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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

This week, as the year 5777 winds to a close, Yeshiva University inducted Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman as its new president. In addition to President Berman’s induction and the important speech he delivered during the ceremony, two other voices have emerged in the past week that represent key sectors of our community. Rabbi Daniel Alter, the head of The Moriah School, wrote “The Bergen County Moment,” published by The Jewish Link (September 7, 2017), and an anonymous Modern Orthodox layperson wrote a widely read entry on the Times of Israel blogs, titled “I Can Do Jewish on Just $40,000 a Year” (September 11, 2017), each dealing with and addressing different aspects of communal life.

It is worth considering what Rabbi Dr. Berman’s speech, these two articles and the near simultaneous appearance of all three tells us about the state of our community. Taken together, they reveal some promising developments in our community but also the existence of a deep and troubling fissure between the communal leadership and its laity. If this breach is not repaired quickly, it could yield a shrunken Modern Orthodox population and, perhaps more ominously, a thinner or narrower religious life for those who remain inside the community. It could even lead to the collapse of the plausibility structure of our entire sector of the Jewish people.

Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman’s Induction Speech

For many, Rabbi Dr. Berman’s appointment and induction as YU’s president is cause for the sort of optimism regarding YU and even Modern Orthodoxy more broadly that has been missing from our communal discourse in recent years. As he acknowledged in his induction speech, he assumes the role at a moment pregnant with crucial questions regarding the University’s identity and future. The speech rose to the occasion by attempting to re-define, or at least re-articulate, the institution’s foundational principles. Others generally wiser and/or more informed than I am will likely weigh in on these principles, or “Five Torot.” For what it is worth, I found the speech quite inspiring and strongly identify with these principles. I also recognize that his audience as a university president is very broad, as it includes non-observant and non-Jewish faculty and students from across the university as a whole.

That said, certain aspects of his speech left me with the lagging sense that YU’s focus, and as a result our broader communal discourse, may turn outward in a way that could prejudice internal vitality. To pick a small example, in his explication of the principles of “Torat Chesed” and “Torat Adam” he proudly mentions that YU students volunteer with what has become a nationwide program to teach science in urban public schools, which was itself conceived of by a YU student. This sort of thing is, needless to say, very nice and certainly praiseworthy. I do not question the value of these two principles or the appropriateness mentioning this particular anecdote in his induction speech. The question here is really one of emphasis going forward. When it comes to our universal commitments, which are undoubtedly real and pressing, we should question whether our community is well positioned at any given time to emphasize their immediate fulfillment. It is perhaps unfortunate, but right now our collective gaze and energy ought to be focused inward, on the foundations of our communal life without which none of the Five Torot’s lofty ideals will ultimately materialize.

Rabbi Daniel Alter’s ‘The Bergen County Moment’

It is also important to remember that some of Rabbi Dr. Berman’s principles have already been partially realized. Rabbi Alter’s thoughtful piece, “The Bergen County Moment,” is an intelligent and well-written analysis of how Bergen County came to be the seat of Modern Orthodox leadership and vitality, such as it is. He is undoubtedly correct to praise this particular community’s many achievements and his article provides some crucial historical perspective, perhaps especially to my demographic (young families who are recent transplants to Bergen County).

However, the final section of Rabbi Alter’s article on the “moral implications” of communal success contains some red flags. Rabbi Alter warns against the dangers of a community that possesses too much wealth. He also praises the “civic leadership and duty” of the community and its leaders as manifested in working with our surrounding communities and indulging them in their need for “strong” (read: expensive) public schools. Here, the danger I describe above regarding our universal commitments rears its head. Rabbi Alter presents our community’s relationship with outside locals as a benchmark to assess our righteousness. Reading between the lines, he is also using it to set us apart from our Haredi brethren in neighboring areas who have handled their relationship with the surrounding community differently. At a time of great communal strength, many would agree that the approach Rabbi Alter praises is preferable or even obligatory. However, unfortunately, we are not in a time of such strength and it is very difficult to view these matters as anything other than a zero sum game.

A Jewish Father’s Lament

Rabbi Alter’s presentation of the moral implications of financial issues affecting the community contrasts starkly with the anonymously authored article “I Can ‘Do Jewish’ on Just $40,000 a Year.” The author, “Jewish Father,” chronicles the manner in which the high cost of Modern Orthodox life led to financial struggles, which in turn led him to pull his children out of Jewish schools and his family from full engagement with other aspects of institutional religious life. We dismiss these stories, and judge Jewish Father’s psychological relationship with the Modern Orthodox community or his family’s particular financial decisions, at our own peril. Indeed, this article is a true cry from the gut. The financial issues it brutally lays bare affect all of us in one way or another. Communal leadership, from the top down, needs to communicate that it understands these issues and the urgency of finding solutions or it risks the rapid emergence of more Jewish Fathers.

Conclusions

Going forward, I hope that the relative emphasis of Rabbi Dr. Berman’s Torat Adam and Torat Chesed versus his other principles takes our own community’s needs into account and, for the time being, places them first. (Could YU students also volunteer to tutor science in Modern Orthodox high schools or in some other capacity?) The corollary on the level of local rabbinic leadership is that there should be an active effort made to keep our community’s cost of living as low as possible. This should involve aggressively marshaling the community to lower local taxes. Also, rabbinic leadership ought to personally act in a way that ensures communal funds are applied to real communal needs. New shuls, with their attendant new mortgages and new rabbi salaries, should not be established if nearby shuls can expand in a way that would be more financially efficient. Tuition is obviously the most pressing financial burden, but the solution by nature must be national or statewide in scope. While the Orthodox Union works on this through their important initiative Teach Advocacy Network, local leadership could work around the edges by, for example, devising financially and educationally creative solutions for summer camp.

We should be hearing from communal leadership on such issues. Instead, we hear silence coupled with self-congratulatory dismissals of the Haredi community. On the one hand, perhaps Monsey and Lakewood have indeed been negatively impacted to an undue degree by questionable behavior on the part of the Orthodox leadership there. On the other hand, the line between questionable behavior and exercising democratic rights is not always clear and is mostly subjective. One plausible reading is that our Haredi brethren are erring on the side of fighting for their survival and ability to flourish. They truly believe in themselves and their community’s survival. Unless the Modern Orthodox community has some kind of similar awakening soon, the future options for those who don’t wish to make aliyah will spell its end: join the Haredi community or become a “Jewish Father” and pull back from a fully engaged Jewish life.

That latter option is a problem in two respects. The first is the many individual Jewish souls that will be set adrift if large numbers of families take this path. Second, this exodus could lead to a snowball effect that increases the financial difficulties for those who remain in the community and, ultimately, the collapse of its entire plausibility structure. Professional options for the “Jewish Fathers” (and “Mothers!”) of the world are already unacceptably narrow considering the multifaceted needs of the human soul. Many young families seriously question whether their currently young children will also choose to forgo their real interests, or the chance to take risks in business, in order to pursue one of three career fields and ensure their ability to pay tuition bills while teetering on the financial brink. If we want to avoid that future, and instead raise a generation capable of fully realizing all of Rabbi Dr. Berman’s Five Torot, we and our leadership need to start aggressively protecting our community’s interests while it still exists to protect.

By Robert Blum

 Robert Blum lives in Teaneck with his wife and four children.