In 1945, my grandfather was listed as “Mr. A. — a specimen Orthodox Jew” in Milton Steinberg’s book “A Partisan Guide to the Jewish Problem.” The interview with him is summarized in these words: “The misgiving that haunts him most persistently is over his children. … His great fear is that they will depart from the way he walks, either repudiating his postulates or rebelling against the hardship he gladly endures, or simply refusing to be different from almost everyone else. Against such eventualities he is putting up a game fight. The odds, as he will confess with sad candor, are against him.”
Earlier this month, UJA-Federation of New York released its 2012 population study. Recognizing the strength and vitality of the Orthodox community in New York, the authors note, “The gaps in many measures of Jewish engagement between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews are larger than those separating Reform and Conservative Jews, or the congregationally affiliated and unaffiliated, or the in-married and the intermarried.”
While we did not need the report to tell us that Orthodox Jews are thriving in New York, and maintaining a strong and vibrant religious and cultural Jewish life, we must now build on its findings to work even more closely with UJA-Federation. We need to apply the lessons learned from the success of Orthodoxy into the broader communal context, and together we must secure the funding necessary to sustain and emulate this successful model.
The policies that Orthodox Jewish leaders implemented 50 years ago to maintain Orthodox life in America have proven to be effective. The study lists those key components: 70 percent of Orthodox Jews attended day school; 79 percent went to Jewish summer camps; and 99 percent are members of congregations.
Orthodox Jewish leaders of the 1950s and ’60s began to strongly advocate for day-school education as the best way to educate children. The day school movement was created with strong Judaic and secular curricula to help Orthodox Jews succeed in the world, while remaining grounded in Jewish tradition. Yeshiva University, NCSY, summer camps and other Orthodox formal and informal educational institutions enabled youngsters to express their Judaism without totally opting out of the world around them.
Meanwhile, Orthodox Jews maintained their commitment to halacha, and didn’t allow driving on Shabbat, creating strong urban centers in the five boroughs of New York, and strong suburban communities in Westchester and Long Island centered in close geographic proximity to the synagogue. As everyone lived in walking distance, the shul became the central address for their religious and social life. Orthodox Jewish leadership understood that with vibrant schools and congregations, Orthodox Jewish life could be maintained and strengthened.
As the study notes, “In recent years, concerns of Jewish continuity and assimilation have animated the discourse of communal leaders, practitioners and scholars.” UJA-Federation and other federations throughout the country have been trying to support and develop programming to combat growing assimilation. Our experiences can help with future planning, and we must work using the study’s data to bolster Jewish life in New York. The study provides an opportunity for all of us to reaffirm our commitment to creating a stronger middle ground, rich in Jewish life, rather than extremes of affiliation and non-affiliation.
The Orthodox community is also facing economic challenges; the cost to maintain this lifestyle continues to threaten its future; families are struggling to pay tuition at day school and camps. The Orthodox Union is working in partnership with the UJA-Federation to advocate for increased government funding of day schools. However, more must be done to support the infrastructure that has proven so successful. We look forward to working together with the UJA-Federation on creative models to address these challenges.
Today, we see that my grandfather’s fears were misplaced; indeed, his great-grandchildren are Orthodox. It is clear that with the proper planning and funding, together we can create a ongoing vibrant and rich Jewish life in New York and throughout America.
Rabbi Judah Isaacs is director of community engagement at the Orthodox Union.