In the sweep of Jewish history, thirty years are but a blink of an eye—but the last three decades have witnessed a variety of changes in Jewish life, some for the good and others not so, some minor-but-briefly-captivating and others of more lasting significance, some sociological, theological or historical. Here are some of the Jewish events that have taken place between 1985 and 2015, both in the Orthodox community and the wider Jewish community:
1) GOP, Here We Come! The Democratic Party, political home to a great majority of American Jews since the FDR administration, suffers a small-but-steady decline, as a growing number of Orthodox Jews vote for candidates of the Republican Party, which is increasingly seen as more supportive of Israel and aligned with Torah values.
2) The Lieberman Nomination. On the other hand, presidential candidate Al Gore’s selection of the then Connecticut senator as his 2000 Democratic running mate makes history. Former Senator Joseph Lieberman was the first Jew, let alone the first Orthodox one, on a major party’s presidential ticket.
3) Greater Participation of Orthodox Men and Women in All Levels of Government. Jews have long been involved in American politics, but more recently, Orthodox Jews have become more conspicuously involved. Prominent Orthodox personalities who serve or served in government include Joseph Lieberman, former US senator and former Democratic Party nominee for vice president; Jack Lew, secretary of the US Treasury; Peter Deutsch, former US congressman; Tevi Troy, former deputy secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services; David G. Greenfield, New York City councilman; Phil Goldfeder, New York State assemblyman and Simcha Felder, New York State senator.
4) The Teshuvah Movement. The number of once-secular-or-indifferent Jews who have adopted Torah observant lifestyles, a trend that started in the 1960s, have changed the face of the Orthodox community. In many American communities, ba’al teshuvah families constitute the bulk of synagogues’ membership. NCSY, founded in 1954, served as a pioneer in helping to spur the teshuvah movement and guide others in the nascent kiruv world. In recent years, kiruv seems to have shifted to the campus (see no. 27).
5) The Fall of the Iron Curtain. Gorbachev’s liberalization of Soviet society, beginning in 1985, leads to the breakup of the Soviet Union and freedom for its vassal states. The result: religious freedom and emigration for millions of Jews. Before the fall of the Soviet Union and the granting of religious freedom in 1991, observing religious traditions was only done with the awareness of the risk to one’s job and health. In the Ukraine, the estimate of the amount of matzah baked surreptitiously in 1985 was between 500 pounds and a few tons. Today, with the flowering of religious freedom, the Tiferet Hamatzot matzah factory in Dnepropetrovsk, opened in 2003, makes and exports some seventy tons of matzot around the world.
6) Another Peace Treaty. Following the historic 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, and a formal treaty the following year, Israel in 1994 ends its state-of-war with Jordan. Relations with its eastern neighbor remain cold, but the peace has held up.
7) Greater Awareness of Sexual Abuse. Sexual abuse is openly recognized and is starting to be dealt with appropriately in the frum community. There are even books geared for frum children on the topics of personal safety and inappropriate touch.
8) Here Come the Judges! For decades, there was a “Jewish seat” on the US Supreme Court. This tacit quota has been broken; today, the Court has three Jewish associate justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan.
9) Growth of English-Language Seforim. English-language Jewish books matured into a massive literature of creative, original material. ArtScroll began the revolution with its commentaries and biographies. The Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud brought the esoteric text to the masses. Other texts have been translated and many original, even ground-breaking works of Jewish law, thought and commentary now appear in English, the work of a number of publishers.
10) Depressing Statistics. Pew Research Center’s 2013 study “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” finds that one in five US Jews describe themselves as having no religion, two-thirds say it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish, and that Jews tend to be less religious than the country’s overall population. At the same time, the study confirms that American Orthodox Jewry is vibrant and growing.
11) Black-Jewish Relations Deteriorate, then Improve. Strained ties between members of the two minority groups continued to worsen, exacerbated by differing perspectives on such issues as affirmative action. The nadir was the Crown Heights riots in 1991, but relations have improved in recent years.
12) Israel’s Demographic Growth. With a Jewish population that for decades trailed that of the United States, Israel in 2008 became home to the world’s largest Jewish population. The current number of Jews in Israel is 6,251,000; in the United States, it’s about five million, according to various surveys and definitions of one’s Jewish status.
13) A Thorn in Israel’s Side. Hamas establishes itself as the uncompromising option to Fatah, which signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1993 and has governed the West Bank as the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, which came to power in a putatively corrupt 2006 election in Gaza, has used Gaza as a base for terrorist attacks on Israel.
14) Proliferation of Torah Learning. Years ago, the notion of learning Torah for its own sake in America was not very popular—certainly solely learning Torah after marriage was frowned upon by many. And yet today, the number of yeshivot and kollelim across the US is astounding. In 1985, Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) housed three kollelim on its New York City campus. Today, the New York City RIETS campus houses six kollelim. In 1985, Rav Aharon Kotler’s Beth Medrash Govoha had more than 1,000 students studying Torah full time. Today, BMG is a Torah empire boasting 6,800 students, of whom 5,555 are in kollel.
15) The Decline of Conservative Judaism. A sharply decreasing number of affiliated Jews and congregations identify with the movement that had comprised the largest amount of American Jews during most of the twentieth century. Once a middle ground between Orthodox Judaism’s adherence to halachah and Reform’s rejection of the binding nature of Torah, Conservative Judaism loses its hold among new generations of Jews coming of age in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
16) Start-Up People. Israel earns the reputation as the “Start-Up Nation” for the disproportionate number of high-tech innovations emerging from the Jewish state, mostly from one-time members of the IDF, which features an ethos of creative, independent thinking.
17) Electronic Torah Revolution. The remarkable proliferation of Torah online could not have been predicted three decades ago. Today, Jews around the world can access Torah at web sites such as ou.org/torah; yutorah.org; torahmusings.com; torahanytime.com, et cetera. On the OU’s web site, oudaf.org is accessed by several thousand subscribers, who have downloaded the daf well over a million times, making it possibly the largest Daf Yomi class in the world.
18) Explosion of Orthodox Media. The explosion of Orthodox English-language media is unprecedented. Currently, the Orthodox and Chareidi press boast not only weekly papers and magazines such as such as the Jewish Press, Yated Ne’eman, Mishpacha and Ami but even a daily newspaper, Hamodia. Orthodox-run news web sites include vozisneias.com, yeshivaworld.com, matzav.com and israelnationalnews.com (Arutz Sheva).
19) The Birthright Buzz. Each year, Birthright Israel helps bring thousands of unaffiliated and affiliated young Jews between the ages of eighteen through twenty-six to Israel for an extraordinary ten-day trip. Since 2000, the OU’s Israel Free Spirit (israelfreespirit.com), now one of the biggest Birthright organizers, has been giving young adults a life-transforming experience in Israel, connecting them to their roots. The program has brought more than 10,000 young adults to visit Israel; this year alone, it will run sixty Birthright trips.
20) Sprouting Orthodox Communities. As housing prices in the New York tri-state area have risen way beyond the means of middle-class families, communities across North America have seen significant growth; all of them offering the amenities of Orthodox life at a lower cost of living than in the greater New York area. Young frum couples are moving to places like Memphis, Dallas, Kansas City and other vibrant Orthodox communities. YU, through its Center for the Jewish Future, places between thirty and fifty rabbinical students each year to serve as rabbis or as educators in these growing communities. (YU-affiliated rabbis serve at over 80 percent of OU and established shuls throughout the country.)
21) Advances for Orthodox Women. The past three decades have seen an explosion of Torah educational opportunities for women, leading to an emergence of a new class of highly educated female Torah scholars and educators. Professionally, Orthodox women have advanced as well, excelling in many fields including accounting, health sciences/medicine, education and information sciences, among others. Orthodox women are increasingly pursuing advanced degrees, especially at institutions such as Stern College for Women and Touro’s Lander College for Women, both of which offer women a range of majors and minors, as well as an honors program for gifted students.
22) Upsurge in North American Aliyah. While North American aliyah was only a trickle prior to the establishment of Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002, in the thirteen years since NBN began to promote North American aliyah, more than 40,000 North Americans have moved to Israel, contributing more than $450 million to the economy of the State of Israel.
23) Sensitivity to the Special-Needs Population. The decades have witnessed the stunning growth of a plethora of Orthodox-run programs catering to the special-needs population including schools, as well as respite, camping and vocational training programs. Since 1983, Yachad/NJCD, sponsored by the OU, has been promoting Inclusion through Shabbatonim, summer programs, support groups and more.
24) Rise in Evangelical Support for Israel. While groups and nations have stampeded out of Israel’s corner in the last decades, some Christians—especially evangelicals—have distinguished themselves in reaffirming their vocal support for the Jewish State. Employing a mixture of Biblical and justice-based arguments, conservative Christians have become the last reliable ally of Israel. While many Jewish groups find the positions of these Christians on abortion and same-sex marriage as reason enough to distance them, Orthodox Jews have gradually learned to trust and value the support of Christians. As the Palestinians have worked for a decade, with a good deal of success, to erode evangelical support, it remains to be seen whether Orthodox Jews—with whom serious Christians have a particular affinity—can counter the damage by reaching out in friendly association.
25) Addressing the At-Risk Phenomenon. Since the late 1990s, when the at-risk phenomenon first became apparent, the Orthodox community has responded with an impressive array of programming—including special schools and yeshivot, support groups and recreational centers—for young people who have dropped out of religious life due to various personal challenges. These programs assist these troubled youth in getting their lives back on track and coping with the various challenges they face, whether it’s drug addiction, alcoholism, a messy family life, negative yeshivah experience, et cetera. Nowadays, parents can reach out to dozens of professionals who specialize in assisting the at-risk population.
26) Tuition Crisis. With yeshivah day school tuition escalating, many families are struggling to stay financially afloat. Families often face tuition bills that are higher than their mortgages. This kind of financial stress causes shalom bayit problems and other challenges. The OU, through its public policy arm, OU Advocacy, is on the forefront of advocating for an array of initiatives at the federal level to expand education reform and secure greater resources for Jewish day schools and the families who use them.
27) Explosion of Campus Outreach and Education. For decades, Chabad was one of the few organizations with full-time outreach professionals serving Jewish students on campus; today, there are more than fifty organizations engaged in outreach work on the North American campus. Kiruv has shifted to the campus, with “campus couples” focusing on reaching thousands of unaffiliated Jewish students. But the unaffiliated are not alone in their need of support; the majority of Modern Orthodox college students attend secular universities, where their religious commitment can be at risk. Addressing this challenge, the OU, in partnership with Hillel, runs the Heshe and Harriet Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (OU-JLIC).
28) The Kollel Revolution. Back in 1970, the idea of a community or outreach kollel was born when a traditional kollel was established in Johannesburg, South Africa. Amazingly, within a few years, the unexpected happened: the kollel became a major force in outreach in South Africa. It took two more decades for the notion of the community kollel to take off. Today, there are community or outreach kollelim throughout the world. Some eighty outreach kollelim throughout North America have brought a vibrancy and energy that have profoundly transformed communities including Houston, Palo Alto, Phoenix and Seattle. Kollelim have been established by various organizations including Torah Umesorah (a major player that has been responsible for distributing more than $50 million to kollelim) and Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. YU and Torah MiTzion have established a number of kollelim with a Religious Zionist bent, helping to grow and support Modern Orthodox communities across North America.
29) Shidduch Crisis. While the precise number of Orthodox singles is difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain, there is no question that the frum singles population has grown over the past few decades; this is true both in the Modern Orthodox and the Chareidi communities. While it is not clear what exactly has triggered this challenging trend, and each community sees the “crisis” from a different angle, all are seeking solutions and networking with each other to find them. Another noteworthy development is the emergence of on-line dating sites geared to connecting frum men and women around the world.
30) Neo-Chassidism. In recent years, growing numbers of Modern Orthodox youth have begun connecting to the spiritual energy and intensity found in Chassidus. While many of them shun Chassidic garb, they immerse themselves in Chassidic texts and thought, attend tischen and participate in Carlebach-style minyanim. The trend is so popular that Yeshiva University now offers weekly shiurim in Chassidic thought, and some Modern Orthodox high schools have begun offering courses on Chassidut. How deeply has Neo-Chassidus impacted the Modern Orthodox world? Time will tell.
Special thanks to Rabbi Gil Student, Ellie Schlam, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, Dr. Efrat Sobolofsky and Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein for their assistance in preparing this article.
Steve Lipman is a frequent contributor to Jewish Action.