2016 Annual Assessment

Annual Assessment 2016

Dr. Shlomo Fischer

Avinoam Bar-Yosef, Susanne Cohen-Weisz, Rémi Daniel, Chaya Ekstein, Dan Feferman, Avi Gil, Inbal Hakman, Michael Herzog, Simon Luxemburg, David Landes, Dov Maimon, Steven Popper, Uzi Rebhun, Shmuel Rosner, John Ruskay, Noah Slepkov, Shalom Solomon Wald, Einat Wilf

Barry Geltman
Rami Tal

2016 Annual Assessment

The prospect of a rapidly growing Orthodox population that could one day represent a sizeable portion if not the majority of American Jews presents the established mainstream American Jewish communal organizations with a difficult challenge. In order to maintain their identity as representatives of the entire American Jewish population, and to ensure the funding of their large budgets, the incorporation of the Orthodox within their organizations would seem to be critical to their ongoing viability. There are daunting barriers, however, that will make any such integration extraordinarily difficult.

Three such barriers may be identified as follows. The first is the ideological difference between the Orthodox and the mainstream Jewish communal organizations in their respective conceptions of the Jewish community to which they maintain a sense of loyalty and responsibility. Briefly, while the communal organizations employ a “big-tent” inclusive understanding of the American Jewish community, the Orthodox sense of community is narrowly limited to other Orthodox Jews. Second, the Orthodox community sustains its own network and social service organizations, and has developed its own political capabilities, making it largely self-sufficient, without necessarily needing the support of the mainstream communal organizations. Third, the mainstream Jewish organizations are founded on liberal Enlightenment values that are not shared by the Orthodox. Support by communal organizations of Orthodox communities that engage in practices offensive to their values risks damaging the historical institutional identity of these organizations and the ongoing support by their largely liberal constituency.

When speaking of the challenge presented to the mainstream communal organizations by the growth of the Orthodox population, it is necessary to recognize that it is the Haredi sector of the Orthodox population, composed of the Hasidic and the Yeshivish communities, as described above, that is being referred to. The Modern Orthodox sector is largely in tune with the mission of the mainstream communal organizations. To take the UJA-Federation as an example, many Modern Orthodox Jews donate to it, participate in its programs and fundraising efforts, and take leadership positions within the organization, including positions of the highest rank. They may not subscribe to every UJA-Federation initiative or support every position a local branch may take, but they are content to advance their own agenda by working from within. Many members of the Sephardic community also actively support and contribute to the UJA-Federation. The Haredim, however, historically have not been supporters of the major Jewish communal organizations, and it is the share of the Haredim, not of the Modern Orthodox, which is growing as a part of the Orthodox and of the entire Jewish population.

The Jewish community that is the object of the major communal organizations’ aid and largess is conceived in radically broad terms, inclusive of Jews of all denominations and of all types, however they identify or define themselves, religiously, in terms of gender or sexual orientation, or other wise, as well as Jews who live in other countries. These organizations are also Zionist and support and identify with the State of Israel and its people. By this standard, the Haredi conception of the Jewish community to which it is philanthropically and socially responsible, and to which it feels a sense of brotherhood and solidarity, is quite narrow.  The operative term for defining who within this community is “frum” (or “frim,” depending on the accent). Frum Jews (frumer yidden) are Jews who scrupulously adhere to a strict Haredi interpretation of Jewish law and who share a Haredi worldview. Haredim recognize non-Haredi Jews as Jews genealogically (as long as they were born to Jewish mothers), and consequently, in their view, ontologically different from non-Jews in having a distinctly Jewish and superior soul. Only frum Jews, however, who live the life that God demands of Jews, unsullied by alien non-Jewish ideas and practices, are authentically Jewish. In the Haredi conception, the category of frum Jews does not necessarily include all of the sectors of Orthodox Jewry described above. It is likely that a Satmar Hasid would think of the Modern Orthodox Jew as a “half-goy” (halbe goy). The practical consequence of the Haredi conception of the authentic Jewish community is that Haredim will not support directly or indirectly religious, social, or cultural institutions that define themselves as Jewish but are not Haredi; to do so, in their view, would constitute a sacrilege.

With respect to Israel, some Hasidim, like the Satmar, are avowedly anti-Zionist. Many other Hasidim, as well as the Yeshivish community, express support for Israel, some enthusiastically and others more mutedly, but they do not accept the premise of Religious Zionism that the State of Israel has religious value. However positive their feelings for Israel, Haredim, while they generously support Israeli Haredi institutions,  are unlikely to give to the kinds of Israel programs and institutions funded by organizations like the UJA-Federation.

It is important to note that Zionism represents an additional ideological divide between the Haredi sector and the Modern Orthodox sector. The Modern Orthodox educational system indoctrinates its students throughout their school years to admire and support the State of Israel, and to believe in the founding of the State of Israel as a divine intervention marking the beginning of the Redemption. Yom ha-Atzma’ut is celebrated throughout the community as a nationalist and religious holiday. In recent years, there has been a growing phenomenon of graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools serving in the Israeli army. Open criticism within the community of the policies of the State of Israel is generally considered unacceptable. Support for AIPAC and NORPAC is nearly universal, and significant funds are raised on behalf of settler communities in the Occupied Territories. Modern Orthodox synagogues recite the Prayer for the State of Israel every Shabbat morning. Aliyah is encouraged and celebrated. A common theme heard in sermons and schools is that a Jew’s real home is in Israel, and that life outside Israel, even in America, is both fragile, as anti-Semitism is an ever-present reality, and somehow inauthentic. Modern Orthodox Jews participate enthusiastically in fundraising drives run by the major communal organizations on behalf of Israel, especially in times of war or conflict.

Given its explosive growth, pockets of serious poverty, and ever-expanding demands for schools, housing, healthcare, and other social services, it may be expected that on a purely pragmatic basis there is too much for the Haredi sector to gain from joining forces with the established communal organizations for it to permit conflicting ideological conceptions of the Jewish community to get in the way. However, the reality is that the Haredi sector appears to be largely self-sufficient with respect to its own social and political needs.

There are a vast number of Haredi charitable and social service organizations of all types, as well as a huge number of educational institutions, serving the needs of their communities. New “chesed” organizations emerge on a regular basis, as the Haredi sector grows and new needs arise. A directory published several years ago, covering Brooklyn and other Haredi neighborhoods in the New York area, listed close to a thousand organizations providing all types of social services and a wide variety of free lending circles called “gemachs,” in which a repository is established for a particular type of appliance of household item, such as baby strollers, dishes, and wedding dresses, that is lent to those in need on a no-charge and no-questions-asked basis.18

The sprawling network of Haredi social service organizations and educational institutions are largely funded from within the Haredi community itself, an indication of the great wealth that exists alongside the poverty within this sector. The UJA-Federation study reported a high level of poverty for the Hasidic community,19 but it is likely that estimates of income and wealth for the community are understated, as the extent of its undisclosed cash economy is commonly said to be quite large, and income does not necessarily reflect the value of assets. Whatever the actual level of poverty, the number of Hasidim who have been able to amass great wealth through their business endeavors is not small.  Even without a solid secular education and college degree, Hasidim have proven adept at finding many paths to making money. Many work within the community as rabbis and educators or in other capacities in the very same educational systems and social service organizations whose funding is presently being discussed. Other Hasidim have retail and service businesses within their own communities. There is no stigma attached to blue-collar work within the Hasidic community, and there are Hasidim who work in construction or as plumbers and electricians for other Hasidim who are real estate developers. Certain industries, such as diamonds and jewelry, have always attracted many Hasidim, and a large number of Hasidim have built highly successful businesses in real estate, retail, and other industries.

As with the Hasidic community, there are extremes of wealth and poverty within the Yeshivish community. There are families that barely subsist on stipends from Kollels where the husband studies full time and whatever the wife can earn while tending to a very large family. On the other hand, there are many members of the community who are successful professionals, and executives and entrepreneurs in a wide variety of industries (with a concentration in real estate, healthcare, and finance). With their English language proficiency, and a greater acceptance of secular education, members of the Yeshivish community have a far easier time finding employment and pursuing careers than do Hasidim. The embourgeoisement of the Yeshivish community has indeed been the subject of critique within the community by those who feel that with the material success of many in the community traditional values of asceticism and restraint have been lost, to the detriment of the community’s spiritual state.

In addition to their own internal philanthropy, the Haredi community takes full advantage of available government aid and welfare programs, often in a very organized way. For example, the press has recently reported how the Hasidic neighborhood of South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has one of the highest concentrations of households with Section 8 housing subsidies in the city, even though it sits within one of the city’s hottest real estate markets. According to Rabbi David Niederman, the executive director of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg, a largely Hasidic social service and charitable community organization, members of the community who are real estate developers have built housing in the area and have deliberately kept rents low to enable poorer members of the community to become tenants with the help of Section 8.20 The Haredi community also knows how to lobby local and state officials for additional aid and new programs. Hasidic leaders can offer a politician a sizeable bloc of votes, as Hasidim generally follow the directive of their Rebbe or his adjutants when casting their ballots. Yeshivish leaders do not exert the same authority over their constituents but their endorsement of candidates or parties has considerable weight.

The Haredi Agudath Israel, whose administrative leadership is composed mostly of professionals from the Yeshivish community, regularly sends lobbying missions to Albany. In a recent video report on the group’s lobbying efforts, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel reviewed the objectives it set for the New York State budget, which included increased state aid to non-public schools, reopening the office of the state administrator for non-public schools, the granting of a tax credit for contributions toward non-public school scholarships, and increased State payments to schools for maintaining vaccination records. Agudath Israel had sent 60 of its people to Albany to lobby legislators, equipped with a glossy brochure setting out and explaining their specific requests. Zwiebel was happy with the results, which included an increase of $72 million in state aid to non-public schools (they had asked for $115 million), as yeshivas constitute one-third of New York State non-public schools.21 The Agudath Israel conducts similar lobbying efforts in other cities and has a mission to Washington as well.

A further significant barrier to bringing the Haredi sector into the major communal organizations is the objectionable nature, from the perspective of the communal organizations and their liberal supporters, of many aspects of Haredi social life. Haredi society’s gender differentiations and the severe limitations it places on the public roles of women is an obvious example, as well as its opposition to homosexuality and its disavowal of transgender individuals. The following discussion will highlight three areas where the ideological differences between Haredi society and mainstream liberal Jews would sorely test if not undermine the policy of radical inclusiveness of the major Jewish communal organizations.