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Fall 2011: Questions

For the foreword to this issue, click here.

American Orthodoxy today would be almost unrecognizable to those who grew up 75 years ago, or even 50. Standards of religious observance have changed greatly and the pre-eminence of Torah learning as a communal value has been firmly established. Knowledge of halacha and fealty to its requirements have become far more widespread, with women’s hair covering as just one example. Tens of thousands of men are involved in daily daf yomi learning and kashrut supervision has expanded exponentially in terms of the products covered and the professionalization of the certifying agencies.

The majority of children who grew up in homes affiliated with Orthodox shuls in the 1930s and 1940s did not remain Torah observant (or never were). The vast majority of boys and almost every girl attended public schools. Torah education today is nearly universal for both Orthodox males and females, and communal attention is focused on the minority of “drop-outs.”

In the early ‘50s, the number of full-time kollel students was in the twenties, and, in general, they were able to remain in kollel for no more than three or four years. Israel was still a distant journey, and few Americans traveled there to study.

Today the number of kollel students in Lakewood alone numbers in the thousands, and many of them will study full-time for a decade or more. Post-high school learning in Eretz Yisrael has become de rigueur across the spectrum of American Orthodoxy, and thousands of young couples from American backgrounds make their homes in Israel, either for a number of years or permanently.

In part, these changes were fueled by post-war immigrants; in part by the internal dynamics of the Orthodox community and the influence of a group of visionary builders; and in part by the development of an independent Orthodoxy no longer reliant on the mainstream Jewish organizations to represent it in the halls of power.

THE POST-WAR PERIOD was one of laying the foundations for the basic institutions of American Orthodoxy, followed by rapid growth. The challenges ahead, however, now center on preserving what has been built, while not losing touch with the inner flame that animated the builders. Success and rapid growth present their own challenges, including: complacency, an emphasis of quantity over quality, and the necessity of meeting the differing needs of a diverse population of greatly varying intellectual and spiritual capacities. The standards of a small, relatively homogenous group of pioneers are not always well-suited to a much larger public.

American Orthodoxy today finds itself struggling with many issues: the high cost of Orthodox day school education, which places unbearable strains both on individual families and on the educational institutions themselves; the challenges of earning sufficient income to support large Orthodox families, especially when the highest paying jobs tend to require advanced education;  the shidduch crisis that has left thousands of young women still without a spouse in their late ‘20s and ‘30s; strains on the family, including a rising divorce rate; the challenges posed by the Internet, which has proven such a powerful tool of the yetzer hara; the prevention of sexual abuse of children, whether intra-familial, by respected authority figures or by strangers, and the communal mechanisms for dealing with abuse when it occurs; and the distinct phenomena of drop-out youth and the so-called “adults at risk,” who find themselves struggling in mid-life with the meaning of religious  observance.

Given the magnitude of the transformation of American Orthodoxy over the past 50-75 years and the rapidity of change in today’s world, no one would be so foolhardy as to try to predict what American Orthodoxy will look like 75, or even 25, years from now. Nevertheless, some attempt to analyze current trends and their implications over the coming decade is necessary if we are to plan for the future in a manner designed to preserve and build upon the successes of the past.

To that end, we have asked communal leaders and rabbonim across the Orthodox spectrum to address a series of questions about the challenges facing American Orthodoxy in the coming decades and how the community can best prepare to meet those challenges.

1)         What do you see as the principal socio-economic and spiritual challenges (and the interplay between the two) facing American Orthodoxy over the next twenty years?

2)         As a general rule, the Torah community has not engaged in a great deal of empirical research of itself. As a consequence, decision-makers often find themselves relying on inadequate or partial information.  What sort of empirical information, if any, would you consider crucial to proper communal planning and informed decision-making with regard to the challenges identified above?

3)         Are current communal organizations well-suited to addressing the anticipated challenges? If not, what forms of new communal structures do you view as necessary to confront the coming challenges, and what can be done to bring them into existence?

CLICK HERE for the responses from our contributors.