Around the Jewish World: Modern Orthodox Find Community Amid Struggle to Define in Identity

an identity A sense of community. That was the overriding feeling among some 1,500 modern Orthodox Jews who gathered here over the Presidents Day weekend for a conference whose goal was to re-articulate just what it means to be a modern Orthodox Jew today.

The conference, which was organized by the nascent group Edah and drew twice as many people as expected, came at a time when many of modern Orthodoxy’s adherents are struggling to define their movement’s philosophy.

“I’m joyous,” said Beth Wohlgelernter, a New Yorker who manages a start-up high technology firm and was a member of the Edah conference planning committee.

“I feel like we were all wandering in the desert for 40 years, but now I have a community again,” she said while surveying the crowded hotel ballroom as she waited for the group’s spiritual mentor, Rabbi Saul Berman, to begin his keynote address.

The conference, titled “Orthodoxy Encounters a Changing World,” attracted participants from as far away as California, North Carolina and Canada.

Other hallmarks of the conference were the prominence of women as plenary lecturers and teachers, the gathering’s central focus on “women’s issues,” and nearly equal time devoted to exploring Jewish texts and Orthodox legal and communal policy issues.

“There’s no better place than this conference to find people who are inspiring us to engage the world while we stick to our modern Orthodox traditions,” said Rabbi Gershon Sonnenschein, who came from Springfield, Mass., with 14 people from the synagogue he leads, Congregation Kadimah.

“Just being together with this many people is very empowering.”

The conference was also an opportunity for participants, particularly those in many of the dozens of sessions, to engage in a self-critique of modern Orthodoxy’s failings.

“To be a modern Orthodox Jew today is often to feel lonely, to be without a community in which to ask ideological questions,” said Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, who was ordained at Yeshiva University and is now headmaster of the pluralistic New Jewish High School, in Waltham, Mass.

Even with the strong feelings of community, the participants’ views were not monolithic.

Respectful disagreement on such issues as the right balance between modernity and traditional Jewish priorities, and on the appropriate ritual roles for women, was heard in many workshop sessions.

The diversity of dress provided an obvious illustration of the ideological span found at the conference.

Some women covered every strand of their hair with wigs and scarves, while most left their heads uncovered. Some wore long sleeves and long skirts, others wore shorter skirts, and yet other women wore slacks.

Most of the men wore colorful shirts and knitted kipot, though some were dressed in the more somber attire of dark suits, white shirts and black kipot common in the fervently Orthodox community.

A multiplicity of visions for the movement was also evident as participants bandied about alternatives to the term “modern Orthodoxy.”

In his presentation on “Assessments of, and Visions for, Modern Orthodoxy,” Lehmann disavowed the term “centrist Orthodoxy,” a label that has gained currency in recent years among Orthodox Jews who feel that the modifier modern is, well, too modern.

Lehmann offered as alternatives the terms “open Orthodoxy,” “progressive Orthodoxy” and “post-modern Orthodoxy.” He also jokingly suggested “bourgeois Orthodoxy.” Eli Leitner of New York City, who attended the session, suggested “heterodox Orthodoxy.”

“The fact that we’re not comfortable with the names points to the need for ideological clarification” in the movement, said Lehmann.

Many committed to a modern Orthodox integration of religious and secular life have in recent years felt delegitimized by the haredim, or fervently Orthodox, who view the religious and secular worlds as essentially incompatible.

A longtime hallmark of modern Orthodoxy — a willingness to dialogue and work with non-Orthodox Jews — has eroded in recent years as the movement’s institutions, like the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America, and a growing number of their constituents, have withdrawn from such endeavors on national and local levels.

It has left those who remain committed to such cooperation feeling isolated.

Sonnenschein sits down monthly with one Reform and two Conservative rabbis in Springfield for a regular dialogue. He said he is the only one of three Orthodox rabbis in town willing to do so.

Out of those meetings, he said, has emerged a plan to jointly promote “Shabbat Across America,” a March 12 program of the National Jewish Outreach Project, and to conclude it with a joint Havdalah service at the local Jewish Community Center.

“Being at a conference like this helps me to not shy away from doing things like this,” Sonnenschein said. “I came to network with other communities and see what they’re doing.”

The feeling of delegitimization is played out not only on the institutional and leadership level, said some of those attending the conference, but also in a personal way.

Dassi Rutman, one of about 200 university students who attended the conference, said she came from Ontario, Canada, hoping that she would “feel more secure with my identity” as a modern Orthodox Jew.

“I’m modern Orthodox, but I feel the pressures from people around me, friends who are moving to the right,” said Rutman, who studies biology at York University and says she is one of the only people in her community who wears pants.

“It’s hard keeping your ideals when people around you feel its wrong,” she said.

In his keynote address kicking off the conference on Sunday, Berman, Edah’s director, said that modern Orthodoxy is a religious path defined by “maximum integration with society” whose adherents “simultaneously affirm a passionate total commitment to halacha,” or Jewish law.

“We have chosen the more difficult path” than those on the right-wing side of Orthodoxy, who choose “maximum withdrawal and maximum isolation” from general society, he said.

But it is in the dialectic between two seemingly antagonistic value systems that modern Orthodoxy can make a contribution to both personal and communal life, he said.

“There are moments of conflict between faith and reason in the life of a Jew,” he said.

But “both are God’s gifts and we need to receive them both,” he said. “We don’t have to give up universality to retain our sense of particularism.”

The unique role of the modern Orthodox is that they are religious Jews who view working in the world as a positive religious value.

“Being engaged in building and in healing, in manufacturing and in helping, in raising children and in mediating conflicts, is a vital aspect of fulfillment of the mitzvah of Imitatio Dei,” or acting in the way God wants, he said.

“We have a message to bring to American society — that in work there can be holiness. If you bring the right kavanah (intent), we can transform the mundane into the sacred.”

“We need to invite all of Jewry to join with us in this quest for holiness in the secular world,” he said, as his listeners stood in an ovation.

What’s the next step for Edah, a two-year old organization still defining its role in the modern Orthodox community?

“The issues raised here need to be addressed further,” Judy Adler Sheer, Edah’s executive director, said in an interview. Edah plans to set up chat rooms through its web site (www.edah.org) where people can continue their discussions, and possibly organize smaller conferences in cities around the country, she said.

“There are some large communal soul searching issues ahead of us,” she said. “The challenge is to create a way to do that, to maintain a sense of community.”

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