The most prominent Orthodox organization in the United States is seeking to redefine its agenda after a tumultuous period that included a sexual abuse scandal and a perceived rightward shift of a large part of its constituency.
At its biannual convention last weekend in New York, leaders of the Orthodox Union said they took pains to solicit the opinions of participants in their effort to reshape the organization’s “action plan for an uncertain century,” as one prominent session was dubbed.
“We are seriously questioning what our mission is,” said Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, O.U.’s executive vice president, during the Saturday evening panel. “We want to define ourselves in terms of what you expect from us. This is the theme of the convention.”
This theme marked a shift in tone for the organization’s leadership who, even according to those within the O.U., had not been as solicitous of its constituency in recent years. The organization continues to reel under charges relating to a scandal surrounding the former head of its National Conference of Synagogue Youth program, Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who was recently found guilty of sexually abusing two teenage girls while he was their high school principal in New Jersey. According to some critics, there were O.U. leaders who for years knew about Lanner’s similarly abusive behavior as head of the youth movement and who failed to intervene appropriately.
“It’s no secret that our organization has gone through some stressful times,” Weinreb told the Forward. Weinreb, whose predecessor Rabbi Raphael Butler resigned in the wake of the Lanner scandal, took the reins of the organization last year with a stated mandate of cleaning house. “As I studied the organization and its constituency, I realized that it’s quite clear that the constituency — especially outside of New York — did not see us as meeting their needs.”
“We have fallen down in that regard,” agreed Harvey Blitz, president of the O.U., which services 1,000 member synagogues on top of running its kosher supervision operation, the synagogue youth program and a public affairs office in Washington. “And we need to go back to our synagogues and communities and have them re-identify closely with the O.U.”
According to Blitz, the convention was the O.U.’s first step toward a better understanding of its constituents’ priorities. “It’s too hard to say that everything of concern to the Orthodox community will be dealt with by the O.U.,” he said.
Though Blitz could not yet identify what specific issues would become most prominent, convention workshops and speakers offered glimpses into some of the emerging priority areas.
Among the most prominent of these is a perceived shift toward the right within a movement associated with Modern Orthodoxy, which long sought a synthesis between secular learning and pursuits and Torah values. Liberal critics have complained that the community has become increasingly rigid, exhibiting a diminishing emphasis on secular studies and engagement with the secular world, a resistance to dialogue with non-Orthodox denominations, a sidelining of serious discussion about the role of women in religious life and the growing authority of seminary scholars over local rabbis and lay people.
In his remarks, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, rabbi of Congregation K.I.N.S of West Rogers Park and associate superintendent of the Associated Talmud Torahs of Chicago, bemoaned what he described as the negative effects of a yeshiva system that encourages students to heed the authority of their rabbis over their own parents. Matanky described the issue as a “breakdown of the family” as the primary unit in Jewish life. “So many yeshiva bachers [boys] are so quick to question their families’ customs and go to their rosh yeshiva ,” or yeshiva head, Matanky said.
Matanky’s point was echoed by some in the crowd, including Hillel Soclof, from Baltimore, Md.
“We’ve lost the family values,” Soclof said. “We’ve lost what the family traditions were because we go to the [rabbis] — and that’s not wrong, but….”
Soclof chose to be discreet, but others at the conference were more pointed in their questions to movement leaders. After the panel discussion on Thursday night, the audience was encouraged to ask questions. The first was from Tzvi Berman, a 29-year-old investment analyst from Highland Park, N.J., who asked whether it was significant that no one on the panel had addressed Modern Orthodoxy’s move to the right.
Several panel members addressed Berman’s question obliquely. And Weinreb challenged its very premise. “I question whether there’s even been a shift to the right,” he said. When asked if representatives of Modern Orthodoxy were struggling to distinguish themselves from communities to their right, Weinreb responded: “I don’t think our goal is to distinguish ourselves from anyone, to make ourselves distinctive compared to anyone — not Conservative Judaism, and not the ultra-Orthodox communities.”
As for a sign that O.U. was listening to its critics from the left and center, one could note the fact that the convention’s keynote address was given by Karen Bacon, dean of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women, the first-ever keynote by a woman at an O.U. convention. “Women’s voices must be listened to as we confront and attack the problems that face our community,” Bacon said in her speech.
Among other things, Bacon, along with other speakers throughout the weekend, noted that Orthodox couples are being encouraged to marry at increasingly younger ages, perhaps before they are adequately prepared for it.
Shira Reifman, another prominent female panelist and the interim director of operations of the National Conference of Synagogue Youth — Lanner’s former position — spoke of the challenges of encouraging young Jews to become involved in Jewish communal work, given the paltry salaries and low respect they often receive.
Other speakers included Stephen Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of United Jewish Communities, who encouraged the Orthodox community to become more involved in federation life.
The convention also featured a short video address by President Bush. In his message to the convention, aired on Saturday night, the president reiterated his commitment to fighting terrorism and underscored his appreciation of the role played by faith in a democratic society.