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An Orthodox Powerhouse in D.C. Suburb

SILVER SPRING, Md. — Neil and Fran Kritz are poster children for Modern Orthodoxy. Fran, a reporter for the Washington Post, won’t take a call from any source on the Sabbath. Neil, who is the director of the Rule of Law Program for the U.S. Institute of Peace, travels to war-torn countries to help rebuild their legal systems, yet he won’t so much as drink a cup of coffee from a non-kosher restaurant.

Combining fast-track Washington careers with religious piety, the Kritzes are models for a kind of Orthodox life that some observers have considered to be on the wane. But the Kritzes are hardly anomalies in the capital; they are part of a vanguard that includes the singles, young marrieds and politicos at Georgetown’s Kesher Israel Congregation and the families, like the Kritzes, who are members of the suburban Kemp Mill Synagogue.

So successful have the two synagogues become in fostering Modern Orthodox movers and shakers that some have even begun to talk about the Washington area eclipsing New York as the incubator of Modern Orthodoxy’s national leadership. As proof, they point to the selection last month of Richard Joel, international director of Hillel and an active member of the Kemp Mill Synagogue, as the next president of Yeshiva University.

Joel’s appointment, coming on the heels of an awkward, drawn-out search, has also focused some attention on the community where he lived for most of the last decade. Observers say it is inevitable that Kemp Mill Synagogue in particular would be home to such a candidate.

“The people here are both Jewishly committed and really engaged in the secular world — and not just as a place to make money,” said member Eliot Cohen, director of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Last fall, President Bush let it be known that he and his top aides were reading Cohen’s latest book, “Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime.”

Indeed, the synagogue’s membership list reads like a roster of boldface names, including Dov Zackheim, the Undersecretary of Defense who was also considered for the Y.U. position; Tevi Troy, special adviser to the domestic policy council at the White House, and David Makovsky, a contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report. Members work at the State, Labor and Justice departments, high-end lobbying firms and Greenpeace, the National Archives, Comptroller of the Currency and National Gallery of Art.

The synagogue, which was founded in 1990, functions according to a mission statement whose cornerstone is an astonishingly quiet and efficient — read: short — prayer service. Other features included a passionate dedication to Zionism and an environment that is unusually inclusive of children. A women’s prayer group meets regularly, classes are open to all and the rabbi only gives one sermon a month — the other three sermons are given by lay members, both men and women.

One of the most significant parts of the mission statement, however, is the mandate for active engagement with the non-Jewish world.

“It’s just as important to serve each other as it is to serve the larger, non-Jewish community,” said Jack Rozmaryn, founder and first president of the Kemp Mill Synagogue, of the synagogue’s constitution.

In addition to day jobs that involve active participation with the outside world, synagogue members are dedicated to engaging with the non-Jewish community. A recent charity drive collected underwear for needy children, and the synagogue’s rabbi, Jack Bieler, speaks regularly at the local Catholic school. Matthew Kritz celebrated his sixth birthday at a local kosher restaurant, where he and his friends learned to make pizzas — which they then delivered to the local men’s shelter.

Services also include some rituals considered increasingly rare for Orthodox synagogues. For instance, a prayer for the soldiers of the American armed forces is recited regularly. According to members, the prayer, which is read in Hebrew, offers perfect symbolism for their ideals — an act of patriotism fulfilled in the context of religious observance. It is also personally meaningful for members with connections to the military, including Cohen, whose son is an ROTC cadet.

“What attracted us to the shul was that there wasn’t the sense that Modern Orthodoxy was ‘taking it easy,’ but rather that it was a vigorous approach to Halacha and halachic obligations in a way that includes the commitment to the larger world,” said Neil Kritz.

“Part of this is Washington,” Cohen said. “If you’re in New York, it’s easier to live in a sort of Artscroll bubble,” referring to the Brooklyn-based publishing house that has become synonymous with a rightward drift among Orthodox scholars and lay people.

It is a drift, according to many liberal critics, that has put Modern Orthodox leaders on the defensive.

Such leaders — including Joel’s predecessor, Rabbi Norman Lamm; Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan; Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of the West Bank town of Efrat, and Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, dean of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute in Boston — have been fighting a rearguard action against yeshiva heads whose students are increasingly insular in their practice and choice of professions. In 1999, a number of Modern Orthodox rabbis, including Rabbi Saul Berman of New York and Kesher Israel Congregation’s Rabbi Barry Freundel, founded Edah, an organization intended to reinvigorate Modern Orthodoxy’s blend of religiosity and secular pursuits, deep-felt Zionism and willingness to dialogue with non-Orthodox Jewish groups.

Joel’s appointment as the next president of Y.U., Modern Orthodoxy’s flagship institution, was greeted not only as a victory for the “centrists,” as some prefer to be known, but as a welcome antidote to the New York-centeredness of much of Orthodox life.

“It’s very refreshing,” said Rabbi Howard Zack, of Congregation Torat Emet in Columbus, Ohio, who spoke at this year’s Orthodox Union convention about the importance of “out-of-town” communities. “The message of Y.U. is somewhat stagnant. It’s seen as a very New York-centric institution right now. Its leadership has consistently been metro New Yorkers, and that does not necessarily speak to the needs of the rest of the country.”

Similar comments met the announcement last year that the O.U. had chosen Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who was spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, as its new executive vice president. Weinreb said his appointment, along with Joel’s, may simply constitute an interesting coincidence. Still, Weinreb, who grew up in Brooklyn, suggested that in the city that never sleeps, some may have become creatively exhausted.

“In New York — and this is true not only of the Jewish community — there are pressures for all types of conformity,” Weinreb said. “Outside of the area, there’s a certain freedom.”

There may also be some other very “New York” features at play, according to Zack. “There’s complacency and there’s ego — the ego being, ‘we’re the center of the universe and that’s all that matters,’” he said.

This egocentrism, Zack said, sometimes extends to congregations who, in a fierce attachment to their success and the status quo, inhibit their rabbis from advancing even slight changes. Such rabbis have a hard time fostering visionary ideas — a key element for leadership, especially on the national stage.

“Rabbis in some of the big metropolitan synagogues are constantly looking over their shoulder, to the left and to the right,” he said. “I found that when I’ve had to do that, all I ended up with was whiplash.”

Still, some argue that geography is only one factor, and that the success of the Kemp Mill Synagogue — both as a Modern Orthodox institution and as a nurturing ground for leaders — can be duplicated by returning squarely to the original Modern Orthodox credo of Torah u’mada, a commitment to Torah and engagement with, as the Edah vision statement puts it, “nature, science, history and human culture.”

“People are far less materialistic in this community than in some of the other Modern Orthodox communities that are extant,” Bieler said. “The question is also a general professional question: What are parents expecting from their children? To the extent that they expect their children to go into communal service or societal service, you can replicate what we have here.”

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