One morning this past July, I visited the bet midrash (study hall) of Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan. Nearly 50 young people were there, spending their summer in serious engagement with Jewish texts. The room pulsated with the vitality of a traditional yeshiva and the intellectual openness of a university.
If the repercussions of the economic downturn constituted the lead story of 2009 for the Jewish community, the emergence of this kind of creative energy generated a far more positive message. Hadar opened as a year-round, full-time, egalitarian yeshiva not affiliated with any denomination, mirroring the growth of the independent minyanim that have been appearing across the country, and it is dedicated to kindling a passion for Judaism. Clearly, some of the most exciting ventures in Jewish life were taking place beyond the parameters of the religious movements. But similar energies were also apparent in the more conventional sectors of American Judaism, even as serious challenges loomed.
Orthodox Judaism continued to consolidate the strength derived from its relatively high birthrates: children growing up in Orthodox homes now constitute a plurality of all Jewishly affiliated children in America.
A significant milestone was achieved by Sara Hurwitz, who received the title “Maharat” from Rabbi Avi Weiss, empowering her to serve in Orthodox congregational roles that are rabbinical in all but name. While some questioned Rabbi Weiss’ decision to refrain from utilizing the title “rabbi,” few could deny the historic breakthrough, the product of the first program to give women full traditional rabbinic education.
While Rabbi Weiss represented the “Orthodox Left,” and thus was not likely to be widely emulated by more traditional colleagues, Yeshiva University, the premier institution of “Centrist Orthodoxy,” also made a notable statement by inviting Harvard Bible scholar James Kugel to deliver a guest lecture. There were objections from some faculty who did not think that Kugel’s critical scholarship had a place at Yeshiva, but the invitation and the generally positive student reaction suggested that this significant Orthodox constituency was open to intellectual inquiry that sought to engage the best of Jewish tradition and modern culture. Similarly, Centrist Orthodoxy hailed the publication of a new edition of the prayer book by Britain’s Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks that took seriously the modern sensibility.
Yet not all was well in the precincts of Orthodoxy, as historian Jonathan Sarna argued in a widely noted article that decried Orthodox triumphalism. Day schools — a major factor in the Orthodox renaissance — were becoming too expensive for many families, and to avoid rising tuition costs some Orthodox parents were contemplating charter schools, home schooling or supplementing public school education with private religious studies, all proposals that could undermine the day school system. Potentially more damaging was Orthodox isolationism from the broader Jewish community, as exemplified in the Rabbinical Council of America’s severe public criticism of one of its members, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, for participating in an interfaith service in Washington, D.C., honoring the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Moreover, accusations of money laundering and political corruption badly tarnished the fervently Orthodox Syrian Jewish community. Sarna’s conclusion: Religious movements that claim that the future is theirs invariably prove to be wrong.
The liberal movements also demonstrated signs of renewal alongside severe challenges. The single greatest problem, of course, was how to respond to the financial crisis. The national institutions of Conservative and Reform Judaism restructured themselves in order to meet budgetary shortfalls. At the Jewish Theological Seminary, Conservative Judaism’s primary academic center, Chancellor Arnold Eisen battled severe financial obstacles to spearhead “scholarship for the sake of Torah,” bringing the academic treasures of JTS to strengthen Judaism and the Jewish people. Faced with the prospect of demographic losses, aging constituencies, possible congregational defections and dwindling resources, the other institutions of Conservative Judaism — the United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly — engaged new professional leadership who pledged to reinvigorate congregational life and, in cooperation with JTS, build a vibrant Conservative movement dedicated to Jewish learning and mitzvot. To take one striking example, Conservative rabbis pioneered the use of “hekhsher tzedek,” a new form of kosher certification for products manufactured in workplaces that provide employees with decent wages and working conditions.
Reform Judaism remained the largest denomination in terms of members and congregations. Congregations reached out to help members in economic distress. Some predicted that the financial crisis would mean fewer employment opportunities for rabbis and cantors, which could mean that those considering these professions would turn more toward communal work, such as Hillel positions. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), urged Reform Jews to eat more “Jewishly.” By that he did not mean to advocate kashrut in the traditional sense, but rather the adoption of ecologically conscious dietary practices and the institution of regular communal Shabbat meals in Reform synagogues. Rabbi Yoffie’s call epitomized a major challenge facing Reform: can a movement that does not consider itself bound by halacha (Jewish law) define itself in a language of commitment that will enhance the Jewish quotient of its members’ lives?
Perhaps the most serious problem in Jewish religious life was tension between the religious movements. There were, to be sure, instances of intra-denominational cooperation. For example, 17 Los Angeles rabbis, representing a broad spectrum of Jewish religious life, undertook a solidarity mission to Israel, and in New York, Jewish women representing Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist organizations co-sponsored a conference on prayer, signaling that a common spiritual imperative may transcend denominational differences. Yet there was much evidence of friction.
The old battle over “Who Is a Jew?” resurfaced in Great Britain. The son of a female convert to Judaism applied for admission to London’s prestigious and state-funded Jews’ Free School. School authorities, however, ruled that the child was not Jewish because the mother had converted under non-Orthodox auspices. The British courts were asked to intervene, raising questions about the chief rabbi’s authority to define conversion standards for the entire community, contrasting definitions of Jewish status and the right of the state to adjudicate religious disputes. American Jewish leaders noted with relief that church-state separation under the U.S. Constitution precluded governmental intervention in internal religious matters. [The British Supreme Court ruled on Dec. 16 that the Free School’s admissions policy was discriminatory. Jewish schools have now come up with a points system that will determine admissions based on religious practice, not ethnicity.]
In Israel the division between the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox had implications for the meaning of a Jewish state. Haredi Jews protested a Jerusalem parking lot that remained open on Shabbat. Within nationalist religious circles, some called for increased visitations to the Temple Mount, notwithstanding age-old rabbinic rulings forbidding entry to the site and the potentially explosive consequences. In an action that came as a surprise, the U.S. State Department’s “International Religious Freedom Report” charged Israel with religious discrimination for giving the Orthodox a monopoly on matters of personal Jewish status.
The most divisive issue on the Jewish religious agenda remained mixed marriage. Extensive marriage between Jews and non-Jews unquestionably connoted the full acceptance of Jews in multicultural America. Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism and marriage to a Jew showed, in Brandeis sociologist Sylvia Barack Fishman’s words, that “marrying a Jew no longer means removing oneself from high society.” But what attitude should the organized Jewish community take toward intermarriage absent conversion?
Significant voices were raised in support of unqualified acceptance.
According to Barry Kosmin of Trinity College, who conducted a study of the subject, intermarriage had the positive effect of broadening the network of people with Jewish connections, which served as “a natural constituency for Jewish interests.” Conservative Rabbi David Lerner, even while continuing to view Jewish endogamy as the ideal, called upon his movement to develop ceremonies that would recognize the marriage of Jewish and gentile partners committed to raising children as Jews; surprisingly, the only public criticism Lerner received focused on his expressed preference for in-marriage. Rabbi Irwin Kula, co-president of CLAL, argued for an end to resisting intermarriage and urged the community to begin “imagining that there are no boundaries.” In the face of widespread public criticism, the Jewish Agency withdrew an ad that seemingly equated mixed marriage with assimilation. Paul Golin of the Jewish Outreach Institute urged Birthright Israel to abandon “ulterior motives such as promoting in-marriage,” and claimed it would be a “disaster” if Birthright presented itself as a means to lower the incidence of intermarriage. And Kerry Olitzky, the JOI’s executive director, advocated elimination of “endogamy-centrism” so as to “remove cultural obstacles” to communal participation.
But those in favor of upholding the traditional opposition to intermarriage were encouraged by a Brandeis University study demonstrating that participation in the Birthright Israel free trip to the Jewish state significantly enhanced the chances of in-marriage. JTS Professor Jack Wertheimer underscored that only a minority of interfaith couples were raising their children exclusively as Jews. He argued that pretending there was no relationship between intermarriage and assimilation, or silencing discussion about the negative effects of intermarriage, would only undermine the value of endogamy among single Jews. Commenting on the Brandeis study, HUC sociologist Steven M. Cohen noted that intermarriage remained “the single greatest threat to Jewish continuity” and urged that the Jewish community internalize two distinct messages — that Jews should marry other Jews, and that Jews who do marry non-Jews “should be fully welcomed in our communities.”
Looking at these trends and events, it is important not to generalize. Conventional wisdom has it that American Jews are becoming less religious, more secular and increasingly divided among themselves. All of this is true on some issues and in some sectors, but countervailing trends persist. Religious renewal coexists with religious erosion, and cooperation among the religious movements serves at times as a counterweight to religious polarization. And while some of the most exciting initiatives in Jewish life are taking place outside denominational boundaries, the denominations themselves show considerable resilience and continue to provide much of the institutional basis for Jewish life. Jewish history contains more than its share of surprises, and in any case, as Yogi Berra put it, “predictions are very difficult, especially about the future.”
Steven Bayme serves as national director of contemporary Jewish life for the American Jewish Committee.
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