KJ, Jerusalem and Yavneh

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.”

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 on devastation.
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.
Aware 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 reconstruction.”
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.
Navigating between 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 Jewish world.”
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 characters.
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 personal diversity.
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.
Under the 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 circumstances.
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 University.

He authored Exclusion and Hierarchy: Orthodoxy, Nonobservance, and the Emergence of Modern Jewish Identity.