ADAM S. FERZIGER 58.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For those like me whose lives and outlooks were influenced by their early
encounters with Manhattan’s venerable Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ) and
the Ramaz School it sponsors, the July 11 fire that ravaged its monumental
synagogue brought profound sadness. The vivid images of flames spewing from the
familiar façade evoked a sense of mourning only deepened by Tisha Be-av’s focus
Yet this reaction was soon hedged with pride at the
heartening actions of the KJ/Ramaz leadership, with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
setting the tone.
As a historian who has chronicled the KJ’s 126-year
history and its central place within the evolution of American Modern Orthodoxy,
I could not help but consider the damage to the beautiful house of worship in
symbolic terms. The vision of KJ covered in flames offers a provocative metaphor
for the decline of a distinctive type of Modern Orthodox synagogue.
as I am of the rawness of the traumatic events, I hope these reflections will
not be viewed as callous. I offer them, rather, in the spirit of Rabbi
Lookstein’s charge at the prayer service following the fire to “look ahead,” for
“out of the ashes of destruction can come the seeds of
KJ gained prominence in the early twentieth century as a
pathbreaking religious institution dedicated to rejuvenating American Orthodoxy
when many foresaw its demise. Masses of immigrants and their offspring were
becoming alienated from the ways of their ancestors. KJ fostered a fresh
atmosphere that attracted these proud new Americans – some who adhered to Jewish
law and others who were less meticulous. It did so by hiring college-educated
rabbis who delivered relevant messages in non-accented English; by pioneering a
day school that drew both observant and nonobservant parents unwilling to
compromise on their children’s secular educations; and by nurturing a service
that was, in the words of the driving force in this renaissance, Rabbi Joseph
Lookstein (1902-1979): “as dignified as the most Reform and as pious as the
worship in a shteibbel.”
From the 1970s, his son Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
extended this vision of Orthodoxy with a wide range of Jews by making public
activism for Soviet Jewry integral to synagogue life.
doctrinal discipline and openness, personal piety and acceptance of others, was
a daunting task. But these tensions were also abundant sources of positive
energy that engendered creativity and a sense of mission.
Indeed, by 1965
the prominent scholar Charles Liebman pronounced: “The only remaining vestige of
Jewish passion in America resides in the Orthodox community… which today
contains within it a strength and will to live that may yet nourish all the
Orthodox passion has persisted in the past half century.
But among the synagogues that profess allegiance to a Modern Orthodox outlook,
few still attract a wide cross-section of Jews. On the contrary, they are
increasingly enclaves whose members stem almost exclusively from observant
families. Those who grew up together, attending the same schools, camps and
Israel programs fit in, while those from divergent backgrounds encounter less
congenial surroundings. Some may see here positive evidence of Modern
Orthodoxy’s successful rise to a robust community of the faithful.
Alternatively, one of its profound contributions to American Jewish life has
been undermined by a self-serving impulse.
IN THE past decade, numerous
initiatives have arisen that counterbalance the so-called “slide to the right”
or “haredization” of American Orthodoxy documented by scholars. Moreover, the
programming offered by mainstream Modern Orthodox synagogues continues to
reflect their Jewishly educated and intellectually open
Notwithstanding, in its social sphere, the Modern Orthodox
synagogue has moved closer to the dominant American haredi stance, whose
emphasis on uniform lifestyle is often coupled with minimal tolerance for
Ironically, while the Modern Orthodox have abandoned
their socially varied roots, the more selfassured haredim have progressively
advanced initiatives such as community kollels and outreach congregations. Yet
the types of inclusive Orthodox synagogues in which an eclectic range of Jews
can feel a sense of partnership are disappearing – especially in areas where
more homogeneous congregations are sustainable.
Witnessing a Jewish
sanctuary like KJ ablaze raises associations with the destruction of the temples
in Jerusalem, about which Lamentations cries, “…a fire was kindled in Zion and
consumed her foundations.” The initial physical decimation came to represent the
decline of the Holy City . Yet Rabbi Lookstein’s emphasis on restoration also
elicits thoughts of another ancient setting that figures vitally into the
traumatic period surrounding the decimation of the Second Temple. The
Talmuddescribes Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai entreating the Roman emperor on the
eve of the destruction: Ten li Yavneh ve-hakhamehah! – allow the town of Yavneh
and its scholars to survive. By ensuring a foundation for Jewish fidelity, this
sage came to represent the prototype Jewish leader who “looks forward,” planting
seeds of continuity and rebirth even amid ruin and debris.
dynamic stewardship of Rabbi Lookstein, KJ’s physical rebuilding will
undoubtedly be accompanied by efforts to shore up the community’s core
principles, and possibly re-frame them in ways that respond to changing
But can the image of Kehilath Jeshurun immersed in flames
rouse others? In the spirit of Yavneh, may this terrible episode stimulate fresh
thinking as to how Modern Orthodox synagogues can once again epitomize
sanctuaries in which all Jews feel welcome.The writer is senior lecturer
and vice chairman, Graduate Program in Contemporary Jewry at Bar-Ilan
Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy,
Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity.