The findings and discussion here are based upon three distinct sources of information: the individual and preliminary conversations held; the dialogue seminars conducted; and the questionnaire participants completed in the course of the sessions.
The first round of seminars took place in late February and early March 2019 and involved four communities: Toronto, Cleveland, Baltimore and Detroit. Further seminars took place in Chicago (in mid-March) New York (May) and Los Angeles (July).
All four communities in the initial round took pride in their extensive cooperation and collaboration to date (perhaps Toronto less than others). There are multiple factors that have led to the cooperation in these communities. Certainly a favorable, if not the most significant, factor is the substantial financial support provide by the Federations for the haredi schools and yeshivot.
Local factors in each community enhance cooperation. (In Cleveland, Jews of various stripe live in physical proximity to one another in the Beechwood suburb. This leads to extensive and ongoing interaction and familiarity. In Baltimore, Herman Neuberger and the tradition of Yeshivat Ner Israel leaves a legacy of cooperation.)
Nevertheless, as the sessions in each community progressed, participants realized that their cooperation and collaboration had been less than it could be. This was due to a number of factors, especially the lack of communication between the Frum and non-Orthodox communities. To a certain extent this was due to technical factors and living in different neighborhoods. Yeshivish Orthodox don’t use social media in the same way that non-Frum Jews do. They pass along information through different channels. A prevalence of stereotypes results from this lack of communication. There is a mutual lack of knowledge of the other community. For example, if the Orthodox do not attend a certain event, it is assumed by the non-Orthodox that they have ignored the underlying issue, even if they have conducted their own events around same issue. For instance, the Yeshivish in Toronto did not attend an event held by the Toronto Federation related to the June 2014 kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers at the Tzomet Gush Etzion because the event was held at a large Conservative synagogue. Some Reform and Conservative Jews assumed that the Yeshivish had ignored or neglected the entire issue. In fact, the Orthodox, including the Yeshivish, held their own well-attended events in regard to this, which included reciting Tehillim and other activities.
In Baltimore, where there is a tradition of cooperation between the Yeshivish community (centered around the Ner Israel Yeshiva) and the larger community, participants came to the realization – late in the session – that contact and collaboration between the communities is restricted to a small circle of community activists from both sides. These were well represented in the dialogue session itself. However, outside of these circles, contact, knowledge and cooperation between the communities was minimal. This sentiment was also expressed in other communities.
In the New York Dialogue session, held in May 2019, several new issues were raised. The first was that the ultimate goals of the project – the significant involvement of Haredim in general American public life, public service, and politics – may be antithetical to Haredi ideals and the Haredi way of life. The Haredi ideal is that one should dedicate one’s life to serving God through Torah study, observance of the commandments, and prayer. American Haredim, for the most part, agree that one needs to earn a livelihood, but that activity always carries a secondary, instrumental character. Successful involvement in American public life – whether in politics or civil service – in contrast, generally involves a career orientation.
Secondly, Orthodox (including Modern Orthodox) and non-Orthodox Jews tend to frame the American Jewish community discourse in different terms. The Orthodox largely place emphasis on assimilation and the resulting diminution of the non-Orthodox community. In our individual conversations with Haredi leaders, we learned that they have a sense of self-confidence. They feel that their model of Jewish life has stood the test of time and the trials of modernization and secularization; their population is growing, they are not beset by assimilation, and their institutions are flourishing. Thus, they desire some recognition from the wider Jewish community. However, some of the non-Orthodox reject this way of thinking, claiming that the discourse of survival/assimilation is not at the center of their Jewish lives. Rather, they put the emphasis on creating meaningful, creative Jewish lives. Thus, a potentially significant cultural chasm emerged in this session. Yet, it should be borne in mind that both approaches are in fact responses to the challenge of assimilation. While the Orthodox place emphasis on social and cultural boundaries, the non-Orthodox emphasize meaning and choice.
In several sessions, the fight against anti-Semitism was mentioned as a subject that could bring together an effective partnership between Haredi and the larger communities. In a similar vein, JCCs were also mentioned as a religiously neutral venue and space where cooperation and collaboration could take place. In New York, healthcare was mentioned as a common concern that could be conducive to collaborative endeavors.
In almost all sessions, participants, to one degree or another, expressed a desire to learn far more about the “other” part of the community – to dispel stereotypes and identify areas where joint thinking and planning might be productive. These themes were more pronounced in the discussion in some communities than in others. The Los Angeles discussion was especially notable insofar as these themes formed the centerpiece of session, both in the formal and informal sections. The Los Angeles participants also expressed a serious desire to extend the dialogue process.
Nevertheless, in almost all sessions possible tensions and suspicions were explicitly or implicitly alluded to. Non-Haredi participants, especially the non-Orthodox discussants, expressed the fear or the suspicion that cooperation or “integration” with the Haredim would eventually lead to the imposition of Haredi norms, especially those relating to gender and mixing of the sexes. Similarly, in the preliminary discussions especially, federation and mainstream community leaders expressed frustration that they provide significant funding to Haredi educational institutions, yet do not receive sufficient recognition of their efforts from the Haredim. Rather, they experience an incessant demand for more funds. There is also an unspoken issue: the mainstream organizations are concerned that the Frum community may seek to divert funding and attention to their own causes and interests, which are perceived by others as exclusionary. This sentiment on both sides was carried into the meetings.
The Haredim, for their part also expressed concern about what increased collaboration might entail. They were especially concerned about their children and families being exposed to non-religious people and lifestyles. They also expressed concern that if they joined federation fundraising efforts, they might be pressured into funding programs that they oppose. One Haredi donor in Cleveland said that he does donate to the Federation but that he is against support for the outreach programs to interfaith families that the Federation conducts.