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Orthodox And Liberal, And Lonely On The West Side
Mon, 10/22/2012 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Jerome A. Chanes
Jerome A. Chanes

Looking around at my fellow worshipers at late Maariv services at the Carlebach Synagogue the other night, I pondered political affiliation. Who, mused I, are the Obama supporters, and who are in the Romney camp? When I nudged my pew-mate, a prominent West-Side M.D., and asked him, “65 percent Romney?” he sputtered, “Get real! We’re talking 90 percent, maybe 99 percent.  The 1 percent ‘Obama’ is you!”

What planet am I on?

It was not that long ago, it seems, that the West Side of Manhattan was of a piece with Jewish New York — indeed, with American Jews in general. There is no end to the polls and surveys that tell us that on the broad range of public-affairs issues — church-state separation, reproductive choice, civil liberties — American Jews have been, and yet are, solidly in the “liberal” camp. (The one counterintuitive exception is capital punishment.) But is “liberal” the right word?

As I have written before here, when it comes to public affairs, Jews are not “liberal” or “conservative”; we are Jewish. Issues are selected for action by the Jewish community, and are parsed by our Jewish body politic, in terms of how these issues affect Jewish security. This has always been the test for our involvement in public policy — including Israel.
So what happened to the Orthodox shuls on the West Side? 

It’s a no-brainer that they reflect the changes in the Orthodox world generally. In religious practice and behavior, lifestyle, politics — the shift to the right among Orthodox Jews has been well documented. And, with the shift to the right, there is the “vote” to the right. The Orthodox synagogues understand this dynamic all too well. In the words of political analyst (and Orthodox rabbi) Hank Sheinkopf, “You either move to the right or you disappear.”

And thus it has been with all of the mainstream Orthodox congregations on the West Side, which in recent decades have been concerned with finances, shrinking demographics, physical-plant concerns, rabbinic and lay instability — and congregants who have moved sharply to the right on virtually every public-affairs issue. 

The one notable exception to this pattern of political change is Darchei Noam, a congregation that, in its approach to the participation of women in the ritual activities of the shul, pushes the Orthodox envelope. Consistent with Darchei Noam’s progressive views on religious practices is the retention of a solid critical mass of Democratic adherence. Solid, yes, but embattled — even there. 

How did this state of affairs come to be? Historically, Orthodoxy was viewed by the non-Orthodox as oppressive, pre-modern, obscurantist. Today, precisely those characteristics that decades ago were viewed as negatives are at the root of the appeal of Orthodoxy in America: Orthodoxy provides community; it is protective of its adherents; it provides certainty in an uncertain world. The sense of certitude and the lack of freedom, viewed as negatives in earlier years, are today considered positives and strengths, and they fuel the Orthodox surge. The old Modern Orthodox, those of us who viewed intellectual and societal inquiry and religious normative values as enhancing one another, are embattled. Orthodoxy has become increasingly isolationist.

The net effect? One way in which the new “Orthodox isolationism” plays out is in Modern Orthodox Jews taking a more parochial view of politics. Indeed, the Orthodox shift to the right, in terms of voting patterns, is not new; it has been going on for four decades.

Additionally, our Modern Orthodox world has never known hunger. We no longer relate to the institutions and movements — trade unionism, civil rights, a history of activism — that created a Jewish middle class in the United States. We are missing something important in our yeshivas and day schools — and in our synagogues.

And there is Israel. The 20 percent to 30 percent of American Jews (according to recent polling data) who care most about Israel in determining how they vote here are in large measure coming out of the Orthodox camp. To Jews who are Modern Orthodox, Israel is the center of existence. And in recent years, loyalty to Israel has been perceived as a Republican, not a Democratic, phenomenon. You vote for candidates — generally Republican — more closely aligned with the policies of the present government of Israel. Israel, as defined by political affiliation, plays into the increasingly conservative coloring of my Orthodox world, in which (in the words of an Orthodox leader who asked not to be identified), “One’s conservative views are tangible in the size of the hat — always black — that one wears.”

In the established Orthodox world of the West Side, the few remaining liberals have few places of refuge, especially in an era in which rhetorical demonization in rhetoric has replaced respectful discourse. Like Spinoza, we are in danger of being cast out of the synagogue.

Jerome Chanes, a frequent contributor, is the author of four books on Jewish public affairs. He is a fellow at the Center for Jewish Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center.

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As a life long "Orthodox" shul goer, I believe if one focuses on the many prayers, Parshat, and lessons that make up our weekly readings, then so called liberal, or as you might say Democratic, ideas are the only logical leanings. Current Republican ideas could be taken apart one by one if Jewish beliefs were followed. I am not totally sure if money, greed and/or total isolation guides the hypocritical political leanings of the upper West Side to which the writer refers. I do not live in NYC's upper west side nor do I attend shul there.

Wonderful article, thank you Professor. Nice to know I'm not alone on the UES of Manhattan living a Modern Orthodox Torah life while supporting liberal and Democratic principles. Not a contradiction at all, but rather a generous worldview that includes ahava of Jews, as well as all of G-d's people. Thank G-d I'm a Democrat!

The causes have changed at least as much as their Jewish supporters have. Unions that led the fight to abolish 14 hour a day, six day a week work, now lead the fight for bloated private and government worker pensions that starve consumers and taxpayers. Civil rights movements that fought for equal rights now seek to put the privileged few minority groups on a pedestal, and force the acceptance of religiously abhorrent practices down society's throat. And activism, whose specifics used to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, now has become reflexively Leftist.

Most liberals think conservatives are stupid. Most conservatives think liberals base their views on the wrong premises, but they are not stupid.

When I was growing up, the Democrats were the party of meritocracy and the Republicans the party of inherited privelege. Today, the Democrats are the party of one world government and the Republicans the party of meritocracy. I cannot vote any more for a party that boos Jerusalem and G-d at their convention, that admires Ahmadinejad more than Netanyahu, and regards all wealth earned by hard work as stolen. I too miss the Democratic party of social justice, but it is just as dead and gone as the Jewish community of Warsaw

To be Orthodox and liberal is a contradiction. You cannot be defined as today's liberal and live a Torah based life.

Dear Professor,

Thank you for your insightful article. I'm also puzzled as to why Orthodoxy has accepted the Republican Party as the sole party that reflects Jewish social/fiscal values in the US. Even on issues of healthcare and higher education grant programs, which are paramount policies for fostering healthy and economically productive societies, Orthodox Jews seem to ignore these policies for something else that seems to elude me when discussing politics and hearing the everyday issues that individual Orthodox Jews truly care about.

If someone can explain this paradox in Orthodoxy, I'd like to understand this voting patten.

I will try to explain it to you. I am a gay Orthodox switched from voting for Obama to voting for Romney. I would have liked to vote for Obama based on his gay rights record compared to Romney's anti-gay rights record.

But I believe Obama is a clear and present danger to the lives of the Jews of Israel.

In the last debate on foreign policy the 2 candidates were asked if they would grant Israel the status of an ally. This would mean an attack on Israel is deemed an attack on the US.

Romney said he would respond militarily and diplomatically.
Obama said he would have Israel's back.

On the surface you might think they would respond the same way.

But the opposite is true.

Obama used that phrase once before in describing the Iran nuclear threat to Israel. He explained it did not mean a military response at all.

Obama often speaks in a vague way. Another example is all options are on the table

This weakest of all possible threats has not influenced Iran. A robust threat likely would have influenced them.

While Obama has been very vague about military support against Iran, he has been very clear in reneging on important agreements with Israel reached before his tenure. One of them was a letter in which the US commits to Israel keeping major settlement blocs. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in these communities mostly in Jerusalem.

Since 1967 the US understanding was that Israel would negotiate for borders (Israel had no borders in 1967 since the Arab states insisted the lines of 48 should never be construed as borders) and would keep some of the land it won in 1967 in a defensive war.

Obama's change of this basis of negotiations have led to the Palestinians changing their willingness to compromise. This has made a 2 state solution highly unlikely.

I have also been a teacher and believe in education. To me the most important lesson is the Holocaust. It is a lesson I cannot vote for Obama and repeat.

As an Orthodox professor of political science, I am a democrat, as has been my family since FDR. I am a strong supporter of Israel (four of my children have served in the IDF special forces). Like you, I find this phenomenon of rightward-moving Jews disturbing and puzzling. You provide some insights, but none of them really explain the general insularity, loss of compassion and loss solidarity that seems so prevalent in this generation of Jews.

One sentence in an eartlier comment sums it up. How can you vote for a president who boos PM Netanyahu and Israel. Obama has been disrespectful to PM Netanyahu multiple times. In addition, we are a democracy, like Israel - how can i feel comfortable voting for a president who bows to dictators, and thinks the reason Israel was created was because of the Holocaust. Does Pres. Obama truly believe the Jews (Israelites) never lived on that land for 3000 years. He was overheard saying "if Pres. Bush in eight years couldn't move the Palestinians toward peace negotiations, why should i waste my time....just one of many comments indicative of his lack of interest and knowledge. He blamed settlement building as the reason there can't be negotiations....how about step number one must be recognizing Israel as a sovereign, democratic state that belongs on the map of the middle east. In their children's history books, Israel is not on the map!