Behind the Headlines: Orthodox Union Debates Its Image Within the Larger Jewish Community

The Orthodox could improve their image among non-Orthodox Jews if they stopped trying to block the national Jewish consensus on various issues, an official of a non-Orthodox Jewish group advised last week.

An Orthodox Jewish leader countered that the American Jewish establishment should pay as much attention to Orthodox concerns as it does to non-Jewish issues.

The spirited exchange took place at the 92nd national convention of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which convened here during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

Speaking at a two-hour session entitled, “The State of American Orthodoxy: As Others See Us,” were Gary Rubin, national affairs director of the American Jewish Committee, and Nathan Lewin, a Washington attorney who has argued a dozen cases before the Supreme Court, many on behalf of Orthodox Jews.

Rubin, who, like Lewin, is Orthodox, said the Orthodox Union could improve its image among the non-Orthodox if it stopped vetoing policy statements before the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.

He chastised the O.U. for some of its actions at meetings of NJCRAC, the policy-planning umbrella group for 13 national Jewish organizations and 117 local Jewish community councils.

Under NJCRAC rules, consensus among constituent groups is necessary for it to take public stands on issues. The O.U. is the lone Orthodox member of NJCRAC.

In particular, Rubin chided the O.U. for blocking NJCRAC last year from joining a coalition on housing rights because the coalition was planning a major march on a Saturday.

MORE CONCERNED WITH THE FARM WORKERS

Although no other Jewish group in NJCRAC supported the idea of a march on Shabbat, the O.U. was concerned about the perception that would be created if NJCRAC embraced the housing coalition, Rubin said.

Rubin also criticized the O.U. for blocking NJCRAC last year from participating in a civil rights commemoration for two Jews and a black who were killed in Mississippi during black voter-registration drives in the mid-1960s.

The O.U.’s concern was that the ceremony, for Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney, was being held outside a church.

Rubin praised the O.U. for adopting resolutions that deal with social justice, such as AIDS and the homeless, saying the O.U. takes action “as a sacred religious obligation, something to which my knowledge very few organizations do.”

But Lewin rejected the notion that O.U. should be expending more energy on such issues, saying such a focus would create the perception “that our agenda is trivial.”

He chided proponents of the “national Jewish agenda” for being less concerned with the needs of Orthodox Jews than with “the success of the United Farm Workers, the battles for improvements in the civil rights laws and whether silent prayer should be permitted in the public schools.”

Lewin criticized Jewish federations for only starting to fund Jewish day schools 20 years ago, and only after the growth of Solomon Schechter Day schools in the Conservative movement.

He also blamed the American Jewish Congress for arguing so strongly against government endorsement of religion that it helped the Supreme Court reach a decision this past spring to uphold an Oregon statute that bars native Indians from using the peyote drug in religious rituals.

Jewish groups fear the decision could set a precedent that would allow states to prosecute Jewish religious practices, such as the drinking of Kiddush wine by minors, that technically violate local ordinances.

RESOLUTIONS ‘LACED WITH HALACHAH’

Lewin was backed later at the session by David Luchins, one of the O.U.’s representatives to NJCRAC meetings and special assistant to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.).

Luchins accused NJCRAC constituent groups of being rabidly opposed to an O.U. sponsored resolution that stated, “Racism is a violation of Torah principles.”

“Several organizations informed us that they were going to use their veto power to object to the word ‘Torah’ in a resolution of NJCRAC,” he said. He accused those groups of intolerance toward resolutions that are “laced with halachah,” or Jewish law.

Sidney Kwestel, the O.U.’s outgoing national president, said NJCRAC has recently begun “to touch upon areas where we can’t live. Abortion we can’t live with. They’ve gone into an area and they don’t represent the Jewish viewpoint.”

Lawrence Rubin, NJCRAC executive vice chairman, responded in a telephone interview by saying that NJCRAC “doesn’t deal with religious issues as such.”

NJCRAC has had a “pro-choice position for quite a long time and the O.U. has dissented from that position as long as we’ve had it,” he said.

Kwestel also said of NJCRAC, “They’ve decided to stick their nose into Israel and the whole issue of the civil rights legislation in Israel,” referring to a recent plank adopted by NJCRAC urging electoral reform in Israel.

Rubin of NJCRAC responded by saying NJCRAC’s intention is not to suggest what form electoral reform should take, but that the issue needs to be addressed.

DIFFERENCES WITH AGUDATH ISRAEL

The O.U.’s differences with a fellow Orthodox group, Agudath Israel of America, also were highlighted by Lewin and others.

Lewin said Agudath Israel was slow to support the right of U.S. soldiers to wear yarmulkes. The group refrained from joining a suit that reached the Supreme Court a few years ago, because of concern that such an accommodation might encourage Orthodox Jews to join the military and eschew their observant practices.

Lewin said the O.U., in turn, has been slow to support a truth-in-kosher-labeling bill recently introduced in Congress by Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.) that was drafted by Agudath Israel.

David Zwiebel, counsel and director of government affairs at Agudath Israel, confirmed in an interview Friday from the group’s convention in Parsippany, N.J., that the O.U. has been “slow” to move on the bill.

But he said he has “every reason to think we will have their endorsement” when the bill is reintroduced in Congress next year.

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