Orthodox leaders see a bright future for their movement as Orthodox synagogues are adding new and younger members from non-Orthodox backgrounds who are attracted to its close-knit communities and tradition. Yet, this movement is neither impervious to change nor deaf to issues facing the secular world. High divorce rates, declining morals and access to pornography, and women’s rights are among the issues the Orthodox community has begun to tackle.
According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, the Orthodox population in America grew by 2 percent in the last decade. There was more good news. According to the survey, 83 percent of those between the ages of 18-29 who were raised Orthodox, stayed Orthodox, compared to 57 percent of those between the ages of 30-49, 41 percent between 50-64, and only 22 percent of those older than 65. Much of this is due to religious education in day schools that are springing up across the country where many Orthodox children are sent, helping most to stay observant and ensuring continuity.
Orthodox prayer services are conducted almost exclusively in Hebrew, with the chazzan (cantor, or sometimes a proficient lay-leader) leading the congregation through large parts of the siddur (prayer book), readings from the Torah and the haftarah (portion from the Prophets) and occasionally other readings, at sometimes blistering speeds.
During prayer, men and women sit in separate sections, blocked from view by a barrier called a mechitza. Jews from outside Orthodoxy often consider these to be anachronisms, but Orthodox Jews in modern America embrace these traditions and the contrast between the religious and secular world in which they live, even if it contradicts their secular political views.
Likewise, the balance between traditional observance and the modern world for members of groups such as Modern Orthodoxy – which has the highest percentage of adherents who attend secular universities among Orthodox groups – has led to Orthodox Jews holding prominent positions throughout American society. Some examples are former senator and vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, and U.S. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
Any questions about the status of the Jewish community depends largely on who one asks. There are various distinctions among the Orthodox – whether they are haredi (ultra-Orthodox, which includes Chasidim and their historical opponents, Mitnagdim), Modern Orthodox, or even a new movement called Open-Orthodox – but most consider themselves fully observant of Jewish law and tradition and prefer not to draw distinctions.
Rabbi Nissan Antine, the Modern Orthodox leader of Beth Sholom Congregation and Talmud Torah in Potomac, sees interest in traditional Jewish observance growing as a result of more people seeking a sense of community that he believes has broken down since the dawn of the Internet age.
“Many people are finding great meaning in Torah and mitzvot [commandments] and the traditional lifestyle. We see lots of them coming to our synagogue from non-Orthodox settings where people are looking for a more intense version of Judaism, stronger sense of commitment, stronger observance and finding an Orthodox community that’s providing that,” Antine said. “That’s something I think people are looking for, especially in an era where the sense of community is falling apart across America. The Internet and technology created all these virtual communities but in a certain way has harmed and destroyed real community.”
Orthodox rabbis and adherents usually point to the Pew survey as proof that, either through a societal reaction to current norms or day school educations, they alone among other Jewish movements have found the right path to a rewarding life and continuity.
Today, the Orthodox movement is no longer monolithic as divisions have developed within Orthodoxy itself.
“I make that point because Orthodoxy probably has three major divisions today – divisions or parts that don’t recognize the other parts as Orthodox. That can’t be a good thing,” said Rabbi Barry Freundel, leader of the Modern Orthodox Kesher Israel synagogue in Georgetown and vice president of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Washington.
Despite its seeming stability, Orthodox Judaism is not immune to change. Change is, however, a perennial challenge in the Orthodox community, where Halacha (Jewish law) comes first and societal norms later, and then, only if such change is justifiable by Halacha.
Mostly practice and liturgy have remained constant, but one of the most important changes to Orthodox Judaism has been reassessing the role of women.
Reform and Conservative movements freely ordain women as rabbis, allow women to read from the Torah during services and sit in mixed-gender seating. Orthodox Judaism has resisted most of these concessions, but even in the Orthodox community, women have nonetheless taken on more prominent roles, especially among the Modern and Open Orthodox movements.
Antine and Freundel describe the opening up of the lay leadership as a significant development. Women’s study groups and bat mitzvahs give women more opportunities to study religious texts.
“Where the Halacha allows us to be more flexible, we have been in the last 10 to 15 years and it has made Orthodoxy more available to more people,” Antine said.
What has challenged traditional rabbinic authorities in the United States is the development of Open Orthodoxy by the influential but controversial Rabbi Avi Weiss. The Open Orthodox movement founded a rabbinical yeshiva for women and ordained its first female rabbi, or maharat, in 2013.
“A year ago, we became the first synagogue in the United States to hire a maharat, which is a female clergy and that’s because we started with both 100 percent Orthodox and 100 percent halachic [reasoning] and also at the same time we felt that it was necessary for our community,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, rabbi of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue and a student of Weiss. “Now that we have a maharat in our synagogue, I question how any Orthodox synagogue cannot have a maharat. It’s so essential and fundamental to an Orthodox synagogue that there be a female clergy in a leadership position.”
But Rabbi Levi Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), believes that even though male and female roles in Orthodox Judaism are distinct, there rarely is a crisis of inequality or unfair treatment. He points to the very large role women play even in the most traditional Orthodox communities.
“Some people remark about a more prominent role for women in the past decade or more, but in essence, some people forget that the first yeshiva specifically for women in America was founded by the Lubavitcher rebbe in 1971, a full 43 years ago,” said Shemtov.
“His very central theme was, ‘a society does not build on men alone.’ Indeed King Solomon wrote that the wisdom of women is fundamental to the Jewish structure, individually and communally. [The rebbe] always considered women a crucial component of any community’s survival, let alone development and, while the rebbe did not see sameness as the only way to equality as other social norms would, one need only become acquainted with the Chabad movement to know that responsibility for everything we do is equally shared by our men and women, even if the degrees of public display within the roles might be very different.”
Shemtov added that his wife, Nechama, serves on the executive committee of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Women Emissaries which draws thousands of her colleagues to New York for a conference every year.
Although the Lubavitch yeshiva for women provides higher levels of religious education for women compared to those of more insular ultra-Orthodox groups, it nevertheless does not ordain female clergy.
“In other movements, we have yet to see how the integration of women into roles has led to sustainable growth. The Conservative movement progressively expanded the public role of women but yet didn’t seem to keep its adherents to the extent that they thought it would,” said Shemtov. “We see the leadership in the Conservative movement decrying the rapid loss of its membership. They probably are not reaping the reward of a growing constituency that they thought they would with the expansion of women adapting traditional men’s roles.”
As divorce rates remain high in the rest of America, they have been low among Orthodox Jews. Yet, Freundel, has recently seen the stability of newer Jewish marriages decline.
“The lack of sexual morality that pervades this society is all over the place, and the Orthodox community, no matter how traditional, is not immune from this, and it creates terrible problems,” said Freundel. “Pornography and its accessibility is wrecking marriages.
“It’s two keystrokes away. You get on the computer, you hit the button twice and you’re there. I have not counseled a couple in any level of relationship in the last five years where pornography hasn’t been an issue.”
Increasing incidents of divorce and the quick spread of information have shed light on a rarely mentioned feature of religious divorce, in which the husband must sign a document, a get, releasing his wife from her religiously mandated marital obligations. Otherwise, the woman is not allowed to have another valid religious marriage and if she remarries without receiving a religious divorce, children from the new marriage would be considered illegitimate under Jewish law. The wife becomes an agunah, or “chained woman,” unable to begin her new life.
High-profile cases in which husbands have refused to grant their wives a get include one prominent one in Washington, D.C., that involved a staffer for Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.).
The concern over the proliferation of agunot has caused rabbis and rabbinical organizations to look into new preventative methods within Jewish law.
Modern Orthodox rabbis like Antine and Freundel, refuse to officiate at weddings unless the couple signs a prenuptial agreement. These often include crippling financial support an estranged husband must pay his wife every day that a get is not signed.
Although in general, Orthodox Judaism’s future in America looks bright, some like Freundel, worry that modern values of individualism have upended traditional Judaism’s respect for religious scholars and some religiously critical rulings by Orthodox authority figures. He also lamented the lack of a major leader to unite the disparate factions under one Orthodox umbrella.
Classic Orthodoxy “involves a lot of thought, a lot of intellectualism, a lot of analysis,” said Freundel. “People don’t have the time or interest to do that kind of thing today. We live in a 140-character universe where one’s opinion is equal to everybody else’s.”
Yet, Freundel and others believe society will reach, or may have already reached, a turning point where more people seek the structure of Orthodox Judaism, and that the trend will continue in the near future.
“Unless people really want to continue with the direction of where this world is sort of falling apart, I think the liberalism of the last few years is not working and I think that means that there’ll be a turn back,” said Freundel. “Once there’s a turn back, people are going to look for rules, for structures, and they’re going to look for things to guide their life.
“I think there will begin to be leadership which will talk about a return to values” and a discussion about what are the standards and limits of Orthodox Judaism. “Once that happens, if it does, that bodes well for Orthodoxy because that’s what Orthodoxy is all about.”
Rich tradition, uncertain future
Magen David Sephardic Congregation in Rockville stands in striking contrast to most synagogues in the area. Its architecture is reminiscent of the Moroccan style that carries sentimental appeal for the synagogue’s French-Moroccan founders. Inside, the sanctuary is adorned with oriental rugs, with seats arranged in a circle around an ornate wooden bima. The community’s Torah scrolls are encased in gleaming traditional hard-shell cases, encrusted in silver, with silver onion-shaped domes.
Most congregants are recent immigrants and a wide variety of languages can be heard spoken during kiddush following Shabbat services: French, Farsi, Arabic and Hebrew. Magen David is the only Sephardi synagogue in Greater Washington, and its small but close-knit membership has been holding steadfast to the traditions that grew up around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East. However, despite the pull of tradition, many young Sephardic families are assimilating into the Ashkenazi community, whose members hail from Central and Eastern Europe.
Attendance at Magen David ebbs and flows. Frederic Richardson, president of Magen David, says that because the Sephardi population of the United States is small compared to its Ashkenazi counterpart, assimilation is making the Sephardi future uncertain.
“The Old Guard – the old Sephardic French-Moroccans – their children have married and moved on,” says Richardson, a lifelong congregant whose mother is French-Moroccan. “Most of them married Ashkenazi men and women, and so we don’t see as many children of the French-Moroccan community being members of our congregation.”
Although observance at the synagogue is strictly Orthodox, not all of the congregants are. Though some are able to walk on Shabbat, others drive, and no one asks questions. Once they’re inside the synagogue, says Richardson, everyone is Orthodox.
However, some children of members married Ashkenazi Jews from Reform or Conservative backgrounds. Some of these spouses are turned off by Orthodox observance, especially separate seating for men and women and the smaller role women play in services, Richardson says.
Others who wish for intensive religious study must turn to Ashkenazi organizations such as Chabad or Aish HaTorah.
The demographics of the synagogue are changing, says Richardson. While most congregants were once French-Moroccans, newcomers hail from Israel, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Richardson says.
Many of them are steeped in Sephardi tradition, but know only one way to chant a melody. Synagogue elders, who lead services, are able to lend the chanting richness by weaving in traditional melodies which have been forgotten by younger generations.
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