would be an exaggeration.  The secular Jew is quite happy with his station in the mainstream of America and feels very comfortable there, except every now and then when he views the skinheads or other white supremacy groups who cause him fleeting discomfort.  All of this would be cause for great pessimism about the future of American Jewry, were it not for a completely different picture that emerges when we review the remarkable strides made by Orthodox Jewry.

Orthodoxy has grown beyond the wildest dreams of most pioneers both at the beginning of this century and even as late as the 1940s, when we were overwhelmed by the greatest tragedy to ever befall our people.  Yet from out of those ashes there remained several outstanding leaders who gave American Orthodoxy the thrust and momentum to build a bastion and citadel of Torah living here that we previously thought inconceivable.  Orthodox Jews have been infused with a new self-esteem and reliance that has given impetus to a resurgence that continues to propel us to new vistas and has lifted our horizons beyond that which we behold with our own eyes.  We are witness today to a thriving and dynamic Orthodox community that has established significant enclaves along the length and breadth of this country.  Williamsburg, Boro Park, Crown Heights, Washington Heights, Teaneck, Monsey and Monroe are joined by similar bursting communities in Los Angeles, Seattle, Miami, Denver, Cleveland, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis and other cities throughout North America.  We have established beachheads of Orthodoxy throughout the country and we have come closer to the mainstream in projecting an image of a vibrant and dynamic community; government, media and industry have catered to the specific needs of Orthodox Jews.

Yet, despite all of this growth, added all together, we remain but a fraction of the larger Jewish community, even if it seems to some that we are accorded more attention than our numbers warrant.  We remain a minority within a minority.  But, numbers were never a crucial factor for Jews.  Long ago, Moses assured us “not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all peoples”  (Deuteronomy 7:7).  If this is true of Jews generally, it is equally pertinent to Orthodox Jews.  We are likely to remain a minority within a minority (until Redemption).  This should not be cause for discouragement, but rather it is a challenge to strengthen our own spiritual standing and in that way influence and improve the larger community.  In fact, we have seen indications of that kind of trend, where those distant from our traditions have moved to return to ritual and the study of Torah.  The recent clashes of secular and religious elements in Israel, coupled with the Reform decision on partrilineal descent have impeded its development.  Nevertheless, it remains a visible goal that will be strengthened as we accelerate our intrinsic growth in spirituality.

We should be careful to note that not all of the progress made by Orthodoxy is the result of its own strength and vitality.  It has been aided by what is referred to as the Black revolution which has evolved from Black separatism — from “Black is beautiful” to African-Americanism — and in the process has caused the entire country to practice greater tolerance of racial and ethnic diversity.  The streets of our large cities are replete with dress codes of Black Muslims, Arab headdress, Hindus, Tibetans and practitioners of Yoga and have therefore perforce made tolerance of Chassidic and religious dress inevitable.  Thus one can see on the streets of  some neighborhoods people walking wrapped in their taleisim on Shabbos, or with their lulav and esrog on the New York subway during Chol Hamoed Sukkos.  Our normalization of cultural differences in dress and lifestyles have helped Orthodox Jews feel more comfortable, and thus more assertive, as they encounter mainstream America.  To the extent that this ostensible progress is not unique to Orthodoxy, but is somewhat commonplace, it is less significant, if not totally meaningless.  It is external and is not genuine and thus not spiritually meaningful.

However, much of the advances made by Orthodoxy are noteworthy because they reflect on a generation of deeply rooted and committed Jews ready to make real sacrifices for the sake of Judaism.  The level of Torah study in every community is inspiring beyond words; witness the attendance of Daf Yomi shiurim at all hours of the day in a wide range of communities where Torah was once a total stranger.  The growth of yeshivos and kollelim throughout the country attests to an understanding that Torah education is the pillar upon which everything else rests.  Kosher products can be found in supermarkets in far-flung cities.  Mikvaos are not as hard to come by as they once were. Indeed, the telltale signs of a burgeoning Orthodoxy are evident everywhere.  But what of the future?

I regret that I must inject a discouraging element.  A major impediment in the progress of American Orthodoxy is the State of Israel, not through any fault of its own, but due to the simple fact that our concern for it so overwhelms us that it allows no concentration on our own needs.  We are stifled in our original thinking and innovation because we are so preoccupied with our concern for its future.  Previously, it was the constant conflict and wars with and terrorist acts by the Arab neighbors.  Since the Oslo Accords, we are daily bombarded with anxieties over a stalled peace process, American-Israel relations, the possible effects of a land give-away on the settlements, and the ulcer-producing tension of a possible fall of the Netanyahu government.  Briefly, at every turn we are confronted by news, good or bad, that saps our energies and diverts our attention from the issues that we need to address here at home.  This has nothing to do with ideology vis-a-vis the State of Israel, nor is it criticism or praise, but a fact of life that needs attention if we are to gain the vitality to deal with specific American issues.

If we are simply stymied by our concern for Israel, the secular Jew is impacted negatively by Israel in a totally different way.  For him, Israel is a convenient vehicle for retaining his identity with the Jewish people.  Even if he is comfortable within the American mainstream, and even if totally assimilated, he can ease his conscience, if it is troublesome at all, by a hefty contribution to the U.J.A. or directly to Israel.  He can also write an op-ed piece on the need for Jews and Arabs to live peacefully and in harmony, which fits his own relationship with Christian business partners, friends, or spouse.  He thus pays his dues to the Jewish community vicariously.

As the world gets smaller and smaller thanks to the revolution made by telecommunications and technology generally, we need greater and greater leaders.  The lamentable fact is that we have come to the end of the leadership that has been provided by the remnants of European Jewry, that produced giants in stature comparable to the golden periods of yesteryear.  Now we have only “made in America” leadership and that is not very promising.  American life, with all of its diversions, is simply not conducive to the growth of giants.  The fall in the level of Torah leadership is precipitous and it will take several generations, in a changed environment, until we gain leaders of similar grandeur.  Possibly, we will import from Israel, which has the capacity to produce giants.

But, we need to begin by turning our attention inward and not be distracted by the allure and glamour that beckons us to invade the general culture and its captivating environment.  First and foremost, we need to assure the availability of Torah education in every Jewish community within reach.  Therein lies our guarantee against assimilation and our assurances of generations steeped in Jewishness.  Nothing can substitute for an early grounding in Jewish education.  With this goes our concern for a talented staff that is well paid and leadership that will prevent the duplication of effort and the dissipation of limited resources available.

The synagogue too, will undergo radical changes in the years ahead.  We are likely to enjoy a laity that is more learned and educated than in years gone by.  The sermon will simply not be adequate for a membership steeped in learning, and the rabbis will have to be talmidei chachomim of some standing.  In all likelihood, the smaller shul will replace the large and magnificent edifices that we have become accustomed to, and regular shiurim are likely to replace occasional lectures.  We may return to the traditional Shabbos Hagodol and Shabbos Shuva drashos.  The defining character of a community will not be how much political muscle it has, but how many self-help groups it provides for its people, and how many talmidei chachomim it has, and what standing they enjoy within the community.

The one overriding factor that is difficult to prognosticate and is crucial to the well-being of the Orthodox community is the economic expansion of America generally and the Orthodox community in particular.  We are already beginning to see difficulties ahead as the steadily increasing standard of living grows.  It impacts negatively on large Orthodox families that have hardships in keeping pace.  It is certainly true of kollel families, but even working families are facing insurmountable obstacles which necessitate two parents working — which impacts on family life and stability.  We are beginning to see more and more smaller yeshivos, that have provided more close-knit relationships between faculty and students, close their doors because of economic hardship.  A good portion of incidents involving some Orthodox Jews in behavior that is wanting in ethical standards is due to the problems entailed in maintaining the prevailing standard of living.  It is impossible to predict with any precision the economic face of America in the years ahead.  But we know enough to be forewarned of the havoc that can be wrought by  either extreme of a steep decline or an unusual expansion.

We have survived and flourished at all difficult periods only because we have concentrated on our inner strengths without any focus on the outside world.  To the extent that we will grow inwardly more spiritually, we will have the spill-over effect on the outside;  as the baalei musar of old used to preach, make sure your own glass overflows rather than attempt to directly fill another’s glass.  Despite the growing confidence and the temptation to confront the outside society head-on, the dangers inherent in such a move are enormous. This is not to suggest that we practice isolationism, which in today’s world is both difficult and unwholesome, but rather that we emphasize our inward priorities and remain sensitive to them even as we remain participants in the general community.  Despite all the doomsday predictions, our future is both challenging and promising.

Rabbi Weinberger has been the rabbi of the Young Israel of Brooklyn for 43 years.  He is the author of Shemen Hatov.

This article was featured in the Fall 1999 issue of Jewish Action.
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