Bring Orthodox to Communal Table

By David Eliezrie

Published June 30, 2006, issue of June 30, 2006.
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There was a telling moment at the recent centennial celebration of the American Jewish Committee. During a seminar about the Jewish future, scholar Steven Bayme noted that according to the most recent National Jewish Population Survey, the Orthodox are marrying earlier and raising larger families than the more liberal segments of the community.

As the number of Orthodox continues to grow, Bayme had the intellectual courage to ask, will the establishment organizations make room for representatives of the community’s fastest-growing population? For all the liberal Jewish groups’ talk of pluralism, the answer is far from clear.

Establishment organizations have long been wary of engaging their more Orthodox brethren. When they do, they usually limit that involvement to the most liberal segments of the Orthodox world. Liberal groups love to hear from scholars like Rabbis David Hartman and Irving Greenberg. Their views, however, are outside the mainstream Orthodox consensus and represent a small constituency.

It is telling that while much has been made of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute’s failure to sufficiently involve women in a recent meeting, scarcely a word has been heard about the issue of Orthodox and Haredi involvement. Simply put, these organizations are uncomfortable with much of Orthodoxy, in particular the Haredi community, and time and again they have proved themselves to be unwilling to truly engage it.

The very forum in which Bayme participated was indicative of this discomfort. The scholars at the AJCommittee seminar, all of a liberal bent, made repeated reference to “fundamentalism and extremism” in the Jewish world. It seems that if you observe Shabbat, keep kosher and follow the Shulchan Aruch you are automatically labeled a member of a fringe group.

Just imagine if Orthodox scholars had a major seminar and referred to the AJCommittee as “liberal extremists,” “ultra liberal” or “being on the fringe.” The front-page headlines would scream, “Orthodox attack AJCommittee.”

Let’s not fool ourselves: Much of the Orthodox community is not too interested in the agendas of the alphabet soup of Jewish groups. They look with angst as the Anti-Defamation League champions gay rights and other positions in total contradiction to Jewish values. They wonder why AJCommittee gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to rebuild churches in New Orleans, something that stands — unlike helping non-Jews themselves — in contradiction to Judaism.

Nor can many Orthodox understand how the AJCommittee claims to represent the Jewish world in fighting for restitution by countries in which the organization has never had a presence, such as Lithuania. Haredim shudder when these groups attack any effort to gain government support, such as vouchers for Jewish day schools — a norm in most other Western democracies. And Orthodox wonder what makes the National Council for Jewish Women representative of Judaism when its liberal policies challenge traditional Jewish family values.

There are growing numbers in the religious world who realize that there is much to be gained in broadening the dialogue between the liberal establishment and the growing religious community. In the aftermath of last year’s hurricanes in New Orleans and Florida, for example, Chabad and United Jewish Communities worked together on the ground to the benefit of many Jews in need. Around the country, an initiative between Chabad and the UJC, the umbrella body for local Jewish federations, is building better communication and broader cooperation.

If liberal groups want to have a deeper relationship with the Orthodox, they will need to follow the example of intellectual honesty set by Bayme. They will also need the courage to confront their own insecurities and prejudices.

We believe that Jews need to connect more with Jewish learning and experience, and not just with Israel and the Holocaust. This view of Jewish identity makes a lot of people in the communal establishment uncomfortable. Orthodox groups are not going to compromise Halacha — and organizations that recognize and accept this fact will quickly find that the Orthodox can bring to the communal debate a vitality, passion and richness of tradition that at times is sorely missing.

To be fair, it’s not just the liberal establishment that needs to confront its prejudices. The Orthodox community tends to think in a narrow parochial fashion. Many Orthodox fail to recognize the achievements of the federations, the defense agencies and other groups. They need to start looking beyond their world and understand the broader Jewish community.

Partnership between the Orthodox community and the liberal establishment is not going to be easy, and both sides need to understand that there will be times when priorities and agendas will differ — which makes dialogue and partnership all the more important. So long as we are talking, we can begin to think collectively about what we can do for the benefit of the Jewish people.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is a Chabad shaliach in Yorba Linda, Calif.

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