Forty Years Ago
The title of this piece will be echoed in other writing. Forty years ago to this day, on September 15, 1965, Rabbi Moshe Sherer of blessed memory and I went out to Staten Island to meet with Reuben Gross of blessed memory, a noted Orthodox attorney. We discussed the growing independence of Orthodox Jewry and the need to establish a mechanism to give voice to our differences with the mainstream organizations that purported to represent American Jews. Out of this meeting came the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, or COLPA. I was its first president.
COLPA is no more and that is a loss, yet the greater loss by far is in the abandonment of the attitudes and strategies that motivated those of us who were working on behalf of Orthodox Jewry. We were advocates, even fighters, and we weren’t afraid to be militant or unpopular. Our approach was reflected in an article that I wrote called “The New Style of Orthodox Jewry” that was published in the January 1966 issue of Jewish Life, then the publication of the Orthodox Union. We weren’t satisfied with photo ops or visits to the White House or meaningless ceremonies or glamorous trips to Israel or any of the other sterile glitter that now informs too much of Orthodox life. We focused on issues and outcomes, testifying before Congress and other legislatures, writing briefs and promoting through the media what we believe was right.
Although we were few in number and scarcely any Orthodox Jews were partners at major law firms, we gave abundantly of our time and talent and we achieved results. At the time, all three branches of the Federal government were essentially in the hands of those who believe that the First Amendment precluded any aid to parochial schools, yet when Congress passed – before COLPA was established – the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, parochial schools were included. New York enacted important legislation providing textbook and other assistance to parochial schools and the brief on behalf of a united Orthodox community had an impact on the Supreme Court.
We moved on to other fields, primarily the establishment of a body of law that I refer to as the law of religious persons. The main focus was on protecting Sabbath observers in employment, but we moved on to hospital and cemetery rights, milah and other areas. We were effective to an extent that we could scarcely predict and we gained the respect of organized American Jewry.
Other Orthodox Jews pressured Federations to do more for our schools and, here too, there were results. In an important way nearly everything that has been achieved with respect to Federation is based on the breakthroughs of the 1960’s and 1970’s and this is true of what has been accomplished regarding government aid to parochial schools, Sabbath observers, and the rights of religious persons.
All that we have now is predicated on the victories achieved a generation ago.
In fact, we have a lot less today. When Congress, under conservative control, enacted President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act,” all religious school children were left out. We have lost ground on the rights of Sabbath observers and in other areas as well. Yet we trumpet our alleged political influence!
There is no advocacy anymore, no militancy anymore. We indulge in frivolity, in meaningless ceremonies and we are intoxicated by the mirage of public relations. Of course, we have more affluence and potentially more influence. But we are far behind where we were forty years ago. The smell of success has gotten to our organizations and leaders, such as they are, and we are afraid to be unpopular. In our beliefs and practices we are far further away from organized Jewish life than we were in the 1960’s and 1970’s, yet we are far less willing to challenge those who deprecate Torah law.