Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Coming Home- On Modern-Orthodoxy's move from the US to Israel



There was a time when, for the most part, America was the home of serious Modern-Orthodoxy. This was true both because institutions like Yeshiva University embodied Modern-Orthodoxy’s ideals, and was thriving, and because, beyond Yeshivat Har Etzion and Bar Ilan University, Israel lacked institutions that advocated living a serious halachic lifestyle while making use of the best that modernity has to offer. Some observers made the mistake of assuming that kippah-serugah world in Israel, led by rabbis from Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav, was modern, while failing to recognize that there was little connection to modernity beyond Zionism, and secular education.


Today the reality has changed. Yesterday, I attended the Tzohar Conference on Education, Community and Country,  in Yerushalyim. Tzohar is a rabbinical organization committed to making Judaism meaningful and accessible to all Israeli Jews, including women, chilonim, olim from the FSU and converts. As I attended four fascinating sessions, led by Roshei yeshiva, world-class scholars and leading educators, during which I wished I could clone myself so that I could attend other sessions that I was missing, I found myself wondering whether a program of this kind could be put on within an American Modern-Orthodox framework. How many Roshei Yeshiva at YU would participate in a conference like this? Which organization would put it on? Would many hundreds of people attend?


Tzohar is just one example. This week, Machon Herzog, which is connected to Yeshivat Har Etzion, is hosting their annual Tanach Yemei Iyun. Thousands of Jews will hear shiurim from some of the biggest talmidei and talmidot chachachmim in the field. Where is a program in the US that can rival the yemei iyun in size, scholarship and scope? I could also discuss many other examples of Modern-Orthodoxy’s shift to the shores of Israel, including women’s Torah learning at institutions like Matan and Nishmat, think-tank/advocacy by Beit Hillel, and scholarship coming from Bar-Ilan and Beit Morasha, but the point has been made.


Meanwhile, YU struggles to maintain a Modern-Orthodox identity, with few Roshei Yeshiva who fully identify with the Modern-Orthodox world, serious financial problems, a diminishing student-body and a slew of scandals and controversies. Organizations like the RCA, to whatever degree they represent Modern-Orthodoxy, are mostly irrelevant to the average Jew who is looking for leadership, education, and vision. While Rabbi Asher Lopatin seems to be trying to rebrand Yeshivat Chovevei Torah as modern rather than open orthodox, it remains to be seen whether he will be successful and whether YCT can become large enough and mainstream enough to make a real difference.

Does the shift from the US to Israel matter? For those who believe in Modern-Orthodoxy, I think it does. As much as some of us might wish to see an increase in American aliyah, the American Jewish community is, for the most part, staying put. Modern -Orthodox shuls and schools, particularly those outside of New York, struggle to find like-minded rabbeim and teachers. As American orthodoxy further splits, with moves to both the right and the left, those who feel comfortable in neither camp, will find themselves increasingly isolated. While aliyah is not an option for all of us, the shift of Modern-Orthodoxy to Israel’s shores is just another reason to think about where we belong, and what kind of options we wat our children to have.

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