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JTA 5773: Fighting over Jewish pluralism

5773 Religious Wars

NEW YORK (JTA) — In 5773, the religious wars just would not go away.

In Israel, elections that extended Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure as prime minister delivered big wins to two anti-Orthodox-establishment upstarts, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. For the first time in nearly two decades, Israel’s coalition government included no haredi Orthodox parties.

The Israel Defense Forces took concrete steps toward ending the draft exemption for haredi  men. Israel’s Ministry of Religious Services agreed for the first time to allow non-Orthodox rabbis to serve in communal positions with state-funded salaries.

Orthodox Jews protesting against the Women of the Wall prayers in the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 10, 2013. (Flash90)

Orthodox Jews protesting against the Women of the Wall prayers in the Western Wall in Jerusalem, May 10, 2013. (Flash90)

And the Reform and Conservative movements finally broke through years of apathy to get the Israeli government to consider changes to the Orthodox monopoly over ritual and prayer at the Western Wall — but many non-Orthodox Jews expressed dismay at the results.

In the United States, Yeshivat Maharat, a New York school for women founded four years ago to train Orthodox female rabbinic authorities, graduated its first class of Orthodox clergy, known as maharats. The Supreme Court granted federal benefits to same-sex couples and struck down a California law banning gay marriage in the state.

While Jewish liberals seemed to have a good year, Orthodox leaders and institutions found themselves on the defensive.

Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, was arrested on suspicion of fraud and money laundering.

Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, became the subject of a $380 million lawsuit by former students alleging that two rabbis who used to teach at the Y.U. high school for boys in the 1970s and ’80s committed hundreds of acts of sex abuse. When Y.U.’s chancellor, Rabbi Norman Lamm, announced he was stepping down, he apologized for mishandling the allegations when he was university president. In August, an outside investigation commissioned by the university found the abuse was not limited to Y.U.’s high school for boys.

The Satmar hasidic community in New York became embroiled in its own sex scandal when it lined up to support an unlicensed therapist from Brooklyn charged with the repeated sexual assault of a female teenager in his care.

Even after Nechemya Weberman was found guilty and sentenced to 103 years in prison, the community’s support did not waver. Rather, Satmar leaders inveighed against the victim and her supporters. A few days after the trial, a hasidic assailant threw bleach in the face of a community rabbi, Nuchem Rosenberg, who advocates for victims of sex abuse.

But to extrapolate a storyline or trend from these disparate events could be folly.

For one thing, the Orthodox sex scandals might be more about the dawning of a new age of reckoning on sex abuse than the prevalence of sexual misdeeds among Orthodox Jews.

And for all the triumphs that Jewish liberals saw this year, demographic trends suggest that the Jewish communities in the United States and Israel are growing less liberal.

Data released in January from the 2011 Jewish population study of New York showed that two-thirds of the metropolitan region’s Jewish population growth over the last decade occurred in two haredi neighborhoods in Brooklyn. While there hasn’t been a national Jewish population study in more than a decade, the data from America’s largest Jewish community suggest that Orthodox Jews, with their high birthrates, will represent an ever-larger proportion of the American Jewish community.

“The traditional population of American Jews has high fertility and the non-Orthodox population as a group is well below replacement level,” said one of the researchers who conducted the study, sociologist Steven M. Cohen of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “So American Jewry, with no other change, will become increasingly traditional in the years to come.”

Women of the Wall, Women of the Wall av, Women of the Wall june 2013.

Women of the Wall members praying at the Western Wall plaza to mark the beginning of the Hebrew month of Av, July 8, 2013. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

While fertility rates among non-Orthodox Israelis are not as low as those of American Jews, they lag far behind those of Orthodox Israelis. The relative size of Israel’s haredi community as a share of Israel’s total population is expected to double by 2020, to 16 percent.

In Israel, the culture wars between haredi and non-haredi have focused on the haredi draft exemption and the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly over marriage.

The haredi establishment has mostly succeeded in protecting the status quo on both those counts, notwithstanding changes in the draft law. And when the 150 or so electors charged with choosing new Ashkenazi and Sephardic chief rabbis went to the polls in July, they rejected the reformist favorite David Stav and instead elected two haredim, David Lau and Yitzhak Yosef, the sons of former chief rabbis.

In the American Jewish community, the battle has not been between denominations but over Jewish values.

Is it a Jewish value to support the right of gays to marry or does the practice contravene Jewish ethics? Should Jews be advocating for greater government funding for private religious schools or fighting the use of taxpayer money in non-public schools? Should Jews press Washington to make a concerted push for Israeli-Palestinian peace or is such pressure right now not in Israel’s best interests?

The divisions among American Jews on these issues do not fall neatly along denominational lines.

Meanwhile, the American Jewish political divide appears slowly to be widening. Though Jews as a whole still skew heavily Democratic, in last November’s election President Obama dropped at least 6 points among Jews from 2008, winning an estimated 68 percent of the Jewish vote. The 2012 election also ushered in a Congress with fewer Jewish members than at any time since the 1990s.

(Joe Winkler)

(Joe Winkler)

The divides over politics and religion stood in sharp contrast to the relative consensus that held up through much of the year on international issues.

There was practical unanimity on concern that Syria’s civil war not spill over into Israel, that instability in Egypt not turn the Sinai Peninsula into a breeding ground for Islamic militants, that Iran be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, that the European Union enforce its decision to designate Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist organization.

But external threats did not dominate communal discourse in 5773. There wasn’t the same public urgency on Iran as in past years. The Egyptian coup in July was less concerning for Israel than the 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime ally Hosni Mubarak.

The Israeli-Palestinian relationship was marked more by the absence of progress than anything else — until U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry managed to coax both sides back to the negotiating table in July. There was a mini-war in Gaza in November 2012 that lasted eight days and resulted in the deaths of some 150 Palestinians and six Israelis, but after that Israel’s border with Gaza was mostly quiet.

Two Chasidic men walk in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Along with Borough Park, the neighborhood accounts for two-thirds of overall Jewish population growth in the New York area, according to new details from a 2012 study.  (Gedalya Gottdenger via Creative Commons)

Two Chasidic men walk in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Along with Borough Park, the neighborhood accounts for two-thirds of overall Jewish population growth in the New York area, according to new details from a 2012 study. (Gedalya Gottdenger via Creative Commons)

It was tragedy in the United States that left the community with lasting scars. Late last October, a massive storm surge generated by Hurricane Sandy battered communities, synagogues and Jewish schools up and down the Northeast coast. UJA-Federation of New York convened an emergency meeting to authorize $10 million for rebuilding efforts, many of which continue today.

Outside of the United States and Israel, the big Jewish stories included the banning of Jewish ritual slaughter in Poland and a new German law regulating ritual circumcision; a controversial exhibit at Berlin’s Jewish museum dubbed “Jew in a box” and a new Jewish museum in Warsaw; a much-criticized deal between the Argentinean and Iranian governments to investigate the 1994 AMIA Jewish community center bombing; sex abuse scandals in Australia; concerns about far-right movements in Hungary and Greece, and the appointment of a new chief rabbi in England.

There was some good news here: None of these stories were about major Jewish calamities.

To be sure, the Jewish people suffered tragedies in 5773 – from natural disasters, from Gaza rocket fire. But for a people obsessed with survival and accustomed to attacks, the absence of mass casualty events in 5773 made it a remarkable year as much for what did not happen as for what did.

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