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Zev Dunner

Klal Perspectives, Communal Leadership Infrastructure

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Contemporary Challenges in National and Local Orthodox Leadership

THE VAAD ARBA ARATZOS, which was introduced in the 16th Century and remained active for approximately 200 years, is often proffered as the archetypal communal structure of recent history and looked to for guidance. During its tenure, the Vaad Arba Arotzos acted as the central authority over Jewish residents of Greater Poland, which then also encompassed sections of Russia and Lithuania. It was authorized to act as final arbiter of internal matters of Halacha, and determined the manner by which the Jewish community interacted with the government and with the gentile population. It defined jurisdiction for each city’s sphere of influence and served as the final arbiter of differences that arose among batei din of different cities.

Unfortunately, apart from marveling at its longevity and influence, there is little to be learned from the Vaad Arba Arotzos, since it was premised upon a reality that simply cannot be replicated today – an enforceable monopoly of power. The Vaad Arba Arotzos could enforce its mandate through the imposition of fines, excommunications and the mandate accorded to it by the State. It was primarily through its State-granted power, however, that it enjoyed the hegemony necessary to create and maintain discipline and order in the kehillos within its defined borders.

The Unique Nature of American Orthodoxy

In stark contrast, not only does American Orthodoxy lack national leadership with any power to dictate positions to local communities and their respective rabbinic bodies, the leadership of local communities themselves enjoys minimal enforceable powers over their members. In the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave,” rabbinic and communal leadership operates within a framework that can only be described as anarchy.

For example, a litigant who is dissatisfied with a Bais Din can simply march off to look for another, and if that fails, he can simply create a Bais Din of his own. Even within a single neighborhood, different community segments may consult different authorities. In light of the wide range of kehillos – Litvish, baalebatish, Edot Hamizrach, Modern-Orthodox, Chassidish and others – many of which have multiple internal strands as well, a psak to suit one’s needs is a phone call away. One is left with astounding oddities on even the most fundamental halachic issues, such as the difficulty in ascertaining a standard spelling in Loshon Kodesh for the word “Lakewood,” thereby raising serious difficulties in the sphere of gittin.

While a select few communities, such as Baltimore and Washington Heights, have achieved relatively greater cohesion, it is primarily a reflection of these communities’ relatively homogenous populations, and the absence of any significant and distinct sub-group with critical mass. It is more than likely that this unity would be compromised in a flash should a new, sufficiently large group of Orthodox Jews with a truly distinct orientation emerge in their midst.

In addition to the effects of disparate sub-groups within a single town, community infrastructure in America is compromised by the community’s tolerance of self-selected individuals or small groups simply deciding to hang out their shingles and assume leadership responsibility in critical areas of communal function, such as kashrus, education, chessed shel emes (caring for the body of a deceased) and general chessed services. It is only in the event of serious infractions that such individuals are held accountable, and even then, the only recourse is for community members to abandon that individual’s enterprise in favor of another individual’s competing mosad (institution).

This practice has led to a profusion of hashgochos (kashrus certifications), chessed organizations and yeshivos in every established Jewish population center, with little attention paid to collective efficiency. Moreover, the ubiquitous lack of transparency typically makes it impossible for the average member of the community to perceive the significant variations in the quality and reliability of the various alternatives.

In light of the absence of a true communal mandate and any semblance of enforcement power, what role, if any, is there for national organizations and what can they possibly hope to achieve?

One obstacle to overcome is that significant investment in national enterprises is inhibited by the risk that one or more competing organizations will enter the scene with similar goals and mission statements, but with some competitive advantage. Perhaps they will have greater vision, excitement or creativity, or they will be closer in touch with new trends and needs within the community. In fact, this cycle has occurred repeatedly. For example, the initially exclusive role of the OU was intruded upon by the National Council of Young Israel, which in turn lost ground to the Charedi shuls and shteiblach in the years following the Second World War. Even in their heydays, neither the OU nor National Council of Young Israel truly represented more than a fraction of American Orthodox Jewry, and neither had the ability to enforce their positions and policies on individual communities, other than by revoking the membership of a shul, which was not much of a threat.

In fact, when the yeshiva world first emerged as a fledgling force in the forties, a conscious decision was made to shift the center of the community from the synagogue to the yeshiva, shifting influence from local rabbis to a group of leading Roshei Yeshiva, in the form of Agudath Israel’s Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah. Even this leadership forum, however, never gained meaningful traction outside the yeshiva world, or even within the Chassidic world, which in turn never had a central, over-arching, authority beyond each respective Chassidic court.

No doubt, there have been many individual instances of cooperation across organizational entities. For example, when the possibility arose that the New York Federation would provide funding for Orthodox schools, a letter was signed by the majority of Litvishe Roshei Yeshiva, as well as many prominent Chassidishe Rebbes, collectively requesting that Torah Umesorah act as a clearing house for potential funding. Practically, this request reflected their hope of insulating the individual organizations from any restrictive conditions the Federation might seek to impose. Not only was such cooperation rare, but even in this instance there were many notable absences in the ranks of signatories.

The Need for National Communal Representation

It might be suggested that multiple national organizations instead of just one has the effect of increasing communal influence, which tends to be enhanced by numbers. In reality, however, bulk is even more powerful than numbers if expressed in a unified, rather than fragmented, approach. The recent challenge to metzitza bepeh (MbP in journalistic parlance) is such an example. In addition to the specific concern of relevance to all Charedim, there is a fairly broad consensus throughout Orthodoxy that such government intrusion into halachic standards is problematic. While poskim differ on whether MbP is halachically mandated, all segments agree that it is unacceptable to have Orthodox religious practices dictated by local, state or national government, particularly when these bodies are lobbied and influenced by those who do not hold dear our interests and values.

An effective response to such challenges requires a complex and sophisticated strategy that cannot possibly be implemented through individual shtieblach, shuls, batei din, kashrus organizations or educational institutions. In such instances, our community requires organizations with depth of sophistication and experience that are fully qualified to represent the best interests of the entire community, whether on a regional or national level. Not only does such collective representation generate greater deference on the part of the government or other outside entity, but when an institution is charged with playing such a role, it will be more empowered to develop the degree of sophistication, knowledge and connections necessary to fulfill its mission.

We cannot necessarily anticipate the challenges of this sort that may confront the frum community in the years and decades ahead. But neither can we take for granted our current freedoms regarding shechita, shmiras (observance of) Shabbos and education of our children, or the wide host of entitlements to which we have become accustomed in the United States. Representative bodies must be maintained to advocate for our communal needs and interests, and must be well staffed and prepared for any possible eventualities that we can merely hope and pray will never arrive.

Local Needs Should be Addressed Differently than National Concerns

The litany of obstacles to the establishment of a serious and controlled communal structure might sound like a jeremiad, encouraging the conclusion that the community is doomed and will forever be mired in ineffectiveness. In fact, however, there is a fundamental distinction between the community’s national and local needs for collectivism and uniformity.

As a confirmed Thatcherite, I believe that a little bit of anarchy at a local level is not all bad, and that competition born in the absence of structure can motivate the creation of a better mousetrap. For example, in the sphere of dinei Torah, competing batei din and multiple pesakim (rulings) may cause confusion and inconsistency, but a Bais Din with a monopoly is an alternative that carries its own risks. Examples are vulnerability to ossification resulting in indifferent and inconsistent service (as found in many of the municipal batei din in Eretz Yisroel) or a profound abuse of power (as witnessed in a scandal currently rocking a major European kehilla).

Similarly, the service provided in other communal functions is often enhanced when there is more than a single provider. Competition compels increased dedication to quality and attentiveness. Frequently, there are complaints of communal inefficiency resulting from institutional redundancy. In fact, the pressure of competition may actually trigger increased efficiency, as well as heightened quality, even when considering the expenses of both organizations. In most communal instances, two is better than one, and frequently three is even better than two, though cooperation in areas of mutual interest may occasionally be beneficial.

It generally takes a leap of faith for a community to open a second school or shul. In most instances, however, communal resources prove to be available, and the economics are actually not a zero-sum game. The history of American communities evidences that multiple institutions tend to survive and thrive, so long as they are both well run, and have clear goals and mission statements.

There are many examples of a second day school opening a decade or two after the founding of the first, usually in response to new communal needs and characteristics. Inevitably the new enterprise is met with much moaning, wailing, gnashing of teeth and, more prosaically, with claims that the new institution will force the demise of the original. A five year review, however, evidences that most often, after an initial slump, the original school returns to its historical enrollment and the new school houses a student body more than sufficient to justify its existence. Rather than the new institution causing a communal strain, it most often expands the student base and broadens the community, in general. The town thus becomes more attractive due to its more varied infrastructure, attracting new families and general community growth. If communal members are mature and responsible, the passage of time will result in the burying of the initial hatchets, and the pursuit of the many common agendas that they most certainly share.

The Distinction of National Needs

While this view may be compelling for individual cities and communities, is it equally applicable to national organizations? National organizations are vital to serve the representative functions discussed above, but they also should be responsible for assessing the state of the national Orthodox community as a whole. Such national institutions are expected to maintain a bird’s eye view and to utilize experience gleaned in one sphere to improve another.

The structure of each national organization also needs clear definition. Should it serve in a consulting capacity or as an umbrella organization? Should it have offices in a single, central location, or also open branch offices, whether for fundraising or programmatic purposes? Can a national entity be effective with a hybrid local/national outlook?

There is also a reverse question: How can local communities monitor whether a national organization begins to stagnate? In fact, how does an organization monitor itself in this regard? National institutions take much longer to fade and die. Moreover, their very size imposes greater barriers to entry by possible competitors, making it more challenging for younger, nimbler competitors to set up shop when the old guard is simply not “getting it done.” How can the community avoid the burden of large national organizations staggering on for decades past their “sell-by” dates, smothering local talent and using much of the oxygen that could be best utilized starting new initiatives? Moreover, how can the community prevent large organizations from snuffing out start-ups that would be more effective at addressing core issues?

It is critical that the community demand that any communal institution evidence a periodic assessment of its goals, and of its strategy and effectiveness in meeting those goals. And as important as periodic review is for local entities, all the more so is such discipline critical for larger, national entities, which not only assume greater responsibility and draw enormous communal resources, they also are more likely to preclude others from assuming their roles, even when an alternative body would be more efficient and effective.

For example, the Orthodox Union was intended to be a national umbrella of Orthodox synagogues, which was particularly important in an era when the Orthodox synagogue was struggling for identity and legitimacy. Moreover, the OU was intended to play the leading role in ensuring that American Jewry had access to basic halachic functions, such as kashrus. Finally, the OU assumed the mantle of representing American Orthodoxy, particularly for those communal members who identified as religious Zionists and as Centrist (and one time called Modern) Orthodox. Aside from the widely respected, and cash generating, kashrus division, how well is the OU doing in fulfilling its mission? If the OU quietly went out of business, would it need to be replaced? Must NCSY be seen as natural appendage of a national enterprise, or would it be equally if not more effective and efficient as a separate entity? How much of the OU’s current functions include servicing the Orthodox synagogue, and is such a function even necessary any longer?

Another example: Torah Umesorah was conceived to help found an Orthodox day school in every American city with more than 5,000 Jews, and to assist local communities with staffing and maintaining their schools. Astoundingly, this goal was achieved by 1970. Did that mean that Torah Umesorah should have then been terminated, or was there still work to be done in maintenance, training, staffing and curriculum development (all of which were part of the original mission statement) as well as creating schools in new, emerging communities? Did the newer communities in America of Russian, Israeli and Bucharian Jews enjoy Torah Umesorah’s same enthusiastic zeal and commitment for the creation of day schools, as was enjoyed by the non-observant communities in the 1950’s and 1960’s? And have the emergence of organizations addressing Jewish education needs for the broader community more in tune with their weltanschauung, such as RAVSAK and PEJE, eliminated or at least curtailed the broader communal scope of Torah Umesorah? Should Torah Umesorah now focus exclusively on single gender schools, thereby ceding its role as a true national enterprise? Where do Torah Umesorah divisions such as SEED, Hemshech and Counterforce fit into Torah Umesorah’s mandate and goals, and are they really natural stable-mates with, for example, the School-Visitation or Publications departments?

Agudath Israel was born in Poland a century ago to represent the interests of Orthodoxy to the government in a united fashion. In order to retain influence regardless of who was in power at the time, Agudath Israel needed to be perceived as apolitical regarding any government policy not directly affecting specifically Jewish issues. It galvanized sufficient support to hold seats in the Senate and Sejm and had the backing of much of the Chassidic and Misnagdic segments of the Orthodox world. Its American incarnation was launched in the 1930’s by Rabbi Eliezer Silver, and enjoyed its real expansion after the war. Over the years, Agudath Israel of America has increasingly involved itself in areas of programming, including camps, shuls, Daf Yomi, siyum mishnayos, archives, a publication, and a choir. Nevertheless, the primary goal has been to represent “Chareidi” Orthodoxy to the rest of the Jewish, and non-Jewish, American community. This role includes lobbying legislators and filing legal briefs throughout the United States, as well as seeking the procurement and provision of social services to various sectors of the community, such as job training and placement, school bussing and housing for seniors. Agudath Israel also maintains field offices in many of the non-New York centers of Chareidi activity. This magnificent sprawl of departments and activities operates under the direction of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, which meets several times a year to focus on the issues of the day.

Is Agudath Israel of America still fulfilling its initial mission? What is its current mandate and how well is it performing? Who is studying these questions? Is its leadership structure designed to serve the full range of its natural constituents, and to meet the community-wide needs that are most urgent? Is the role and composition of the Moetzes well-suited to Agudah’s current organizational structure to promote effective processes in meeting today’s complex and rapidly-evolving challenges? Is there a conflict between the Agudah’s role as a public “defender of the faith,” giving voice to Torah values however unpopular, and their role of maintaining agreeable relationships with government officials, especially when it involves ensuring state or city funding for the many social programs listed above?

To summarize, if all three of these organizations were to declare “mission accomplished” and close, how quickly would they be replaced and what would the replacements look like?

The Critical, yet Challenging, Role of the Gedolim

Ultimately, the gedolim to whom each institution turns is responsible for assessing the organization’s priorities and to wind down those organization that have overstayed their usefulness and to refocus those that have strayed from their missions. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the gedolim to disentangle themselves from the deep, often decades-long personal relationships they have formed with the personnel and lay leadership of these organizations. In essence, involvement of gedolim in the continual operations of an institution can create a negius (attachment), possibly requiring other gedolim to play the role of periodic evaluator.

Moreover, with the growth in the size and needs of the Orthodox Community, it is simply no longer humanly possible for the gedolim to expend the time necessary to address the broad scope of community needs, and certainly not to study the details of all the issues at hand. Additionally, gedolim often have no choice but to rely on second- and even third-hand reports, which are all subject to the inevitably biased filtering of the intermediaries. Questions presented to gedolim by those within an organization do not always reflect the best and broadest view of the reality and the best interests of the greater community.

In the past, the gedolim have deliberately addressed these concerns by introducing sub-bodies of younger Roshei Yeshiva to examine the battlefield and report back to them for consultation. For example, in the mid 1970’s, the Rabbinical Advisory Board of Torah Umesorah comprised such giants as Rav Moishe Feinstein, Rav Yakov Kamenetzky, Rav Yitzchok Ruderman, Rav Yitzchok Hutner, Rav Shneur Kotler, Rav Boruch Sorotzkin, and Rav Mordechai Gifter, zichronam livracha. Nevertheless, this esteemed group of senior gedolim invited the then-much-younger Rav Elya Svei and Rav Yaakov Weinberg, z”l, to conduct monthly meetings with the staff of TU to hear directly about the challenges they faced and to actively focus them on the priorities designated by the Rabbinical Advisory Board. This arrangement provided a more pro-active role for the gedolim in directing the affairs of Torah Umesorah, instead of responding to those issues brought before them. It also allowed the gedolim greater access to the workings of the organization, both nationally and locally, and provided those in the trenches unmediated access to the daas Torah they sought.

The reintroduction of a comparable arrangement, in which a broader constituency of rabbinic leaders is designated by the gedolim to play a similar role, is likely to occur only upon the urging of the broader community. It behooves both lay and professional activists within the frum community to make such requests of the gedolim, presenting the case that such expanded designations will enhance, rather than stymie, the effectiveness of, and appreciation for, their Torah guidance. 


In summary, there is a subtle balance in play between an overarching, singular presence and numerous smaller entities – the precise interplay being dictated by the realities of the day. So long as it is relatively fluid and provides room for change, a perhaps uneasy yet necessary balance will be found that will naturally adjust with changes in circumstances.

The pivotal role of the gedolim cannot be overstated, but at the same time, one must be aware of the impossible demands on their time and the immeasurable responsibilities they are asked to bear.

Most importantly, there is always room for activists with talent, enterprise and the willingness to take achrayus (responsibility) and accept nesiyus ol (the burdens of others). All of those involved in serving the community must ask how recently we have done a full cheshbon hanefesh (self evaluation) and where we find ourselves relative to our original ideals. Are we still as energized and idealistic as we were five/ten/twenty years ago?

Those who are not actively involved with the klal should be looking at themselves in the mirror and asking why it is that they get to take without giving back. The opportunities are huge and, if one is prepared to sleep a little less, one can do a lot more. With a little bit of mazel, anyone can become a partner to greatness; with real dedication, though, one can join the pantheon of all-time heroes.

Zev Dunner is the Director Project SEED, a division of Torah Umesorah.

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