What Has Changed in Thirty Years? – An Interactive Discussion

Jewish Action, the Orthodox Union’s quarterly, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary with a number of articles marking the event. An Orthodox high-quality, glossy color publication was ahead of its time in 1985. It anticipated those that would follow, those that have become weekly fixtures in our homes. (In one regard, it continues to lead the pack. I am not aware of any other print publication in the Anglo Orthodox world that allows and encourages a diversity of viewpoints and opinions.) 

One of the fascinating articles is a retrospective, collecting the events and trends of the last three decades that have changed Jewish life, both Orthodox and general, for the better or not. Any such list cannot attempt to be complete, and will reflect the interests and personalities of the compilers, especially since they decided to limit the number to 30, in marking the anniversary. They succeeded in capturing a good sense of the triumphs and challenges of the last decades, of showing us how much has changed while so much is the same.

Nonetheless, we can do what they couldn’t, which is to expand the list by opening up the discussion to our readership. Here, then, are the choices of the JA editorial staff (Disclosure: I was asked to provide the text for one of them). I will list them, without providing the fuller explanation that accompany them in the article. (At the time of this writing, the current issue is still not available online.)

  • The shift to the GOP
  • The Lieberman nomination
  • Greater participation of Orthodox men and women in all levels of government
  • The Teshuvah movement
  • The fall of the Iron Curtain
  • Peace treaty with Jordan
  • Greater awareness of sexual abuse
  • Three Jewish SCOTUS justices
  • Growth of English-language seforim
  • Depressing statistics on the state of non-Orthodox Judaism
  • Black-Jewish relations deteriorate, then rebound
  • Israel’s demographic growth
  • The persistence of Hamas
  • Proliferation of Torah study
  • Decline of Conservative Judaism
  • Israel as start-up nation
  • Digital Torah revolution
  • Explosion of Orthodox media
  • Birthright
  • Sprouting of new Orthodox communities
  • Advances for Orthodox women
  • Upsurge in North American aliyah
  • Sensitivity to the special-needs population
  • Evangelical support for Israel
  • Addressing the at-risk phenomenon of Orthodox youth
  • Day school tuition crisis
  • Explosion of campus outreach and education
  • The kollel revolution
  • The shidduch crisis
  • Neo-chassidism

What’s missing? A bit of this, and a bit of that. The good, the bad, and the stuff you hope doesn’t make it to the evening news. I will throw out the first ball with a few that I would add if we ignored the 30-item limit:

  • The loss of the Torah titans of the last generation: Losing Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach not only left us bereft of a presence and gadlus that will not be replaced, but it changed the very way we do halacha, and we seek guidance.
  • Malaise and skepticism: We’ve become aware of people who affiliate, but not with their hearts and souls. The Modern Orthodox community has had to reckon with the phenomenon of Social Orthodoxy, of those who follow family tradition, but don’t really believe in core values. In the haredi world, we speak of the lack of “connection,” of those who find their kesher with HKBH incomplete and unsatisfying, and privately see themselves as living on the margins. It is no longer youth who are at risk, but adults as well.
  • Headline-grabbing scandals: The number of Orthodox Jews implicated in major wrongdoing rises, as does the prison population. Prisons now have kosher kitchens and Daf-Yomi shiurim
  • Moving into glass houses: Fully arriving in America means that we no longer fly below the radar, as we did for centuries. Everything that we do, say, and think is open for inspection by our neighbors. Some of us still don’t get that this is not anti-Semitism, but a “privilege” accorded to every group that does things a bit differently.
  • Easing into over-the-top materialism: Designer labels, upscale Pesach programs, upgrading vehicles, houses, décor, and wine lists. Our neighbors ask, “Is this what spirituality is supposed to look like?” We don’t always have an answer.
  • The Internet: Gradually, the opponents of digital connection are begrudgingly realizing that they cannot prevail. (Last week Hamodia http://hamodia.com/, an arm of the Gerrer Chassidim, quietly went online with a strong and impressive web presence.) Transitioning from digitial immigrants to digital natives has created a host of challenges to the observant family, above and beyond its impact on everyone else out there.
  • The shift in Orthodox demographics: The difference in birthrate between MO and haredi families means that the Modern Orthodox are now an increasingly smaller part of the Orthodox world.
  • The nature of the Big Tent is in the process of changing: It is too early to tell if the schism between Open Orthodoxy and mainstream Orthodoxy will be complete and final. It does look like parts of the Orthodox far-left will go their own way, either pushed out of the Big Tent, or leaving on their own. At the same time, the parts of the Modern Orthodox world that have taken up the struggle for retention of traditional values are being treated to acceptance by the right-wing world that has not been seen for decades.

We turn the discussion over to our readers. As usual, the comments will be relatively heavily moderated. 

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30 Responses

  1. Dovid Eliezrie says:

    You missed one of the biggest trends of all, the realignment of American Jewry. The historic boundaries of Reform Conservative and Orthodox are falling. A new dynamic is emerging. Orthodox observant on one end of the spectrum. The liberal movements growing closer ideologically. Closing and at times merging congregations in some communities. Nationally they are still and will continue to be separate entities. A new Jewish middle is emerging in the US, the hundreds of thousands of Jews who today attend Chabad.

    Today there are more Chabad Centers than either Reform or Conservative Temples-even though many are smaller-they are populated by a wide spectrum, mostly Jews who are traditional. In the past they filled the pews of the liberal congregations and were headed away from tradition. Today they are on a train in the opposite direction. Some are taking the express train and becoming fully shomer mitzvos others are on the local, moving but slowly.

    in a recent survey by the Jewish Federation of Greater Miami, 27% of Jews said they were active in Chabad, among Jews 35 and younger the number skyrockets to 47%, Only 20% of those attending Chabad self identify as Orthodox..

    Clearly there is a major shift underway.

    • dr. bill says:

      The existence of only one demarcation between the orthodox and non-orthodox was evident and predicted 55 years ago in the famous Commentary issue. Time will tell if Commentary’s identification of the precise line of demarcation will be accurate. Chabad may well become the unifying force in Judaism or the chassidut early mitnagdim feared.

      • mycroft says:

        Dr Bill We are probably both not young but I remember the symposium and Milton Himmelfarb’s famous comment stating that one can distinguish the difference between any Orthodox writer and any non Orthodox writer simply by reading the answer. Of course, we are approaching in a couple of months the 50th anniversary of the issue not quite 55.
        Chabad it appears has taken the place of Conservative Judaism of 50 years ago. They are non judgmental, show up do what you want.We are happy to see you.

      • dr. bill says:

        Mycroft, you are correct – almost 50 (not 55 as I wrote (I was having a senior moment)) years ago. Thinking back, could the “orthodox” responses of Rabbis Lichtenstein and Wurzberger and Rackman and Prof. Fox, OBM and yibadail lechaim Rabbi Lamm be replicated by many rabbis of similar age today in the US and/or would they feel secure enough to do so? In Israel, orthodox respondents are easily found; the few left in the US are approximately my age and older, with perhaps one or two exceptions.

      • mycroft says:

        Agree that in Israel one can find such respondents-in US many of those that might be left might have been influenced besides by the Rav but by those who you named. BTW at least 2 of the people you cited were extremely close to the Rav and his hashkafa

      • Sammy Finkelman says:

        ” Milton Himmelfarb’s famous comment stating that one can distinguish the difference between any Orthodox writer and any non Orthodox writer simply by reading the answer. ”

        The answer to what question?

        I find a footnote somewhere that cites

        Milton Himmelfarb, “What Do American Jews Believe” symposium, Commentary, August 1996, p 35.

        But you say that was about 55 years ago = 1960.

        I find he also said “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans”

    • mycroft says:

      Similar to the old Conservative movement Chabad is also home to quite a few day school grads who are no longer shomer shabbos-they are welcome there.

  2. dr. bill says:

    1) the divide between Israel and the US among most non-chassidic orthodox (and conservative) streams is widening. 2) Israel’s chilonim no longer believe that they alone are creating the next generations of the Jewish people. 3) the intellectual center of non-chassidic orthodox streams, particularly the DL/MO community is now based in Israel, with growing academic participation in DL leadership. 4)The global village has impacted the traditional role of a kehillah.

    • mycroft says:

      Sort of agree-there is very little MO left in the US. There are serious intellectual, scholars who are MO in Israel. Few if any in US. No serious place of producing future leaders in US is based on an MO philosophy.

      • dr. bill says:

        There never was a single place to produce such individuals; with all due respect to YU, almost all were produced by some combination of the yeshivah and academia. Today, based on informal, non-scientific observation, the academy is growing the ranks of the open and very modern orthodox (much) more so than those to their right.

      • mycroft says:

        Dr Bill:
        Disagree when I think you were in YU there were MO teachers there who themselves were musmachim of YU.

      • dr. bill says:

        mycroft, i disagree. Even many of the greats of my day that had semicha from YU, had academic training.from another university. Wurzberger, Rackman, Lichtenstein all had degrees from other academic institutions. Many came altogether from elsewhere – Herskovits, Hyman, Feldman, Greenberg. We agree that the number of these individuals has decreased. Sadly, though YU still has some similar individuals, few of those are below sixty. Yet more troubling, some who are younger would be more comfortable at a university aligned with YCT.

      • mycroft says:

        “Sadly, though YU still has some similar individuals, few of those are below sixty.”
        If over 60 they received their training while the Rav was very much alive and active in YU. It was before the end of MO according to Prof Brill’s lectures on MO in YU Torah and the rise of “Centrism”
        I believe one can’t underestimate the difference in YU from the time of the Rav and the time of Rav Schachter-they are both very different people with different hashkafot. For reasons which are irrelevant to our discussion there is much more uniformity in RIETS and talmidim now then there was during the time of the Rav.

  3. Eitan Cohen says:

    Touched on this tangentially with “fall of the Iron Curtain” and “Israel’s demographic growth”, but the exodus of Soviet Jewry deserves specific mention.

  4. YEA says:

    The Slifkin Affair.

  5. mycroft says:

    Re “upsurge in North American aliyah”
    Aliyah figures from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliyah

    From US Canada is consistently about 10% of US figures
    1961-1971 18,671 1972-1979 20,963 1980-1989 18,904
    1990-2001 17,512 2002-2010 15,445

    FYI Nefesh Bnefesh was founded August 2001

  6. Reb Yid says:

    Surprised this has not been mentioned:

    The so-called “gap year” in Israel. As significant as anything on that list of 30.

  7. Steve Brizel says:

    The list set forth is an excellent state of the Torah observant world , its growth and concumitant problems. R Chaim Eisenstein in the YU Torah To Go quotes the the Nazir ZL in reminding us that despite all of the English language and on line search tools and shiurim, we have to remember that growth as a Ben or Bas Torah is rooted in”hearing” and inculcating the message, as opposed to a message set forth in a physical form. All of the English seforim , magidim and darshanim cannot serve as a substitute for breaking one’s head over a sefer and discovering the message contained between the lines.

  8. Dr. E says:

    I would add that gender issues have become quite salient during this period, such as the:

    • increasing level of gender separation for social and religious events (beyond davening)
    • new protocols and rule which regulate the Shidduch System and in some ways may contribute to the aforementioned “crisis”
    • confusion of women’s roles and related expectations as professional breadwinners, mothers, and • daters/wives (and reconciling the dissonance emanating from their professional and inside-the-community personas)
    • erasure of images of females from frum publications
    • trickle-down and collateral consequences of all of the above, including for youth and nonconformists/skeptics to these new standards

    • lacosta says:

      i would add [especially but not exclusively ] from the charedi end, the increased pressure [if one reads the charedi mags womens sections] on gashmiyus — more elaborate meals , food substances before unimaginable , always looking for a new frontier ; this ties in with the increase in gashmiyus in general….

  9. lacosta says:

    RYA noted about Jewish Action—– I am not aware of any other print publication in the Anglo Orthodox world that allows and encourages a diversity of viewpoints and opinions.)

    ——- it should not be surprising that ‘big tent movements’ like the OU perforce can allow a wider spectrum. for all the aguda’s claim of being ‘aguda achas’ , the nature of their perceived acceptable hashkafot perforce limits who can enter the tent with no intent of changing. obviously , there is a downside to liberalism. while the OU’s publications can have both Neturei Karta and Hallel-with-a-bracha writers, it is only their camp that ultimately must deal with the OO’s ,Maharats,YCTs etc —- for all the condemnations that certain circles may propogate , ultimately the aguda’s,NCYI’s, Ami’s, Mishpacha’s and Yated’s need not worry about any of those problems breaching their walls— and often knowing the vehemence of the opposition makes the far left more resistant to criticism….

    [YA – As I have written before, I strongly disagree. No Orthodox group can long survive if they cannot claim connection to centuries of Jewish life and learning. If people on the right would claim that MO is chutz lemachaneh, there are lots within the MO world who can make the case that this is not true, that they share their world with R Akiva Eiger and the Chasam Sofer. The Torah education of OO is so shallow that they cannot make the case convincingly. Thus, when the Moetzes points to them as non-Orthodox, they can shrug it off for the moment, but the consequences will be telling in the future. Not to mention the fact that their kashrus, gittin, and geirus will not be accepted by the vast majority of the Orthodox world which has demographically shifted to the haredi camp.]

    • lacosta says:

      rya–i agree with your point , but in the end , this is not a moetzes, RIETS or RCA issue —it is an OU synagogue division issue—- all the others can pat themselves on the back for making their objections public —but can any of them claim they move the dial with their pronouncements? the OU is the only force of all listed , that needs/could have a Shmuel Hakattan to get the heretics to move out….

  10. Yair Ish HaPar says:

    A digression, so feel free to flag as off-topic: Hamodia.com has been online for at least a year as far as I can remember, and probably longer, though the articles were only updated weekly. (The hebrew edition is not online though). Hopefully the new version of Hamodia will be a tolerable alternative to the “news” blogs that are light on intelligent content, and heavy on either yeshivish-tabloid-content (exclusive photo essays of your favorite godol lighting chanuka licht?), or gratuitous self-hating slander, or both.

    Maybe CC can do to online news what they did to online commentary? I’d be your first subscriber.

  11. lacosta says:

    college anti-zionism : both by leftists and arabs/moslems , and by the rapidly growing virulently anti-zionist younger Jews , and I am not referring to satmar youth…..
    the continuing presence of zionist jews on the college campus will presumably be untenable….

  12. mb says:

    The quality of kosher wine, from every region of the world.Fine Moldovan kosher wine! Who’d have thunk it?

  13. Eli nadoff says:

    The slow decline of many (most) non east coast/tri-state area Jewish communities as those cities struggle bringing in young blood and retaining their own youth.

  14. Arnie Lustiger says:

    The trends of the last thirty years portend the trends for the next thirty. I predict the following:

    The erosion of the Conservative movement will result in an even greater polarization between Orthodox and Reform. There will no longer be an affinity between Reform Judaism and Zionism ,as the liberal media (e.g. NYT, Slate, HuffPo) intensify their demonization of Israel. Israel will officially be recognized as an apartheid-pariah state at a Reform convention in the not distant future, with a subsequent dissolution of all ties between the two. At a subsequent convention, Reform Judaism will officially recognize open marriages, as the movement declares that sexual satisfaction is the highest religious value. Orthodox Jews will increasingly recognize that they have more in common politically, socially and even theologically to Conservative Christianity than to Reform Judaism, as the formal alliances with the former will strengthen (i.e. ICFJ) and multiply. The Federation system, the President’s Conference .and Hillels will self-destruct as liberal and Orthodox Jews lose any sense of common purpose, and a growing Orthodoxy will need to fill the many communal voids in the wake of their absence.

  15. L Froh says:

    I would add 2 things-
    1) The increase in the number of charitable organizations devoted to Jewish life and issues
    2) The increase in the number of parents supporting children into their children’s later years

  16. Steve Brizel says:

    “Growth of English-language seforim” -R SY Zevin ZL, in addition to being the founding editor of the Encyclopedia Talmudit, and the author of seforim such as HaMoadim Bhalacha, Ishim vShitos, Lor HaHalacha and Sipurei Chasidim, also wrote a sefer with the title IIRC of Sofrim vSifreihem. I once read part of one entry and realized that this sefer was like a book review on many seforim and the premises of their authors. This sefer has been out of print but If I could I would buy it immediately. Too many seforim have hakdamos that tell us that the author is a Ben Torah, a Talmid Chacham, etc, as opposed to vetting the contents of the sefer or the derech of the authors on the particular subject . There is seemingly a need to translate every classical Torah work into English without thinking through whether such a sefer should be translated-such as Midrash . One can argue quite well that the willy nilly rush to translation and reliance on such works is incompatible with the ideal and goals of Ameilus BaTorah. I just cannot see someone becoming a Ben Torah or Talmid Chacham if the only sefarim he ever learned were translations, as opposed to breaking one’s head over an excellent edition based on Kisvei Yad of a real sefer.

    Without revisiting the discussions we have had here about the hashkafa of ArtScroll, there is a need for some form of literary quality control especially on seforim that deal with Halacha. Too often, you have to read footnotes to see alternative legitimate halachic perspectives and whole sefarim/ halachic guides are written in English on very complex subjects that sometimes don’t present a proper view-For instance, it is wonderful to write a sefer in English on Hilcos Eruvin-but how can such a sefer be written without considering the views of the CI? OTOH, take a look at the Machon Yerushalayim Minchas Chinuch, which rendered the MC learnable, and the Dirshu MB-these two works should be considered the lodestar as to the means of presentation and content-rendering the sefer learnable and in terms of the Dirshu MB-reemphasizing the need for learning Sifrei Halacha with consideration of current realia.

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