Close-knit community?

Is modern Orthodoxy an endangered species? A joint conference aims to seek direction for the movement.

orthodox youth 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
orthodox youth 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dramatic shifts to both the Left and the Right over the past 50 years have left the modern Orthodox and national-religious movements fragmented. These divisions have been causing friction as some factions push for more stringent interpretations of Halacha, while others are pushing boundaries on formally sacrosanct issues.
The years since the disengagement have seen a downward spiral of once-idealistic youth and an increasing strain between established members of a formerly unified movement. This delicate balance was recently shaken to the core when Rabbi Motti Elon, a movement leader beloved and respected by many, was accused of abusing his power as an authority figure by having illicit relationships with his male students. The resulting damage has both undermined confidence in him as a leader and exposed the hypocrisy of a man who had come out very strongly against homosexuality. The movement itself is still trying to grapple with the ramifications of his alleged actions. 
With the future of the movement uncertain, rabbis, intellectuals and members of the modern Orthodox community will be coming together at a conference during Pessah titled “Is modern Orthodoxy an endangered species?”
The conference is co-sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, a US-based modern Orthodox organization, and Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda, which is based in Israel. This is their first joint project.
Moderated by The Jerusalem Post’s Gil Hoffman, the panel will include Petah Tikva hesder yeshiva head Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, Bar-Ilan University Talmud professor Rabbi Daniel Sperber, Itim’s Rabbi Seth Farber and Nishmat founder and dean Rabbanit Chana Henkin.
The conference will also include presentations by leading thinkers and Torah scholars. Topics include the one-year yeshiva programs for post-high school Americans, Orthodox women in the arts, social media in the Orthodox world and the meaning of “Torah V’avoda” in a post-agricultural Israel. 
Cherlow is taking part in the panel because he believes in the importance of creating a forum where people can express a variety of opinions. He says only right-leaning opinions are respected in the movement today.
“We are collapsing and we can’t get together and speak freely,” says Cherlow. “This damages our movement and hurts our relationship with greater Israeli society. This conference is a chance to have a very important conversation. The historic mission of the national-religious movement was to serve as a bridge between the secular and the religious in order to work together as a democratic Jewish nation.
“We are seeing that there is a separation between what we call ‘Medinat Tel Aviv’ [the state of Tel Aviv] and ‘Medinat Yerushalayim’ [the state of Jerusalem]. Secular people do not feel that they can live in Jerusalem because of religious coercion and there are almost no religious people who live in Tel Aviv because it is inhospitable to a religious lifestyle. This is emblematic of the greater situation in Israel. Instead of being a movement that sees our mission as linking these two groups, we are doing just the opposite by becoming more isolated. We are separating ourselves from the general society. I respect people who think differently but I do have a problem with someone who doesn’t legitimize various opinions. The Gemara is an open forum for discussion and that is what we should be emulating. I am coming to the conference because it will be a place to hold these discussions.” 
Rabbi Marc Angel, founder of the Jewish Institute for Ideas and Ideals, says, “The goal is to reenergize the modern Orthodox community in the face of increasing religious extremism, creating an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodox Judaism. To accomplish this goal, we are highlighting positive trends in the modern Orthodox community, including  a variety of sessions and panels throughout the day. Popular Jewish musician Yehuda Solomon will lead the Shaharit and Hallel service and there will be gourmet kosher food and wine tasting. The conference will provide a free children’s program to encourage young families to attend.”
Shmuel Shattach, director of Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda, believes this is a definitive moment for the movement. In his opinion, many of the traditionally modern Orthodox organizations such as Bnei Akiva are becoming more right-wing and increasingly “hardal” (haredi leumi). Internal battles have been raging over issues like gender segregation and girls singing in performances.
Many believe the time has come to break off and start a new movement with its own schools and youth groups, but Shattach disagrees. He thinks that to do so would be to hand over everything the movement has worked for into the hands of people who are not in line with the original vision of the modern Orthodox movement and are increasingly pushing it to the Right.
“The tragedy of modern Orthodoxy is that we are so successful at integrating people into modern society that they have been disappearing,” said Shattach. “We encourage our children to have careers but not to go into education. Haredi culture promotes becoming teachers and does outreach, and that’s why our children are being exposed mostly to hardal contents in the educational system. We need to get more involved in educational projects.”
David Abitbol, founder of edgy Jewish blog Jewlicious, will be speaking at the conference about the role social media are playing in the Orthodox world. His blog consists of numerous contributors offering various points of view on a range of topics. This creates a lively and vibrant discussion, which both challenges and educates readers. His blog is a response to what he sees as the insularity and complacency of the modern Orthodox world and its institutions. 
Yonatan Benarroch, chairman of Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda, says that theyhave invited rabbis who he believes are willing to take the risk ofchallenging Halacha to face the challenges of our time and resolveissues of deep concern. Cherlow and Sperber have been openly criticizedin modern Orthodox circles and labeled “neo-Reform” for theirwillingness to seek halachic solutions to deal with gender inequalityand innovative religious expression. Cherlow has ruled that unmarriedwomen over 37 should be allowed to have children; Sperber has beenvocal in his support for egalitarian minyanim.
“There are those within the movement,” says Benarroch, “who areconcerned that these rabbis are leading people down a slippery slope,and then there are others, those who have organized this event, whobelieve that the modern Orthodox community must face the crucial issuesof our time or run the risk of becoming obsolete.”
The event is scheduled to take placeat the Menachem Begin Heritage Center  on April 1 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.For more information go to