Friday, July 09, 2010

Young Israel - Modern Orthodox in Name Only?

There is a controversy brewing in the Young Israel Movement. Last week the Jewish Week reported of a teleconference meeting between the executive board of the National Council of Young Israel and representatives of its 150 member Shuls. It involved the fate of a member Shul in Syracuse, New York that has a woman serving as president. The Jewish Week describes the meeting as contentious - leaving the issue with the potential for rebellion. From the Jewish Week:

One synagogue representative made a motion of no-confidence in the National Council’s leadership. With that, the national leaders hung up, leaving synagogue representatives puzzled and upset, according to those on the call…

One of those on the call, Hillel Levin, a board member of the Young Israel of Toco Hills in Atlanta, said he was “disappointed by the National Council’s handling of the Syracuse matter and its handling of the meeting of the delegates. Of the delegates who spoke at the meeting, I can think of only one who spoke vaguely in favor of National Council’s handling of the whole thing.”

The issue seems to be Serara – leadership roles in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Dr. Aryeh Frimmer in a recent article Tradition Magazine tells us about a meeting back in the early eighties Rabbi Binyamin Walfish, in his capacity as Executive Director of the R.C.A had with the Rav (Rav Soloveitchik) that addressed this issue. Based on the Rambam (Hiclhos Melachim 1:5), the Rav Paskined that women could not be Shul presidents because of certain prerogatives that constituted Serara. This Psak is confirmed by Rav Hershel Shachter.

Even though I would never dispute a Pesak of the Rav - I have to ask why he felt that Shul presidents constitute Serara. My experience is that Shul presidents are nothing more than glorified fund raisers for the Shul. Even in its mandate of hiring and firing staff – including the rabbi himself – it is not the sole prerogative of the president. It is usually made by the full board membership of which the president is only one vote.

The primary function of any board of directors in religious institutions is to find ways to raise money and implement them. The president has no formal or even informal leadership role other than that. Any other issue such as implementing a new program in the Shul is left to the Rabbi. He is the spiritual leader of the Shul and makes those decisions. Presidents and boards can only recommend. And they can only implement what the rabbi approves.

Nonetheless since the Rav was the acknowledged rabbinic leader of modern Orthodoxy. And Young Israel is the most prominent umbrella organization of modern Orthodox Shuls. It is therefore well within its rights to establish rules along these lines for its member Shuls.

And yet to me this is a troubling move. Even though they may be technically correct in maintaining this kind of policy, it should be noted that this rule was only recently (in 2007) formalized into its rules. One wonders why there was an over 20 year delay. And why take a member shul to task on this issue now –threatening expulsion?

I can’t really answer the question but I suspect it has more to do with the prevailing Zeitgeist in much of Orthodoxy - the move to the right - than it does with incorporating Rav Soloveitchik’s Psak into their rulebook. Although there was also a financial issue between that Shul and the national executive board - it seems that it was not the primary issue.

I am not here to take a Halachik position on this. But if the move to the right is indeed the problem I am disappointed. If we are going to have a viable modern Orthodoxy we need its premiere synagogue movement – Young Israel - to be open and tolerant of a wide range of modern Orthodox Shuls.

This does not of course mean that they should overlook violation in Halacha. But is the Rav’s view viable to the extent of expelling a Shul? I’m not convinced thst the Rav himself woulf have called for expulsion of a Shul from an Orthtodox movement for this violation.

To be an umbrella organization for Modern Orthodoxy means tolerance of violations of rule that only recently made it into their rulebooks. Many of their Shuls were members long before these new rules were established a few short years ago. If they were so concerned with the Psak Halacha of the Rav – why wait over 20 years to implement it?

Female presidents have never been considered reason for expulsion before 2007. There are obviously more lenient views on this issue. It is unfair to to ‘upgrade’ Young Israel’s religious status on the backs of a struggling Shul? That Shul as well as most YI Shuls became members under the old rules and should be allowed to continue to operate under them. At most only a newly chartered YI Shul should be required to follow the new rules and be expelled for violating them.

I understand the desire to ‘upgrade’. But not what is a Shul in a city like Syracuse do that has precious few Orthodox Jews in town to support it? They are the only Orthodox Shul in town. If they are expelled, they will be unfairly tainted as not having Orthodox standards! Why destroy the Shul? Why alienate its members from Orthodoxy?

It seems to me that Young Israel’s chief executive - Rabbi Pesach Lerner has been trying very hard to ingratiate his organization in the eyes of the Charedi establishment. I have no problem with that. If I were Young Israel’s leader would do everything I could to garner the broadest possible support from every segment of Orthodoxy. But what I would not do is change the character of the organization from one of modern Orthodoxy to one of Charedi Orthodoxy.

That seems to be the direction he is going. It seems to me that almost every time I read something about him - he takes the Charedi view on things. Pandering to Charedi leaders is not the way to run a modern Orthodox institution. One must recognize that there are differences between modern Orthodoxy and Charedism. Calling oneself Modern Orthodox does not make one modern Orthodox. One has to practice what one preaches.

If this trend continues, Young Israel will be a modern Orthodox institution in name only. In practice it will end up being Charedi. I believe Rabbi Lerner is wrong to continue in this direction. If he does - it behooves the membership to ask for his resignation.