How Modern Orthodoxy Flourished On Campus

Student Group Yavneh Led a Spiritual Resurgence

By Jerome A. Chanes

Published October 03, 2011, issue of October 07, 2011.
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The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s
By Benny Kraut
Hebrew Union College Press, 200 pages, $35

One of the great stories of American Jewish life, the Orthodox resurgence of the 1950s and ’60s, has been told and retold by historians, sociologists and novelists. Almost unknown, however, is the narrative of the few Orthodox students on the American campus in the 1950s, and of the dilemmas they faced in their efforts to remain observant.

An important chapter in this narrative is Yavneh. An organization of Orthodox Jewish college students, Yavneh was founded in 1960 at Columbia University and had a deep and lasting impact on Jewish life on the campus. It is one of myriad American Jewish institutions that are long forgotten by historians — indeed by most American Jews.

Why ought we remember Yavneh? For one thing, the impact of this relatively small cadre of Jewish activists was felt far beyond the campus. For another, the history of Yavneh was the history of 20th-century American Orthodoxy itself, refracted through the prism of the campus.

In the mid-20th century, Orthodoxy moved from a position of beleaguered, indeed marginal movement in America to that of vitality and arguable triumph. This context of American Modern Orthodoxy is the strength of “The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s,” the first book on Yavneh, which the late Queens College historian Benny Kraut completed right before his death.

The title of Kraut’s splendid book recalls another “greening” — that of Marshall Sklare in a watershed 1974 Commentary article, “The Greening of Judaism,” in which Sklare took the Jewish counterculture, Conservative Judaism and the larger Jewish establishment to task in a “plague-on-all-of-your-houses” critique of American Jewish life. To Sklare, “greening” was a code word for scorning the Jewish counterculture; but to Kraut, the word invokes the beginnings of a flowering of a different counterculture: that of Orthodoxy on the campus.

Kraut’s “greening” recalls an Orthodoxy that emerged from a traditionalist backwater of the 1940s and early ’50s to health and vitality in the new millennium. This context is crucial to any understanding of the emergence of a number of Orthodox students who created Yavneh, who challenged university administrations and indeed their own, Jewish, community.

There were a number of dynamics that made Yavneh what it was. Yavneh’s origins had everything to do with practical matters, primarily to address two related concerns: Kosher food was not available to Jewish students, who often were saddled with mandatory meal plans they could not use; and examinations were often scheduled on Saturdays or on Jewish holidays. College administrators were useless; worse, Hillel and other campus rabbis — most of whom came out of the Conservative/Progressive/Liberal world — were unsympathetic and in some cases openly hostile to Orthodox concerns.

The fledgling organization — whose name, “Yavneh,” offered by Orthodox leader Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, referred both to an earlier Jewish student organization in Europe and to the ancient rabbinic, post-Second Temple destruction city of learning — was successful in addressing these issues of religious life on the campus, and the organization soon grew outward. In the post-World War II era, as Orthodox Jews began enrolling in prestigious universities, intellectually aware Jewish students were living in two worlds: the traditionalist environment of their background, and the modern encounter with secular philosophy and literature and science that challenged old assumptions. Yavneh was their meeting place, their mediating point.

From its very beginnings, Yavneh was not just a social organization — although it did serve that important function, as well — nor was it in business for the sole purpose of addressing religious needs. Early on, Yavneh leadership understood that the central tension of Modern Orthodoxy, between secular and religious attitudes to study and life, could be generative instead of antagonistic. This realization, formulated for Yavneh in large measure by the visionary Orthodox thinker and leader Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, was premised on the idea that Orthodoxy was well positioned to engage the intellectual challenges of modernity.

Yavneh provided time, space, and opportunity to study. And Greenberg taught Yavneh that in addition to serious study of Jewish texts, students could tie together the best of modern scholarship and the best of Orthodox scholarship. Kraut shows how both visions — study of Jewish texts and of modern scholarship — were in play, but the first ultimately triumphed. This was a factor, the author argues, in Yavneh’s decline.

One of Kraut’s best historical insights emerges from his discussion of the efforts on the part of Yavneh to engage the “Yeshiva Orthodox” leadership — the rabbinic leadership of sectarian Orthodoxy — in the enterprise. In his chapter on “Yavneh and the Roshei Yeshiva [yeshiva deans],” the strongest chapter in the book, Kraut traces the efforts of the organization to establish contact with this important arena of Orthodoxy by arranging meetings with the Roshei Yeshiva and inviting them to Yavneh functions. These efforts were not successful, but the initiative itself broke new ground. Kraut’s narrative is one of the few that address the question of Modern Orthodox-“yeshiva” Orthodox relations in a cogent manner.

But even in this chapter, however, Kraut fails to connect some key dots. For decades up to Yavneh’s formation, the boundaries between “Modern” and “yeshiva” had been permeable within a broad spectrum of Orthodoxy. Yavneh’s understanding of the Orthodox world and appreciation of the emerging force of the more rightist “yeshiva” bloc were rooted in this premise. An analysis of this changing permeability in the Orthodox world is unfortunately missing in “The Greening of Orthodox Judaism.”

Yavneh sputtered to an end in 1981. Why did Yavneh fold? Kraut offers a number of reasons: The proliferation of Jewish studies in colleges in the 1970s made Yavneh programs superfluous; the proliferation of kiruv organizations, those that do outreach to newly observant Jews, on and off the campus (outreach had been a component of Yavneh) made Yavneh seem marginal; and the organization itself was financially broke. In additional, and highly significant, is the fact that by the 1980s there was a substantial cadre of young Jews on campus who had had a day school and even a yeshiva education, and who could create their own religious enclaves. Yavneh gradually became less important for their day-to-day lives on campus.

But the main reason for Yavneh’s decline was the gradual but dramatic shift to the right of much of the Orthodox world, and the increasing polarization of American Orthodoxy between sectarian Orthodox groups and the erstwhile “centrist” community. This split — fundamental to the understanding of everything that followed in the 1970s in American Jewish religion — is relegated to a mere four sentences by Kraut. Indeed, in some ways the rightward trajectory of American Modern Orthodoxy can be tracked, in microcosm, in Yavneh. As Modern Orthodoxy moved rightward, centrist organizations such as Yavneh fared poorly. In an increasingly procrustean atmosphere of Orthodox sectarianism, Yavneh was doomed.

Thirty years after Yavneh’s demise, the problem is not one of memory, or lack thereof, of the watershed organization. There are few vehicles on the campus for the debate over the intellectual underpinnings of Orthodoxy; in fact, there is little interest in this arena. The discussion on campus mirrors that within Orthodoxy in general: public-policy matters such as Israel, transgender issues and women, and those of purely halachic issues. Yavneh? It was a product of the past, period, not likely to be resurrected. More’s the pity.

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