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Focus on Issues: Modern Orthodox Navigate Moderation Amid the Tensions

Yeshiva University President Rabbi Norman Lamm has often said that modern Orthodoxy’s central problem today is that its adherents tend to be moderate about their passions, rather than passionate about their moderation.

Built on a philosophy of simultaneous observance of God’s commandments and integration with the world, the movement is now seeking to reinvigorate that ideology of moderation.

This quest was clear at the 98th annual convention of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, held here over the long Thanksgiving weekend, where speakers and some of the 800 participants interviewed sounded similar themes.

At the same time, it became apparent that the O.U., as an organization of about 750 synagogues plus about 25,000 individual members, seems to have succeeded in recharging itself as an institution with a clear sense of its own mandate.

The modern Orthodox quest comes at a time when, it is widely acknowledged, there are no truly great modern Orthodox rabbis leading the movement. The vacuum has been acutely felt by modern Orthodox Jews since the 1993 death of their principal theologian, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik.

It also comes as the modern Orthodox are grappling with tensions between the forces of assimilation and the influences of the right wing.

The religious and social behavior of modern Orthodox Jews has in recent years, been pulled rightward by the more stringent, isolationist practices of the fervently Orthodox community.

At the same, assimilation and intermarriage are making inroads to the modern Orthodox community, though to a lesser extent than among religiously liberal and unaffiliated Jews.

Sociologist William Helmreich, who has studied and written about the Orthodox world, pointed out ways in which the right wing has influenced what used to be called modern Orthodoxy, but these days is often called centrist Orthodoxy.

Men and women used to sit together everywhere, as they did at the O.U. convention, except in synagogue. Now it is common for the sexes to be separated at wedding receptions and other social functions, and for musical concerts to be open to men or women only, he said in an address to the convention.

In one case, Helmreich said, the principal of a Yeshiva University-affiliated high school announced that he does not approve of “Torah U’maddah,” meaning literally Torah and science, but referring to the worldview endorsing observance with integration with secular society.

“Shakespeare, Freud, Marx and secular art” are now viewed as forbidden, he said. “We’ve thrown out the good with the bad, and as modern Orthodox Jews, we should want both.”

“We can follow Agudah if we want,” said Helmreich, referring to Agudath Israel of America, the organization representing fervently Orthodox, or haredi, interests.

“But we will always be a paler shade of black and so not attractive to young people.”

At the same time, several speakers at the convention urged modern Orthodox Jews to stop “looking over their right shoulders” and to focus more on their own mission.

Most of what Helmreich said “is almost irrelevant outside of New York,” said Rabbi Ilan Feldman, spiritual leader of Atlanta’s Congregation Beth Jacob.

He decried as a “preoccupation and obsession” his movement’s concern about the right wing.

“Let’s grow from each other and not spend our time talking about why some other Orthodox Jew is a negative influence on us,” he said.

Rabbi Bernard Lander, president of Touro College, clearly articulated the movement’s struggle in his remarks.

Touro is a New York City college attended by many haredi Jews who go to learn computer or accounting skills they need to earn a living.

Citing assimilation and intermarriage statistics, Lander labeled secular colleges “the crematorium of our people” because they are where young Jews from traditional homes encounter secular values and date non-Jews for the first time.

“What chance do our young people have in co-ed dorms with co-ed bathrooms?” he asked. “Torah does not preach a segregated ghetto, but participation in civic affairs. But we must not forget the importance of boundaries, of separation.”

Amid this quest for a renewed ideology, however, is a growing organization with an increasingly clear sense of purpose.

The Orthodox Union is expanding to Israel its network of teen social clubs, the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, which has some 40,000 members in the United States.

Last autumn, the O.U. erected a succah on the beach in Tel Aviv and 1,000 Israeli kids went into it, according to Dr. Mandell Ganchrow. At the convention, Ganchrow was elected to a second term as president of the O.U.

The O.U. is also establishing a National Jewish Sports League in several cities with the goal of using basketball to reach Jewish public school students who otherwise might be at risk of assimilating.

Last year, the O.U. initiated an in-home discussion-group project called Pardes, which has so far involved an estimated 12,000 people in eight countries and some 50 college campuses, according an O.U. report.

The movement is also the only major American Jewish religious body to put serious emphasis on programs for physically and developmentally disabled Jews, through its Our Way and Yachad programs.

The organization has created a strong presence on-line, where its home page on the World Wide Web gets about 8,000 hits a day, 2,000 from people who have never visited there before, said Rabbi Raphael Butler, O.U.’s executive vice president.

The site (www.ou.org) includes an “on-line halachah hotline” and “Vebbe Rebbe,” to answer questions about kashrut and other aspects of Jewish law.

Financially, the O.U. has eliminated the $750,000 deficit it had two years ago and has grown — in terms of its membership and its budget — by 50 percent in the last two years, Ganchrow said.

The O.U. currently spends about $8 million a year on programs, he said.

The O.U.’s kashrut division, which oversees 3,500 food processing facilities and controls about two-thirds of the kosher food supervision market, generates millions in income a year, according to Rabbi Menachem Genack, the head of the department.

As the organization grows, the experience of one convention attendee, Abe Colton makes clear the philosophical tensions inherent in being a modern Orthodox Jew today.

The Manhattan resident, who said that he does not like labels but that he has lived his life as a modern Orthodox Jew, has two children. One is making a life focused solely on the study of Torah; the other, he hopes, will be more fully integrated with the world around her.

His son, Colton said, is a talented Torah scholar in his fourth year of full- time study at a Jerusalem yeshiva. The young man’s whole life now “is spiritual. He doesn’t live in the real world but he’s willing to sacrifice to learn Torah.”

The 21-year-old young man now prefers not to walk down Manhattan streets when he comes to New York on his once-a-year visit, lest he be forced to look at women.

His daughter, who is now finishing yeshiva high school, will study at a Jerusalem yeshiva next year.

Colton said he hopes that she will be a housewife, and that he would oppose her marrying a man who wanted to learn in a yeshiva full time.

“It’s the responsibility of the husband” to go out into the world and “support the wife,” he said.

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