The Hillel Problem - the rise of the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Hillel Problem

The Harvard Crimson

Daniel J. Solomon

October 16, 2012

I was in a collared shirt and khaki shorts, but I was woefully underdressed compared to everyone else. No, I had not been transported to Downton Abbey, but as I arrived at the Harvard Hillel for Shabbos dinner during Visitas, I felt like I had stepped into a time machine. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews in severe three-piece suits and sideburns dominated. I cast about for a minute, looking for a place to sit, glancing to find another member of my endangered species: a Reform or Conservative Jew.

My experience speaks to an unsettling truth about contemporary Judaism in the United States: While more and more secular Jews abandon any form of religious observance, the Orthodox population is exploding , leading to the marginalization of the once-robust Reform and Conservative movements and the upending of traditional notions of Jewish identity.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in New York where the results of a new study of the tri-state area’s Jewish population portend a sea change. According to the survey, conducted by the United Jewish Appeal , the Jewish population in New York rose to 1.5 million, the first increase in decades. This rise was driven by a spike in the numbers of the fecund Orthodox community, which now comprise 40 percent of New York Jews and 74 percent of the under-18 demographic.

Our faith is about the only thing Reform and Conservative Jews share with the Orthodox, and what the Orthodox stand for is anathema to us. For secular Jews, Jewishness has long been centered on culture, bagels, Yiddishisms, loud arguments, and impassioned liberalism taking precedence over the synagogue. The Orthodox are obviously more devout. However, the most crucial difference between the three streams of Judaism is that the Orthodox, particularly the ultra-Orthodox, tend to see themselves as American Jews while their Reform and Conservative counterparts view themselves as Jewish Americans. This dissonance can be traced back to Reform’s founding document, The Pittsburgh Platform , which in 1885 famously declared, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community.” Consequently, the Orthodox busy themselves more with medieval concepts like mesirah—a prohibition on ratting out Jews to secular authorities—than with tikkun olam—the Jewish idea of social justice.

When the Ultra-Orthodox engage in the electoral process, they are rarely concerned with the welfare of the body politic; in fact, in their parochial zeal, they often hurt the communities in which they hold office. Witness the case of the East Ramapo Central School District in Rockland County, New York, where seven of the nine board members are Orthodox Jews, although the public school population is 85 percent Hispanic or black. As recently documented in The New York Times , the Orthodox board members, none of whom have children enrolled in the East Ramapo system, have drawn the ire of public school parents, who sent a letter to the state education department requesting five of the board members’ removal after the board members attempted to sell off public school property to yeshivas at below-market prices.

Some have tried to draw sharp distinctions between the East Ramapo and Williamsburg crowd and the “Modern Orthodox.” Those differences are cosmetic, not ideological—the Grover Norquist snarl to the Paul Ryan smile. There’s nothing modern about keeping men and women separated at prayer services, or preventing women from singing Torah. There’s nothing modern about embracing strict interpretations of Jewish law. There’s nothing modern about having an all-Hebrew prayer book; the Vatican, one of progress’ most prominent bogeymen, long ago abandoned the Tridentine Mass.

Reform, meanwhile, has drifted away from the Pittsburgh Platform, which, in a Lutheran spirit, de-emphasized ritual and elevated faith. One 90-year-old cousin of mine, when he feels so inclined, relates tales of his synagogue days. He wasn’t bar mitzvahed; he was confirmed. He didn’t wear a yarmulke. His temple’s prayer service had more English in it than mine does, and at congregational luncheons shellfish and pork were on the menu.

Today, the revolutionary spark is gone, and previously junked practices like keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath are coming back into vogue. Undoubtedly, this is due in part to the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. But embracing anachronisms won’t stanch the bleeding, and it certainly won’t get more secular Jews into Hillel.
Niccolo and Donkey