Our Upcoming Centennial: A Time for Reflection and Renewal

By Mandell I. Ganchrow, M.D.

June 8, 1998, is the official 100th anniversary of the founding of the Orthodox Union.  How should we celebrate this wonderful occasion?  Should we commemorate this milestone with trumpeted — but empty — fanfare, or should it serve as a stimulus for us to clearly define what contemporary Orthodoxy is about and formulate a plan that will carry us into the 21st century?

The Rav, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt”l, in an address published in the book Shiurei HaRav, details the nature of an Orthodox Jew’s obligation.  He speaks of two types of obligations:  universal and covenantal.  Universal obligation refers to our responsibilities as bnei adam.  As members of the human race, we must do all that is within our power to help eradicate disease, poverty, war and other ills of society.  We cannot say that since these are not specifically Jewish problems, the obligation to overcome them rests solely with the Gentile world.  Indeed, the mitzvah of tikkun olam extends to the greater world as well as our own.

Covenantal obligation, however, is ours alone.  Two covenants were made with our forefathers:  God’s covenant with Abraham, to make us a great nation; and a second covenant at Sinai, where God entrusted to us His holy Torah.  Our responsibilities towards our God and our people are of supreme importance.  But they are neither superseded by, nor do they take priority over, our universal obligations.  As Orthodox Jews, we must honor both obligations equally, as they both emanate from the same source — Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

The Union’s purpose has always been, and will continue to be, l’takken olam b’malchut Shakkai, to better God’s world, for all peoples, Jews and Gentiles.  Honoring our universal and covenantal obligations has been the guiding force for the Union’s past 100 years and will continue to be so into our future.  As Orthodox Jews, this is our responsibility and we must accept it.

The Union has become the central figure in world Orthodoxy because of its enormous growth in kashruth, outreach, political activity and communications.  For too long, we have been, at best, reactive, and at worst, passive as the forces of secularism and anti-Orthodoxy have attempted to categorize us as medieval fundamentalists.  Our Centennial moment should mark the beginning of a new, proud, pro-active and positive campaign proclaiming that the 3,300-year “trial” of following taryag mitzvot as given at Sinai is the true guarantee of Jewish continuity.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles, in a statistic-laden presentation to the Los Angeles Federation, asserted that Reform and Conservative Judaism have failed in one area that can be objectively measured:  how many of their followers’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren, three or four generations hence, will be Jewish?  He compared the centennial yahrzeit of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great Orthodox leader of the Frankfurt Jewish community (who had one wife and eight children) with that of Rabbi Stephen Wise, a founder of American Reform Judaism (who married twice and had 14 children).  One hundred years later, Rabbi Hirsch’s Orthodox descendants numbered 500.  Rabbi Wise’s descendants, 100 years later, numbered five Jews, if one includes Arthur Ochs Sulzberger of the New York Times, who identifies as Episcopalian.

Fifty years ago, it was said that Orthodoxy would not survive the century.  Now we are proudly planning a celebration of hope and renewal, one whereby our message can be brought into the homes, schools and, more importantly, the heart and mind of each Jew.  Let’s ask our fellow Jews how they feel about the objective, third-party study by the Lilly Foundation which shows that non-yeshivah students who join NCSY, regardless of their religious background, have an intermarriage rate that is less than 1 percent.  In medicine, when one finds a cure for a disease, we call it the “gold standard” or “standard of care.”  The Lilly Foundation study has now confirmed the values and methods of NCSY as the “gold standard” of high school kiruv.  Let us work together to reach the equivalency of this outstanding record with all of our programs and endeavors in the coming decades.  It can happen, with each of you as our partners.

I am appointing a committee on priorities which, under the leadership of Howard Rhine and Allen Fagin, will chair two conferences by the end of 1997, one on the East Coast and the other on the West.  The purpose of these conferences will be to present position papers, options and initiatives for our leadership to discuss.  These “think tank” conferences will play a key role in charting our future course.  I hope all of our member synagogues and their rabbis will be represented.

We are living in an era of contrasts.  On the one hand, the number of yeshivot, Jewish scholars and organized Orthodox kehillot with communal institutions has increased.  Yet at the same time, the greater Jewish community struggles with increased intermarriage and assimilation.

This tension manifests itself in the fact that on most major college campuses there are huge Jewish populations, yet the number of students touched by Hillel or other organized Jewish groups is quite small.  Interestingly, 90% of college students have a personal computer and 80% have an E-mail address.  We must devise an effective approach to reach these young people, as well as other groups that we have neglected for too long — seniors, and the unaffiliated.  Technology must be utilized as a major source of our educational outreach, complementing our current informal educational programs.  Our goal should include formatting our materials onto the information superhighway as we engage the talents of great Torah scholars to share their message nationwide.

The quest for spirituality must begin in our own synagogues and personal lives.  We cannot offer the hope of spirituality to others if our own synagogues do not epitomize prayer with dignity, decorum and meaning.  Time for Torah study should be encouraged by peers, not just the rabbi.  When each of us, individually, exhibits true passion in prayer, Torah study and a commitment to the Torah way of life, we will become a community of role models, convincing others of the validity of our lifestyle.

The success of these efforts, and others like them, would be the most fitting and fulfilling celebration of our Centennial — creating a true legacy with which to begin the Orthodox Union’s second hundred years.

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