That’s why universities each have their own school colors, mascots and sports teams. Similarly, companies seek to generate corporate loyalty and pride by encouraging social gatherings and the glorification of institutional history and achievement. Governments, too, seek to infuse citizens with a sense of kinship, shared goals, commitment and identity. Patriotic symbols, such as a national anthem and flag, are revered, and the country’s unique traditions are celebrated.
Throughout the millennia, Torah-observant communities from right to left on the religious spectrum have adopted vibrant and rich sub-cultures as well. The cultivation of such sub-cultures is not an attempt to deny the centrality of Torah observance or religious growth, but is rather a strategy employed to preserve it. Jewish identity is essential for Jewish continuity and growth, and Orthodox Jewish culture solidifies and strengthens identity.
What do I mean by an Orthodox Jewish sub-culture? I mean, for example, the distinct languages and style of dress often found within various Orthodox Jewish sub-groups. Each of the American Sephardic communities, whether Syrian, Moroccan, Persian or Bukharian, nurtures and protects its own magnificently unique and flavorful customs and traditions. Similarly, not only do Chassidim don shtreimels, bekishes and other recognizably distinct clothing, but each Chassidic sect can be further distinguished by its nuanced differences in garb.
By Jewish sub-culture, I mean music, literature and other forms of artistic expression. I mean Shabbos zemiros, exhilarating Jewish wedding music, a moving kumzitz and enchanting Chassidic niggunim (melodies), all of which contribute to the creation of an engaging and vibrant culture. We should not minimize the impact these cultural aspects have on strengthening our children’s Jewish identity. Even at a very young age, our children can be deeply influenced by songs introducing them to Orthodox values and identity. In certain ways, “Uncle Moishy” and others like him have served as some of American Orthodoxy’s most effective transmitters of the mesorah. Our community can ill afford to squander this resource.
Literature can also serve as a cultural unifier. Though the messages they conveyed were quite inapposite and frequently offensive to Torah values, the literary works of Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mocher Sforim and Hayim Nahman Bialik nurtured a sense of shared Jewish identity during the late nineteenth century and the tumultuous early twentieth century.
Is there a role for contemporary Orthodox literature in developing a communal identity? If yes, we need to ensure that our day schools are taking this goal into account and preparing future generations of Orthodox Jewish authors. We should encourage the creation of high-quality Orthodox literature for children, teens and adults. The same is true of quality video content that could replace video content that is offensive to our values and that significantly distorts the Torah view of family and proper behavior.
For many generations, and even today in certain communities, Yiddish generated a sense of common identity among Ashkenazic Jews. While mocked by some, even the English/Yiddish dialect, known as “Yeshivish” or “Yinglish” commonly used by yeshivah bachurim, serves to infuse a sense of connection and community as well.
From the foods served at Shabbos tables (think cholent and gefilte fish, or kibbeh and shakshuka) to how couples meet and weddings are celebrated, culture helps form our identity and protect our communal bond. The greater the pervasiveness of a parochial culture, the deeper its impact in generating a common identity among community members.
Another source of collective identity is expressed through a culture of common heroes. Who do we collectively celebrate as heroes? By heroes I do not mean mentors such as teachers, friends or relatives who educate, guide and model behavior, attitudes and values. A hero is mythical. Whether hailing from the past or the present, whether real or imagined, a hero is a symbol. When we adopt a hero, we do more than admire an individual; we embrace an aspirational identity. A hero does not model our goals—a hero informs our trajectory. Therefore, shared heroes help solidify collective identity.
For example, almost every Chabad home or shop is adorned by a picture of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, just as members of other Chassidic sects display portraits of their current or past rebbe. A picture of Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt”l, or the Baba Sali, zt”l, is found in many Sephardic homes, and a likeness of the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, or of a contemporary rosh yeshivah graces the parlor room walls of many Yeshivish families. Stories of these heroes are told and retold, not to worship them as persons but to illustrate and extol communal values.
Heroes need not be religious personalities; while certain characteristics may be inspirational, other aspects of the hero’s personality or lifestyle may be acknowledged as inappropriate and not admirable. I recall as a child being galvanized by the ubiquitous photo of Theodor Herzl. Stories about the courage, and tragically abbreviated lives, of Hannah Szenes and Joseph Trumpeldor inspired me as well. It was clear to me that, while I would need to draw inspiration for spirituality from other heroes, these individuals symbolized a profound commitment to the Jewish people. In that regard their stories inspired me and many others.
Who are our children’s heroes? Whose pictures hang on their bedroom walls and whose biographies sit on their bookshelves? What stories of heroes are we telling and retelling—to our children and to each other? If asked, we would all likely agree that our forefathers and mothers are our heroes, as are giants through the ages, such as King David, Queen Esther, Rabbi Akiva, the Rambam, the Vilna Gaon (or for others the Baal Shem Tov), Sarah Schenirer and Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik. But if we were asked to quickly proffer our own hero, how would we respond?
For our own benefit, and certainly for the benefit of our children, we should develop a culture of heroes. Doing so is difficult, however, because we have become accustomed to an environment that diminishes and dismisses. We are not inclined to extol the greatness of others, but rather to revel in human frailties. On occasion we even do so with regard to Biblical figures. Perhaps we think that by diminishing others we are elevating ourselves, or at least alleviating any responsibility to follow their lead. We should recognize that the opposite is true. Greatness in ourselves is realized by connecting to the greatness in others. Cynicism and criticism quash our children’s spirit, and thereby their potential. By contrast, their potential would be actualized by observing us admiring greatness in others and by hearing from us the stories of heroes.
No doubt, the broad tent that the Orthodox Union community encompasses, and our resistance to isolationism, introduces greater challenges to the cultivation of a community culture.
We send our children to Jewish day schools and high schools during their formative years—which is, of course, the most significant factor in preserving our lifelong Jewish identity. And our children are involved with NCSY and other lively Jewish youth groups; they attend summer camps and year-round programs where they absorb fundamental Torah lessons and inspiration. Ongoing Torah study, whether on a full-time or part-time basis, also serves to strengthen our community. In fact, the tragic assimilation rates afflicting non-Orthodox Jewry illustrate that lifelong Torah study, regular synagogue attendance, and an overall commitment to halachah comprise the most effective strategy for both religious growth and Jewish continuity. But should we be finding a place for a communal culture as well?
Whether we describe ourselves as “modern” or “Centrist” or “non-isolationist” or by some other term, the question must be asked—do we share a communal culture? And if not, does it matter?
A collective culture matters. And having heroes matters. And for our segment of American Orthodoxy more than others. Our approach aspires to make Torah accessible to the widest range of Jews and to provide the most committed among us with the broadest array of tools to reach extraordinary religious heights. But this approach is simultaneously fraught with risk. It is an approach that invites foreign ideas, relationships and influences into our homes and minds. The approach either enhances our connection to God—or threatens to compromise the relationship altogether. It is an approach that lowers social barriers, inviting as many Jews as possible into the tent of Torah commitment, but this ease of access also paves the path to abandonment. It is for these reasons that an intensified culture, which would strengthen our identity as Torah-committed Jews, is so valuable.
Our strategy in expanding the relationship between Jews and the Almighty has realized many successes. Our community encompasses thousands upon thousands of American Jews whose connection to Torah and mitzvos are generated and facilitated by our community’s broad net. Many within our community would likely forfeit observance if Orthodox practice would be available solely within the imposingly high social barriers adopted by others, or if Torah Judaism were to demand distancing oneself from secular education and culture.
But our approach is more than a mere accommodation. We invite integration for the very purposes of advancing our own personal commitment to Torah and halachah. By utilizing secular knowledge and insight to advance our service of God, our community has produced great Torah scholars whose depth of understanding is enhanced by their extensive knowledge in various secular fields, such as the sciences. Similarly, this integration has provided the entire Orthodox community with trained rabbis, mental health professionals and communal leaders who possess extraordinary sensitivities and wisdom reflecting their scholarship in medicine, psychology, literature and other secular disciplines. As a leading Torah scholar commented to my wife and me many years ago when we consulted him regarding our children’s education: “Every aspect of knowledge, insight and wisdom is contained within the Torah. Unfortunately for you and me, accessing much of it is beyond our ability.”
Our ranks have thus reached the highest levels in American industry, politics and academia, while retaining not only their Jewish identity but also Jewish values and aspirations for ongoing, personal religious growth. In fact, over the past few decades, other segments of American Orthodoxy have adopted many aspects of integration that we have evidenced as being viable and effective for observant Jews.
On the other hand, our inclusiveness and our extensive involvement with non-Torah ideas and relationships puts our personal religious identity at risk. It would be dishonest to posit otherwise. Throughout my decades in the practice of law, I have seen how personal religious identity can slowly erode in the secular workplace. I suspect that I am not unique in having occasionally wondered while in the office or on a business trip how it would feel to simply fit in. And many make the choice to do just that. Similarly, though many impressive observant students thrive religiously while on secular university campuses, others allow their Orthodox identity to wane. Perhaps those who falter do so because they failed to pursue religious growth as the purpose of their integration, or perhaps they neglected to apply the necessary discretion and filters when interfacing with the non-Jewish world. This not-so-insignificant segment of our community needs a boost to fortify their Orthodox identity. A strong Orthodox communal culture might provide that boost, intensifying our bonds with one another, empowering our Jewish identity when we interface with the secular world, and strengthening our identity as being—at our core—members of the Torah community.
I fear that if we fail to develop a culture that effectively infuses our youth with a strong Orthodox Jewish identity, our community will eventually dwindle, with some, overwhelmed by the religious challenges, forfeiting their integration into secular society and others simply forfeiting their Orthodoxy.
Moishe Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm, Ropes & Gray LLP.
Ask the President
The Orthodox Union is first and foremost a communal services organization. Your feedback and input about how the OU is doing in that role is critical to our success as a community. As president I want to hear from you.
Your input and views will certainly be studied, and will be considered in the context of the views of others.
If you pose questions that are appropriate for a public response, I will do so if you provide permission.
I’m looking forward to hearing what you have to say.
President, Orthodox Union