Modern Orthodoxy: The “Other” within American Jewry
Try your hand at the following questions: How many American Jews identify as Orthodox? What percentage of American Jews lives outside of New York? Which university is home to more Jews, University of Florida or Yeshiva University?
I recently found myself amongst a group of twenty YC and SCW students asked these very questions. The answers that many students offered were incredibly inaccurate, and we laughed at each other, amazed at our own ignorance. Merely 10% of American Jews identify themselves as Orthodox[i] (not 60%, as one student suggested), 75% of American Jews live outside of New York[ii] (someone guessed that as many live inside), and the University of Florida has more Jews than does our own university.[iii]
I am not sure that statistics define what is mainstream and what is not, but if they are any indication, then Yeshiva University is certainly “the Other” in American Jewry. As an Orthodox institution, and a Modern Orthodox one at that, we represent just a small minority of the broader American Jewish community.
Yet the average YU student seems to have little or no sense of Jewish life outside this community. The Modern Orthodox track is straightforward: spend twelve years in the yeshiva school system, choose your favorite Modern Orthodox summer camp, go to Israel for a year or two and come back to YU (or perhaps another college; your parents will consent to this as long as it has a large Orthodox community), repeat the cycle with your own family. Chances of befriending non-Orthodox Jews in the process? Slim to none.
Now, I am not looking to criticize this course of life. I myself am a product of this system, and am forever indebted to it and grateful for the education and opportunities it has afforded me thus far. But recently I have noticed how infrequently I consider where I, and the Orthodox community, stand in the broader context of American Jewry. As Orthodox Jews, we tend to view Orthodoxy as the core of the Jewish community, with all other Jews existing on the periphery. The Orthodox Jew is the “true” Jew, while the others add to our numbers but do not count for much else. But the roughly 90% of American Jews who do not identify as Orthodox must disagree. For them, most Jews are unaffiliated, some perhaps traditional, maybe Conservative or Reform, while only a marginal number are Orthodox. To most of America’s Jews, we are the exception.
A whole slew of questions arise when we stop and consider our own community within a broader context. These questions can be broken down into two major categories: our relationship to other Jews and our vision for the future of American Jewry.
One critical component of how we relate to the broader Jewish community lies in our conception of the general Jewish population in America. This general population can be divided into Jews who identify with a particular denomination or movement, and those who do not. Often, our attitude towards Jews who do not is much simpler. We have many flourishing kiruv organizations whose missions are quite clearly to bring “lost” Jews back to Judaism.
When it comes to Jews who identify with and are committed to other movements within Judaism, however, the questions are much more complex. There are two popular ways of relating to these groups: either as legitimate forms of Judaism—we have our take and they have theirs—and as individual communities we can coexist as separate but equal, or as illegitimate forms of Judaism—there is either Orthodoxy or nothing at all—and we must be mekarev them to Orthodoxy as best we can. If we adhere to the latter option, then our work is more or less cut out for us: We disregard other ideologies and assume that all non-Orthodox Jews amalgamate into a mush of “lost” Jews upon whom we must shine the light of Orthodoxy and whom we must bring back to the true form of Judaism. However, if we identify with the first option, namely that other movements in Judaism are “separate but equal” (which I acknowledge that many among us are disinclined to do), then there are more complicated issues at hand: Can we acknowledge a Judaism that does not accept the yoke of Halakhah, that perhaps does not accept the Torah’s Divine authorship? Perhaps these Jews are growing in their own ways, and we must do what we can to increase Jewish identification in any form, Orthodox or not. Alternatively, we can adopt a different approach. While we may not recognize the legitimacy of other movements’ theology, we can still work with them to foster positive Jewish identity and to create an attitude of tolerance towards fellow Jews for the sake of a more cohesive American Jewish community.
These questions segue into the broader issue of how American Orthodoxy envisions its ultimate goal. What this means, exactly, I am not quite certain, especially since this is not a topic that people seem to talk about regularly. One might say, of course, our sole goal is to keep Torah and mitsvot as best we can — what else is there? Granted, this is the central goal. But should we have a broader vision of what we believe Orthodox Jewry expects to accomplish in 21st-century America? How do we relate to a society that grows increasingly secular?[iv] How do we confront a society that diminishes the necessity of community?[v] Is the future of the Jewish people solely in Israel? Should American Jews move to Israel and increase the number of Jews there, or can we more effectively support Israel financially and politically from America? How do we thrive in a society that does not understand the concept of being “commanded”? In what ways, if any, would the Orthodox community benefit from working together with other movements in the Jewish community to deal with these issues? I wonder whether the American Orthodox community contemplates these issues enough.
After posing seven questions in a row, I am disheartened by the fact that I feel nowhere near answering them, but even more disheartened by the knowledge that the reason for this is my lack of engagement in serious thought or conversation concerning these issues. I talk with friends about Torah u-Madda, hear from teachers about women and Halakhah, and attend lectures on the philosophy of Rambam, but I hardly ever engage in discussion of these big-picture questions our community faces.
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that it is extremely easy to become caught up in the particulars, to focus on the demanding details of our lives. It is hard enough to figure out how to kasher for Pesach or squeeze in the daf yomi shiur before minyan without worrying about how you feel about the Jews at the University of Florida. In a similar vein, the argument can be made that the Orthodox community has enough problems on its hands, between the tuition crisis and teenagers texting on Shabbat, and that these particular problems should be the top priority in our lives.
The second reason, which I believe to be the more authentic one, is a lack of openness that is currently characteristic of our community. YC senior Yitzhak Bronstein recently wrote in a Commentator article: “Over my two and a half years at YU, I have had the misfortune of encountering this close-mindedness in different forms. Roshei Yeshiva called for the complete breaking of ties with any community that endorses female rabbinic ordination; casualties in the Yom Kippur War were blamed on the sexual promiscuity of secular Jews; and Rabbi Ethan Tucker of Mechon Hadar was barred from speaking on campus.”[vi] Evidently, Orthodoxy is in and everything else is out.
This closed attitude, I believe, is the reason that I, as well as so many of my peers, have trouble placing Orthodoxy into the broader context of American Jewry. It is difficult to understand and address various issues that American Jews face if we have no opportunity to hear from other Jews, to converse with Jews outside of our narrow community, which is truly “the Other” within American Jewry. If we are to ask ourselves important questions about our relationship to other Jews and about our vision for American Jewry, we must increase our exposure to different types of Jews, not decrease it.
The challenge of joining together with the broader American Jewish community to tackle the difficult questions about our future is a complicated one; certainly no single institution can address it alone. Nonetheless, we must be willing to be partners in the process. As I stated earlier, I can hardly begin to envision the larger goals of the American Jewish community and how we can all work together to best achieve them. Perhaps as college students we need more interaction with students at other institutions; perhaps the leaders of various movements should interact more frequently, not to debate our differences but to reaffirm all that we share and value, and to find areas in which our goals meet. I am not certain. At this point, I am calling for an increased awareness of the broader American Jewish community, for the recognition that there is struggling and vibrant Jewish life beyond the Orthodox sphere that we can both contribute to and benefit from. We must begin with exposure and conversation, with Jews somewhat different than ourselves, if we are to better define our relationship with other American Jews and envision our goals as a nation, despite our differences.
One might inquire why an undergraduate at YU should engage with such people or questions at all—if a student wishes to encounter non-Orthodox Jews, he or she could study at a secular college—should YU not serve as a safe-haven, as a shelter from the non-Orthodox? The answer is, certainly not! YU promises its students an excellent education in both the Jewish and secular academic arenas, not protection from new ideas or different people. YU professes: “Only through formal Jewish education can we ensure the spiritual, national and cultural future of the Jewish people.”[vii] The outstanding Jewish education that students receive here should be geared towards ensuring the future not only of Orthodoxy, but of the entire Jewish people. Combining this Jewish education with an open attitude towards fellow Jews can only assist the YU community in achieving its goals.
As Orthodox Jews, as this “Other” within American Jewry, we must recognize the importance of understanding our community as a small but integral part of the broader American Jewish community. We have what to offer unaffiliated Jews as well as Jews of other streams of Judaism, and we would do well to acknowledge that we have what to learn from them, too. If we are to address big-picture questions about the future of American Judaism and the goals it seeks to accomplish, we need to increase our exposure to and awareness of different American Jews. I sincerely hope that we come to actualize what can be found, with a few minutes of navigating the new website, in YU’s mission statement: “For the Jewish Community: In America, Israel and around the world, our mission to bring wisdom to life will foster greater understanding and appreciation of the heritage, traditions and values we all hold so dear.”
Elana Raskas is a junior at SCW majoring in English Literature and Jewish Studies, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.
[i] Jonathon Ament, United Jewish Communities Report Series on the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01: American Jewish Religious Denominations (February 2005), 8, available at: www.jewishfederations.org/local_includes/downloads/7579.pdf.
[ii] Ira M. Sheskin, “Recent Trends in Jewish Demographics
and Their Impact on the Jewish Media” (June 2011), 48, available at:
[iii] “60 Universities with the Largest Jewish Population in North America,” Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life (July 23, 2009), available at: www.hillel.org. According to the data linked from this article, University of Florida is home to 6,500 Jewish undergraduate students, and NYU has about 6,000. A representative from YU admissions informed me that YU has around 2,300 undergraduates.
[iv] “One of the most widely noted findings from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS 2008), which was released in March 2009, was the substantial increase in the No Religion segment of the U.S. population, whom we designate as ‘Nones.’ The Nones increased from 8.1% of the U.S. adult population in 1990 to 15% in 2008 and from 14 to 34 million adults. Their numbers far exceed the combined total of all the non-Christian religious groups in the U.S.” (Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar with Ryan Cragun and Juhem Navarro-Rivera, American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population (Hartford, CT: Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture, 2009), i, available at: commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/08/NONES_08.pdf).
[v] The Good Society by Robert Bella (a sociologist at UC Berkeley) is a study of America’s increasingly individualistic society and the need to revitalize communal structures.
[vi] Yitzhak Bronstein, “Learning from the Murder of Rabin,” The Commentator (November 4, 2011), available at: www.yucommentator.org.
[vii] “Jewish Education,” Yeshiva University Website, available at: www.yu.edu.