Fragmentation, Loneliness and Jewish Identity

For decades, rabbis and community leaders have decried the “shtiebelization” of American Orthodoxy. The fragmentation of the Orthodox community has been maligned as a product of a narcissistic focus on personal tastes and self-centered preferences. Arguably, it has produced a litany of problems, including disunity, disregard for broader communal needs and institutional inefficiencies.

Orthodox communal segmentation is expressed in many ways, the most conspicuous being the rarity of communities gathering en masse for Shabbos morning davening. Large shuls are replaced by shteiblach, or by living room or basement minyanim. Each minyan caters to a particular want. Some initiate a minyan to congregate only with others of similar age or yeshivah background. Others seek a particular manner of tefillah—slower or quicker, starting later or earlier, more singing or less. Even surviving cornerstone community shuls often find their main sanctuaries half empty on Shabbos morning, as groups of members demand their own minyanim, often under threat of breaking away to open yet another independent shul.

The proliferation of shuls—new schools are often the same—is often economically wasteful. New edifices are frequently acquired or built, notwithstanding a local abundance of empty pews. Non-financial communal benefits are also sacrificed. Old and young no longer daven side by side, nor do the scholarly and the less educated. Forfeited, too, is a sense of communal unity that is necessary to nurture a commitment to the greater good of the Jewish community as a whole.

Socially, the community is also divided into almost imperceptibly distinct segments, imposing social demarcations that are seemingly gratuitous. Shidduchim most starkly reflect this social fragmentation. Long forgotten is the era in which the threshold question regarding a suggested shidduch was whether he or she was shomer Shabbos. Singles and their parents now assign increasingly narrow labels to both themselves and to prospective dates, accepting or rejecting suggestions based on the slimmest of social and cultural distinctions.

Similar to many public policy considerations, however, communal fragmentation cannot be viewed through the lens of black and white. While elements of shtiebelization are counterproductive, others are actually very attractive. If we fail to acknowledge these benefits, we risk forfeiting them in our efforts to mitigate the drawbacks.

Inevitable Response to Significant Communal Growth
Notwithstanding its challenges, fragmentation constitutes a healthy, constructive and inevitable response to the substantial growth of American Orthodoxy, and even contributes to our retaining an Orthodox identity.

Loneliness is one of our more intense emotional vulnerabilities. It is ameliorated through family and friendships, but we also long for nurturing and meaningful communal affiliations. People go to great lengths hoping to connect with others, ranging from joining country clubs and civic groups to associating with gangs and hate groups. It is both natural and healthy to aspire to belong to an intimate community segment within which to feel comfortable and at home. In today’s digitized, impersonal world, we frequently feel like an outsider even when surrounded by familiar people. So we yearn for the warmth and kinship of being in “a place where everyone knows your name.”

Due to its significant growth, American Orthodoxy, particularly in high-density neighborhoods, no longer provides a sense of communal intimacy. We must therefore construct smaller community segments with which to connect. If we fail to find a warm social connection within Orthodoxy, we may find it elsewhere, such as with our school or workplace colleagues, or with non-observant individuals sharing our hobbies, political or civic affiliations or sports interests.

Over the past two years, my wife and I have spent many Shabbosim in towns throughout North America. We have found that even when there is significant diversity among communal members, smaller Orthodox communities experience far less fragmentation. In these modest Orthodox communities, an individual is validated and develops a sense of belonging merely by being an observant Jew.

Contemporary Threats to American Orthodox Identity
Over the generations, we have encountered many challenges to our Torah-centric identity. Tragically, for many Jews these challenges have been insurmountable. Currently, thank God, we do not confront forced conversion or widespread poverty, mass population displacement or the allure of idolatry.

But we now face other formidable challenges that threaten Orthodoxy in our day, including:

1. Unprecedented social integration: In America, societal barriers have dissipated. Not only does society encourage and welcome our integration, but we enjoy remarkable success in almost every public sector—from academia to commerce, from the sciences to politics.

While integration introduces many advantages and opportunities, it can also weaken one’s Jewish identity and commitment—even for a staunchly religious individual. We often focus on halachic challenges in the workplace and elsewhere, but pay minimal attention to the impact of secular influences on our values, attitudes and lifestyle.

American Orthodoxy, particularly in high-density neighborhoods, no longer provides a sense of communal intimacy.

In my own experience, I developed great respect and affection for my law firm colleagues, notwithstanding our rather disparate religious perspectives. I noticed that while my values and aspirations did not change, through the countless hours spent together over the years I became increasingly familiar with, and eventually even sympathetic to, my colleagues’ divergent values, goals and attitudes. With great subtlety, the prism through which we look at the world begins to shift. Changes occur in how we assess issues and events, and how we see others. Ultimately, this evolving prism also alters how we view ourselves, where we belong and with whom we identify.

2. Technology: We embrace the opportunities afforded by technology, but we also recognize its dangers, including easy access to pornography and heretical theology, and unconstrained editorial and informational content. We also fret about technology’s impact on one’s attention span, relationship development and time management. We pay little attention, however, to its threat to Orthodox Jewish identity.

Observant Jews have tried to defer entry into secular society until first spending years of full immersion in Orthodox schools, camps and youth groups. With the advent of technology, actual full immersion in Orthodox life is no longer possible. Our children now have access to all that secular society has to offer. Moreover, with ease they may now also actively interact with others outside our community. Naively confident that such access does not extend to our own children, we parents are generally clueless about our children’s unmonitored online and gaming use, and certainly with relationships they may have initiated. Instead of religious immersion, the entire world is now our children’s playground.

3. Parental ambivalence: While a day school education is integral to developing children’s Orthodox identity, their deeper, sustained identity is inculcated at home. Imbuing children with pride in Torah observance and esteem in their Jewish heritage is a fundamental parental responsibility. Parents who relinquish the infusion of children’s religious identity to educators, rabbis or youth group leaders are conveying the message to their children that developing a religious identity is not a high priority. Children’s identities may be formed accordingly.

4. The Degradation of Structured Identity: We currently confront an evolving progressive movement that seeks to eliminate identity distinctions within society. The apparent objective is to allow each person to define him or herself. In this context, the label of citizenship is viewed as arbitrary and unfair, and thus national borders are less significant. Gender identity is seen as illusory and should be designated exclusively by one’s own personal preference. Religious identity is considered spurious, if not offensive. Therefore, faith should be ignored as a factor when society balances people’s competing interests. In a society that denigrates religious identity, it is challenging for us to emphasize and elevate the retention of Orthodox identity as a primary value.

Fragmentation Sustains Orthodox Identity
Family relationships, mitzvah observance and Torah study frame and sustain our Orthodox identity. But even these may not suffice to combat contemporary challenges. A necessary addition may be developing and retaining strong, personal social associations with others sharing Torah values and religious commitment. When we are young, these social bonds are established in school, camp, yeshivah or seminary and youth groups. When we are older, establishing such bonds becomes more difficult, though equally important.

Meaningful and lasting social associations are most effectively developed among individuals and families sharing significant commonalities. Therefore, in identifying observant Jews with whom to create communal bonds, we tend to focus on the most easily identifiable similarities such as age, background, lifestyle, interests, culture and religious aspirations. When a combination of these and other factors draw numerous people together, kinship and camaraderie often emerge, leading to the formation of a small community segment. The group’s members understand that this association serves as a proxy for their connection to, and identification with, the broader Torah community, and contributes significantly to each individual’s commitment to the Orthodox lifestyle. In addition, identifying with a group of similar observant Jews is an anchor that preserves the prism of Torah and mitzvos through which to view life.

“Segment” members appreciate the invaluable benefits they enjoy by being part of a cohesive group. They, therefore, jealously guard the group’s composition, hoping to prevent inappropriate interlopers from diluting the commonality that is the foundation of their bond. Similarly, strategic efforts are undertaken to solidify and preserve their collective identity. When members live in close proximity, their bond is solidified through collective social gatherings, and often by establishing their own minyanim, schools and chesed organizations. A Chassidic rebbe’s tish and a Torah study Yarchei Kallah are prominent examples. When living in different locales, the bond is preserved by adopting similar practices and styles, such as how they daven, their approach to Torah study, and the manner by which they celebrate life cycle events.

Occasionally, multiple community segments liaison with each other upon discovering that they share core values and a common lifestyle. Certain segments have thereby grown substantially. It is not surprising when these expanding segments eventually experience segmentation themselves.

Strategic Approaches to Fragmentation
Strategies can be employed to realize the benefits achieved through fragmentation, while also mitigating its downsides. The approach will differ, of course, for a community already dealing with fragmentation or a community trying to prevent it.

1. A Fragmented Community: A fragmented community can retain collective unity by deliberately identifying opportunities for members of the various segments to gather in expression of their joint values or to pursue collective objectives. Events such as the OU’s annual TorahNY, a day of Torah study at Citi Field, is one such example, as is Birkas Kohanim at the Kosel on Chol Hamoed, or the Daf Yomi Siyum HaShas organized by Agudath Israel. These gatherings serve as reminders of the unifying forces among disparate segments.

Similarly, segment leadership can reinforce the unifying factors among segments by conveying respect and appreciation for other segments’ positions or behavior. Moreover, children should be taught the same by example.

2. Non-Segmented Communities: Certain communities have not yet encountered significant segmentation. Fragmentation may be avoided if the benefits of fragmentation are otherwise provided wisely and strategically. For example:

* Rather than attempt to stifle new minyanim, distinct educational forums, or individual cultural expressions, anticipate the need and request or initiate them. By doing so, these new initiatives are more likely to be embraced as part of the broader community, rather than be perceived as a rejection of the balance of the community.

* Segmentation reflects the need to belong to a social group that is smaller and provides camaraderie and a sense of belonging.  Encourage the formation of many smaller groups within the community. A group may revolve around any cause or interest, such as chesed efforts, support of Israel or other political causes, or even recreational interests. Regardless of the group’s focus, if participation provides a sense of bonding and belonging, the push for segmentation may be satisfied.

* An even more impactful social group is one created to learn Torah. The success of the Daf Yomi program is partially attributed to its social dimension, as are Kinyan Hamasechta, Daf Hashavua and the OU’s Semichat Chaver program. For quite some time, women’s learning groups have also been created.

* Segmentation may sometimes reflect a sense of insignificance by certain individuals within the broader community. For example, younger community members may feel that their voices are not heard, or a community culture may be so dominant that those who do not thrive within that culture feel like outsiders. Although it is impossible to address all groups with those feelings, often no effort is made to address any such group. Even a mere acknowledgement of the need, along with modest effort, may prevent those who harbor these feelings from breaking away to form a distinct segment.

Mark (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.

https://www.ou.org/oupresident/

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.

Moishe Bane
President, Orthodox Union

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This article was featured in the Summer 2019 issue of Jewish Action.
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