It was a typical crowd for a Yeshiva University student event: long skirts and long sleeves for the girls, yarmulkes and tzitzis for the boys.
But the January lecture featured no rabbi. And the topic was hardly typical Torah fare.
Behind a lectern decorated with the university’s blue flag, Barry Gibbs, a burly Jewish Vietnam War veteran with a shock of white hair, spoke gravely about how he was wrongfully imprisoned in a state penitentiary for 19 years and was released after being declared innocent.
Rapt, some 200 students sat as Gibbs told his story on behalf of the Innocence Project, an organization devoted to identifying prisoners who have been wrongly convicted and working to win their release. The project was responsible for Gibbs’s release.
Jesse Katz, a sophomore who recently transferred to Yeshiva University, was wide-eyed at Gibbs’s account. “Coming from a Modern Orthodox yeshiva, I was never exposed to anything like this,” he said.
It is a stereotypical insularity that holds true for much of Orthodox Jewry. And no one is yet claiming an explosion of Orthodox social activism on behalf of general causes in society as opposed to those specifically Jewish. But Shifra Bronznick, author of a recent study on social action within the Jewish community, said the role of young Orthodox Jews in this phenomenon has certainly reached a “breakthrough” point.
“The old rules don’t apply anymore in terms of identity and commitment,” Bronznick said. “Now, social justice is something that can be embraced by people all along the spectrum of Jewish life, from the secular to the Orthodox.”
Bronznick cited three contributing factors in a perceived increase of social activism among the Orthodox: the Save Darfur campaign, a movement to aid an oppressed minority in Sudan that crossed heavily into Jewish day schools; nondenominational Jewish programs, such as Avodah, that enable young Jews to work as activists in a specifically Jewish religious context, and, most recently, the impact of the Rubashkin kosher slaughterhouse scandal, in which the nation’s largest kosher meat producer stands accused of more than 9,000 child labor violations.
The response of many Orthodox leaders to the Rubashkin drama drew questions from many younger Orthodox Jews, according to Shmuly Yanklowitz, one of the founders of the Orthodox social justice group Uri L’Tzedek, which rose to prominence after the scandal. Those responses ranged from claims that the news media were antisemitic, to the Chabad Hasidic sect raising money for the slaughterhouse owners’ defense.
Meanwhile, the same leaders virtually ignored hundreds of workers who were herded into jail and rushed through deportation proceedings after allegedly experiencing abuse by the slaughterhouse owners.
“It exposed the lack of responsibility and self-accountability that the Orthodox community is taking for its own enterprises,” Yanklowitz stated. “The lack of leadership and pro-active response from certain major Orthodox establishments to worker oppression has put them at a risk of becoming irrelevant as moral leaders for the American Jewish people.”
Such attitudes represent a clear sea change. But how widespread remains unclear.
“We’ve gone through a period of the last 15 to 20 years within the Orthodox community where there’s been a stress on texts and internal Torah learning, and a disconnect between the right-wing Orthodox community and the world outside,” said Rabbi Marc Angel, emeritus spiritual leader of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York. “The notion that there’s a responsibility for society at large has been diminished.”
Orthodoxy’s inward-looking posture was a reaction to the “radical amount of assimilation” taking place in the broader Jewish community, said Angel, who also founded the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, a Modern Orthodox counter-response to the trend. “The Orthodox element felt the best way to survive is to build higher walls.”
Avital Moss, a senior at the Orthodox-oriented Touro College in Brooklyn, agreed that social activism was a “modern idea creeping back.”
“But as a whole, Orthodoxy ignores social activism,” Moss added. “We only care about other Jews.”
Impressions of a boom in Orthodox social activism among the young are, by their nature, anecdotal. The Social Justice Society of Yeshiva University, which sponsored the Project Innocence presentation, averages about 100 students per event, according to Gilah Kletenik, one of the group’s leaders. Other groups that have emerged as a reflection of the perceived trend encompass a wide range of activities, from environmentalism (Confei Nesharim) to social justice (Uri L’Tzedek).
Still, tensions remain inherent when Orthodox Jews pursue the cause of social justice in the wider, non-Jewish world.
“There is a profound egalitarianism at the heart of social justice that can challenge the assumptions people have about their way of life, their values, their behavior and priorities,” Bronznick said.
An undercurrent of this was seen at a December 2008 panel devoted to the relationship between ethics and kashrut. It was conducted by Torah Exploration of Ideas, Questions and Understanding, a student organization at Yeshiva University, in the wake of the Rubashkin indictments.
“Isn’t there a philosophical problem here when secular society sets the ethical standard for the Torah community?” asked Simcha Gross, one of the moderators, at one point — to resounding applause.
“Certainly, the principle of social activism is in no way treyf,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, communications director of the ultra-traditional Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel, in a telephone interview. But he stressed that the movements needed to be “guided by someone who is well versed in Torah.”
Among more religiously right-wing, or Haredi, Orthodox Jews, Shafran explained, social activism takes on a different dimension.
“The understanding in the Haredi world is that the best way to affect the larger world is to affect the microcosm of one’s self, individually, in terms of spiritual striving and improvement,” Shafran asserted.
Charity, he noted, is also focused more on the community. “I think the concept that charity begins at home is not just a practical one, it’s one that is effective,” Shafran said. “It’s easy to say one loves the world, but it doesn’t demand the response demanded when he looks at the people he’s closest to.”
Samuel Heilman, a sociology professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York who specializes in Orthodox Jewry, said the apparent increase in Orthodox social activists may hail, ironically, from a demographic defection from the ranks of Modern Orthodoxy.
“Many of the people who grew up Modern Orthodox are what I called ‘sliding to the right,’” Heilman said. “Therefore, the young people who have remained in Modern Orthodoxy tend to be slightly more liberal.”