The Growth of the Haredi Communities in the Diaspora

The Growth of the Haredi Communities in the Diaspora

It is very important to note, though, that this exclusive, “sectarian” orientation seems to be largely the result of sociological and demographic factors and not necessarily ideological or religious ones. In inter-war Poland, despite the fact that the Haredi community and its political representative, Agudath Israel, was in conflict with secular Jewish Zionist or socialist movements and even felt besieged by them,7 it cooperated with these movements in the struggle against anti-Semitism and in the demand for internationally recognized minority rights.8 Furthermore, it did not abandon the general Jewish Kehilla. On the contrary it regularly participated in Kehilla elections and it even claimed that that it should have exclusive control over the Kehilla organizations insofar as the Kehilla was a religious organization.9

This approach stemmed from the self-perception of the Polish Jewish Frum sector that they still constituted the majority of the Jews of Poland. While secularism certainly made inroads, the majority of the Jewish population remained traditionally religious. Thus, the Agudah did not wish to relinquish its hold on the major institutions of Polish Jewry and saw itself as responsible for the Jewish population in its entirety. In accordance with this, the strictly Orthodox sector of the Jews of Poland continued to operate, in part, according to the traditional inclusive model centered around the Kehilla. While the Hafetz Hayyim, R. Yisroel Meir HaKohen Kagan, who held no official rabbinical position, was the charismatic leader of Orthodoxy in this period by virtue of his saintliness and expertise in Halacha, he shared leadership with R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, the Rabbi of Vilna. The latter enjoyed authority not only because of his immense learning but also because he held the most important rabbinical position in Europe.10

“Sectarian” Haredism came into its own in the United States and Israel after WWII and the Holocaust with the destruction of the traditional Kehillot in all of Europe. The Haredi community in the United States had its beginnings after WWII. Before then, there were many traditional-Orthodox synagogues that served a largely traditional population, that is, one that did not strictly keep the Halacha in its Orthodox interpretation. The very small, strictly Orthodox population was oriented toward integration into American life. Accordingly, all of its educational institutions had, in addition to Torah studies, significant secular studies programs. It was expected that boys in advanced rabbinical programs would also attend college.11

The contemporary Haredi community began in 1943 with the founding of the Beit Midrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J. by R. Aharon Kotler.12 Unlike the Yeshivas that existed until that point, the Lakewood Yeshiva was totally devoted to Torah study and did not allow participation in a secular studies program. The Haredi community was largely constituted by Holocaust survivors and refugees, who had either a Hasidic affiliation (or orientation) or a Yeshivish one (such as the Lithuanian students of the Mir Yeshiva who fled to Shanghai from Poland in 1940). The exclusive or sectarian orientation was facilitated by the fact that in the United States all religious organizations were voluntary and secondly, that the strictly Orthodox constituted a tiny minority of American Jews. Thus, the Haredi Jews slowly organized themselves into exclusive communities of strictly Orthodox Jews who adhered to the stringent Haredi interpretation of Jewish religious law. They tended to view themselves as the “remnant” who kept the “authentic” Jewish tradition and as the fully “authentic” Jewish people.