Modern Orthodox Think Tank To Fold


Nine years after Edah took up the challenge of reversing what it called a “separatist trend” within Modern Orthodoxy, the think-tank announced this week that it is winding down its operations, hoping to pass on its work and most successful programs to others.

While not exactly declaring its mission accomplished, Edah’s founder, Rabbi Saul Berman, said this week he was proud of achievements that exceeded expectations, while noting that much more work needs to be done.

“We have created a new benchmark for Modern Orthodoxy,” said Rabbi Berman. “We have created some very powerful instruments to transmit its values.”

Some board members were upset about the organization closing, in part because of financial problems, saying a unique voice was being silenced.

From the start, Edah has tried to engender an Orthodoxy that retains its commitment to halacha while expanding opportunities for the participation of women in communal leadership and seeking greater engagement in issues outside the Jewish world.

Rabbi Berman cited the recent participation of 300 Yeshiva University students in a Washington march against the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, as “a very important statement” that Modern Orthodox Jews were increasingly taking up “a humanitarian cause that did not involve the Jewish people.” He also cited the “growing breadth of religious Zionism,” wider acceptance of post-yeshiva college attendance, the expansion of Torah studies for women and their acceptance as halachic sources as “enormous victories from a Modern Orthodox perspective.”

He said he sensed change, at least on the surface, at YU’s rabbinical school, the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. “The kind of periodic antagonism that used to be heard from within RIETS [toward other perspectives within Orthodoxy] has been muted,” he said. Edah is perhaps best known for its widely read journal and annual conferences that drew as many as 1,500 participants. The packed agenda of its 2005 conference included sessions on substance abuse in yeshivas, sexual abuse in the Orthodox world and perspectives on women being called to the Torah.

“People were thirsty for an alternative voice,” said Suri Kasirer, Edah’s vice president for leadership development and a prominent Democratic political consultant. “They came from the chasidic community and the right-wing and said we appreciate that this voice is out there.”

Edah also offers adult education programs at the JCC of Manhattan and funded a Jewish Teacher Corps geared toward young people. It ended after several years.

Rabbi Berman said he was negotiating with several Jewish organizations to take control of the journal, the organization’s Web site — which attracts some 300,000 visits per month — and a vast audiovisual library of classes and forums. He declined to name the organizations he was speaking with since the discussions are preliminary.

Kasirer said the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance had worked closely with Edah and she hoped it would continue its advocacy for the inclusion of women. “They’ve done an incredible job,” she said. “Hopefully they will keep it going. There are quite a number of good organizations out there who can continue to work together [to further Edah’s work].”

From its inception, Edah has been a shoestring operation, employing only a small full-time staff that includes members of Rabbi Berman’s family with a budget of about $600,000 a year.

The next stage for Edah would have involved a much more localized effort. “Essentially it would mean moving from a think-tank function to implementation of model programs in different communities … and developing methods to concretize ideas,” said the rabbi.

While insisting the decision not to continue was not purely financial, Rabbi Berman noted that that next phase would have required the addition of fund-raising and other professional staff.

“When we looked at what it would take … we came to the conclusion that we did not feel it was justified from a communal perspective when the programs we have created could now be carried by other organizations.”

The demise of Edah comes at a time when Modern Orthodoxy is believed to have undergone a transition. “There was a growing consciousness all through the mid-80s that Modern Orthodoxy lacked energy and that its major institutions were so busy fighting off modernity and not creating paths for the integration of modernity,” said Rabbi Berman.

A leading chronicler of American Jewish history, Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University, noted that the recent creation of Yeshiva Chovevei Torah — a liberal Orthodox rabbinical school that encourages rabbis to seek ways to include women as well as work with the non-Orthodox community — and the appointment of a non-rabbi, Richard Joel, as president of Yeshiva University, were “huge developments” that coincided with Edah’s work. “The very term Modern Orthodoxy has come back into fashion,” said Sarna.

Sources say Rabbi Berman will take an administrative post at Chovevei Torah, but he would not confirm that fact.Assessing the demise of Edah, Sarna said the group “is not really good at publicity and fundraising. But if it is dead, it’s because it has won rather than lost. There is a women’s tefilla network and some of the women’s conferences have all really demonstrated the strength of Modern Orthodoxy. It is alive and well at YU, and therefore Edah doesn’t really serve the purpose it did when people were afraid that YU was abandoning its Modern Orthodox moorings.”

But Professor Samuel Heilman, a City University of New York sociologist, said the demise of Edah proves the thesis of his new book, “Sliding To The Right,” which posits that American Jewish Orthodoxy has been largely co-opted by “contra-acculturative” haredim.

“Even though Modern Orthodox still constitute the majority, the pendulum of leadership and a sense of empowerment has swung more to haredi elements,” Heilman told The Jewish Week. “They in many ways control the rabbinate and, increasingly, the nature of how to define Jewish education and … seek to define what is genuinely Orthodox. What Edah was trying to do was offer a broader spectrum of definitions of what constitutes Orthodoxy. Their passing from the scene means one less voice.”

But Rabbi Berman insisted that his and other Edah voices would not be silent in that debate.“This is the close of Edah as an organization,” he said, “but not by any means a close of its vision.”