Engaging the Orthodox

Rather than shunning the haredim, a feasible alternative would be to extend them our hand in partnership.

June 3, 2013 21:15
4 minute read.
AN ULTRA-ORTHODOX man walks past two veterans of the Second World War in Ashkelon.

haredi and WWII veterans 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Hot on the heels of the mass haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protest against government plans to conscript them into the Israel Defense Forces, Jay Michaelson recently argued in The Jewish Daily Forward that global Jewry should relinquish support for the ultra- Orthodox community, both in the US and in Israel, because of its “creeping Jewish fundamentalism.”

Jonathan Rosenblum ripostes by judging Michaelson’s logic to be pointillist – “stringing together every negative headline he could find” – while instead focusing on the significant haredi contribution to society.

Here we have a convenient dichotomy fit for 140-character tweets: Michaelson paints the ultra-Orthodox black while Rosenblum saturates it in white. How do we avoid getting caught in this binary? Although Michaelson’s depiction of the coercive fundamentalism dominating the haredi community is troubling, he addresses the trend in a callous, counter-productive fashion that borrows from the corrosive ostracism of the larger Jewish establishment. In a recent article, I showcased some of my research displaying the frightening pressure on Jewish youth to either be with American Jewry or against it in terms of stance on Israel. Do we really want to address the communal concern of the ultra-Orthodox with the same antagonism, hate-inciting generalizations, and relinquishment of institutional support? What is the alternative? First and foremost, we need to better understand haredim without painting them black in broad strokes. Academic research chronicling trends in the life of the ultra-Orthodox indicate that haredim are growing not only because they are having more children but also because they are converting entire centrist, modern Orthodox communities to ultra- Orthodox practice. Some say this is emblematic of an extremist rightward shift among the most religious members of our society. On the other hand, there is compelling evidence suggesting that this trend has actually moderated the ultra-Orthodox due to the influx of community members with diverse educational and cultural backgrounds which are more open to the secular world.

We must refrain from rushing to attack a straw man haredi monolith when its community members in fact prove to be far more heterogenous.

Michaelson provides nuance when clarifying that he is speaking ill of the haredi system rather than its people, yet he is all too eager to throw out the baby with the bathwater. By advocating for cutting institutional support for the ultra-Orthodox, he is recommending we further entrench its people within an already considerably secluded haredi enclave. This will serve only to radicalize the membership rather than support their internal trend of moderation – it is counter- productive.

Rather than shunning the haredim, a feasible alternative would be to extend them our hand in partnership.

We must encourage their moderation by partnering with those more open in the ultra-Orthodox community to begin inspiring cultural change from within. This suggestion has already been proposed in the Israeli context, specifically with reference to the potential of a Left-haredi opposition in the Knesset. It would be wise to pursue alliances with both ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel and the US in tandem, making both partnerships exponentially more viable.

This means we must reach out to the converted modern Orthodox and to more open-minded sects of the ultra-Orthodox. Chabad, for example, which has led Orthodox movements in engagement with the nonreligious, would be a valuable candidate for partnership. Chabad already serves as a powerful bridge between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Jewish society, currently operating childcare services, Hebrew schools, day schools, summer camps, teen programs, college groups, religious prayer venues, and even Jewish singles groups for all Jews across the country regardless of affiliation. It would be wise to invest in this moderating power.

The collaboration would have to be mutually beneficial. In exchange for a commitment to curb Jewish fundamentalism among haredim, support for the Association of Jewish Outreach Programs (AJOP) must be heightened. This is not necessarily a bitter compromise. Even speaking as a secular Jew, I believe that promoting kiruv (literally “bringing close,” as in closer to God) is a welcome byproduct of an enhanced mainstream- Orthodox relationship.

Although I do not practice spiritually myself, I am profoundly thankful for the kiruv work of my local Chabad which has provided me with the unique opportunity to be a role model for special needs children through The Friendship Circle. I have grown as a Jew because of it.

Outreach work will enrich the Jewish identity of the growing number of disinterested or unaffiliated Jews while simultaneously moderating and integrating the Orthodox sector of our community. This is preferable to instigating demographic and/or financial warfare that will only sharpen divides within the Jewish community. Is this alternative practical? Some may suggest not, but I would challenge them – does our community not advocate negotiations and dialogue for far more acrimonious conflicts? Rather than ostracizing those with whom we disagree, we should temper our knee-jerk reaction and wisely offer them a hand in partnership instead. 

The writer is a recent graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. You can follow him on his blog and on Twitter (@roibachmutsky).

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