Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Challenge of Integrating Orthodoxy

Invitation to BMG retreat featuring the OU's R' Steven Weil  as a keynote speaker 
One of the most significant events that happened to Chicago in my lifetime is the advent of the Chicago Community Kollel - a BMG (Lakewood Yeshiva) enterprise. This Kollel has changed the shape of Chicago. I cannot overemphasize their impact. The amount of Torah study they have generated among Baalei Batim (lay religious Jews) since their founding in the 80s is of exponential magnitude.

I can say without fear of contradiction that this Kollel under the very able guidance of the two Roshei Kollel, Rabbi Dovid Zucker, and Rabbi Moshe Francis that the Chicago Jewish community has been transformed. The Avreichim they choose are each leaders in their own right. Many of those who have made Chicago their home have become formidable presences. I have therefore enthusiastically supported – and continue to support the Kollel, both morally and materially to the best of my ability. 

(One can only guess the heavenly reward that will accrue to Rabbi Morris Esformes who brought this Kollel into Chicago and paid all the Kollel salaries out of his pocket for its first year. He did so despite communal opposition – including that of Telshe.  He shepherded it through all that - and got a few other Orthodox Chicago philanthropists to go along. Morrie (as those of us who know him - call him) has a share in every word of Torah studied by those of us who are doing so now because of the Kollel’s influence.)

But all this Torah study comes at a price. Chicago has moved significantly to the right. While this is true about the entire Orthodox world - Chicago is unique in this respect.

Chicago was always a Mizrachi town. There was practically no Agudah presence here when the Kollel was established. Most of Chicago’s religious population were Religious Zionists. When in the 60s, Rav Ahron Soloveichik became Rosh HaYeshiva of HTC (Skokie) - he was made the titular head of Mizrachi. He sat at the ‘Mizrach Vant’ (the ‘Eastern wall’ in front of the Shul) at the main Mizrachi Shul.

Today, Mizachi is hardly a noticeable presence – compared to Agudah. Agudah now reigns supreme, right along with the Hashkafos it brings to the table. They have the most beautiful Orthodox Shul in greater Chicago. Mizrachi has no independent shul in Chicago proper at all.

Why has this happened? In my view the Kollel had a major part in that. Many formerly Mizrachi type people were drawn into the Kollel and started accepting their Hashkafos. So that a mixed seating affair for example that used to be the standard in Chicago started disappearing.

Now it’s true that the move to the right might have taken place anyway. But there is not a doubt in my mind that the Kollel’s massive and well deserved popularity accelerated it. Additionally Mizrachi’s popularity was reduced because of its own success. Many strong Religious Zionist Chicagoans made Alyiah – the ultimate goal of Mizrachi in the diaspora.  So it’s biggest supporters are now gone.

Even though I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Kollel and have tremendous gratitude for what Rabbis Zucker and Francis have done to transform the city, I am not l pleased with the ‘collateral damage’. It is no secret that I lament the fact that many of the Kollel’s stringencies have taken root among the Orthodox populace here. I am a bit dismayed that people that were once dyed in the wool Religious Zionists are now die-heard Agudah supporters.

Do not misunderstand. I am not opposed to Agudah. I support their presence here. I am just disappointed that it has come at the expense of a Modern Orthodoxy that once flourished.

The Kollel’s presence and popularity has made their Avreichim sought after Mechanchim in all Orthodox schools.  And the lack of Modern Orthodox Mechanchim made them all the more attractive. So that HTC’s Mechanchim are almost all Charedi. Even the coed Ida Crown Jewish Academy has Mechnchim that were at one time associated with the Kollel.

That has caused a generation of young people to be raised with the Charedi Hashkafos. Hashkafos that sometimes included disparagement of Modern Orthodoxy and its institutions. I don’t know if it is intentional or not. But that there is a negative a view now of places like Yeshiva University and Mizrachi among the right  cannot be denied. That means that Modern Orthodox speakers tend to be ignored and avoided by most of Chicago’s large young Charedi community. 40 years ago the reverse may have been true. An Agudah type speaker would have been ignored and avoided..

The question is, how do we change the new paradigm?  How do we get back to a world where the permissible remains a part of the culture instead of rejecting it in favor of more stringenicies?

The time is ripe to act. And there are several ways to do that. One of Chicago’s newer Kollelim is the YU Kolllel Torah MiTzion. They are beginning to make an impact here. But they have a very high hill to climb. Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Reuven Brand is rising to the challenge and has become a force to be reckoned with. He has begun to make a dent in the negative attitudes about Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism that have evolved over the last 40 years. He has been speaking to small Charedi groups and changing a few hearts and minds – as these Charedim have come to realize that Modern Orthodoxy is not the work of the Devil after all.

I am told that formerly skeptical people have fallen in love with Rabbi Brand. They now realize that having a different Hashkafa is not a prescription for lesser observance. They have come to realize that past Gedolim actually respected – even venerated - some of the heroes of Religious Zionism – that have been vilified by the right. How many of them must have been shocked to learn for example that Religious Zionist hero, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Kook was the Mesader Kiddushin (officiating rabbi) at the marriage of Rav Elyashiv, the late Charedi Gadol HaDor?

Charedim in Chicago are giving YU another look because of this young Rosh Kollel – his Avrecihim. Which leads me to challenge the Kollel to do what their parent institution is doing.

BMG is hosting a retreat where the keynote speaker will be the OU’s executive director, Rabbi Steven Weil. The OU is a Centrist type organization. I challenge the Chicago Community Kollel to feature Rabbi Reuven Brand as a keynote speaker at one of their own events. I’m 100% convinced that YU’s Kollel would reciprocate. If we are ever going to have Achdus and acceptance of one another - inviting Rabbi Brand to speak at a Kollel event would be an excellent way to start.

I would be remiss if I did not mention a similar effort taking place in New York. Tikvah is an organization  that exposes Charedi Yeshiva men to the world of modernity – at least as it pertains to the world of politics. One can read about it at Cross Currents.

These are the kind of things that are necessary to change the paradigm. At least here in America. Israel is a whole other ball of wax and beyond the scope of this post.  But if the Charedi world in America can see that they agree with us on many more issues than they disagree with us, then there is hope.  What about the obvious differences? Acudus is not about agreement. It is about respect.