Forward columnist Jay Michaelson penned an article yesterday intended to rally non-Orthodox troops against the creeping fundamentalism of haredi Orthodox Jews. Culling headlines from a series of recent and not-so-recent scandals, Michaelson argued that contemporary haredi Jewry looks less like the benign world of Tevye, and more like “The Sopranos.” And if non-Orthodox Jewry doesn’t do something about it soon, it will be demographically overwhelmed.
Fortunately, we don’t have to fight coercion with coercion. We don’t have to compel anyone to change his or her religious beliefs. We just have to stop artificially propping up a system that otherwise would not exist.
For example? We can demand an end to all federal and state subsidies to yeshivas that do not prepare students for contemporary economic and civic life. We can oppose all Jewish-fundamentalist efforts to take advantage of government or Jewish communal largesse. We can support our allies in Israel that are fighting for religious pluralism, for equal conscription of all Israelis, for civil marriage and for the defunding of the rabbinate.
And perhaps most important, we can publicly and financially support those struggling to escape from the oppression of ultra-Orthodoxy. For example, the organization Footsteps does wonderful work to help ex-Haredim transition to the modern world. But it is tiny in comparison with what we need. We need a Giant Footsteps —a major federation initiative to support those who leave and communicate to those trapped outside that there is vibrant Jewish life beyond the ghetto wall.
The Forward also published a response from Jonathan Rosenblum, a Yale Law School graduate and a leading haredi columnist.
It is a community of extraordinary generosity. In my neighborhood alone, there are 200 or so free loan societies listed in our neighborhood directory for everything from medicines to bridal gowns to infant pillows for the bris.
Virtually every major volunteer organization in Israel was founded by Haredim: Yad Sarah, which dispenses medical equipment for home use; Ezer M’Tzion, which has created the world’s largest Jewish blood marrow registry; Ezra L’Marpeh, which handles over 50,000 emergency medical referrals a year. The late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum, himself a sometime Haredi critic, once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the Haredim] may be unparalleled among the communities in this country.”
In both the United States and Israel, numerous Haredi-founded organizations offer summer camps, travel, and weekly activities for Jewish children suffering from cancer or other debilitating diseases. In the wake of the major aliyah from the former Soviet Union, Haredim created an entire school system in Israel, SHUVU, offering the highest level secular studies, with an enhanced Jewish curriculum, for children from Russian-speaking homes cut off from any knowledge of their Jewish heritage for seventy years.