Earlier this week, I was invited to speak at a Synagogue in Boynton Beach on the subject of “A Vision for Orthodoxy in the Next One Hundred Years.” I began by telling the assembled group that I wasn’t even sure what was happening next week and was certainly not so presumptuous to assume I could predict what will happen in the next century. Nevertheless, I shared my observations and thoughts regarding the state of the Jewish Community today, as well as some concerns and hopes for the years ahead.
At the end of the session, during the questions and answers period, the following question was posed: given the challenges that the Reform and Conservative movements are facing, should the Orthodox community celebrate and feel triumphant?
The answer is obvious and clear, I explained, for two reasons. Firstly, if indeed Reform and Conservative are losing numbers, it is not because their membership is fleeing to Orthodoxy. Rather, it is because those individuals and families have decided that belonging to a Synagogue and identifying with the Jewish community is no longer a priority or a value. There is absolutely nothing to celebrate about more Jews becoming assimilated and potentially intermarrying.
As Rav Aharon Lichtenstein once wrote (Tradition, Spring 1982):
“Nor do I share the glee some feel over the prospective demise of the competition. Surely, we have many sharp differences with the Conservative and Reform movements, and these should not be sloughed over or blurred. However, we also share many values with them – and this, too, should not be obscured. Their disappearance might strengthen us in some respects, but would unquestionably weaken us in others. And of course, if we transcend our own interests and think of the people currently served by these movements – many of them, both presently and potentially, well beyond our reach or ken – how would they, or klal Yisrael as a whole, be affected by such a change? Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether rather than drive to his temple?”
There is a second reason that it is grossly inappropriate to feel triumphant. The Orthodox community needs to hold a mirror to ourselves and ask: are we indeed doing so well that we can afford to feel triumphant? True, we are blessed to have many successes. But, at the same time, we face many challenges. The lack of religious and spiritual inspiration among our youth, the continued practice of sinas chinam (baseless hatred), the failure of an Observant lifestyle to automatically create a more ethical, kind, compassionate, honest and moral lifestyle, are challenges that must be addressed if we are to celebrate success in the next hundred years and beyond.
The questioner then followed up: Should the Orthodox community be involved with and participate in the larger Jewish community? The answer is a resounding YES, I responded, for four reasons that I believe bear repeating here.
Firstly, if indeed we believe that Torah empowers us to lead an enriched, noble and meaningful life, don’t we want to share it with all of our Jewish brothers and sisters? Participating in the broader Jewish community provides a perfect platform to expose others to a Torah way of life, and perhaps pique their interest in learning more.
Secondly, we have so much to learn from the leadership and membership of the greater Jewish community and must not deny ourselves that education. I personally have sat around board and committee tables of non-denominational Jewish organizations and have walked away inspired by the passion, wisdom, commitment, selflessness, and humility of those gathered to work tirelessly on behalf of our people.
Thirdly, if we want the interests, concerns and the voice of the Orthodox community represented, we must be part of the conversations. I have found that there are plenty of proverbial seats reserved at “the table” for the Orthodox community. The only question is – are we choosing to sit in them?
Lastly, and most importantly, being part of the general Jewish community, with no ulterior motive but just for its own sake, is a core Torah value. Torah, mitzvos and halacha are designed to enable us to live in multiple concentric circles. We are to see ourselves in the context of our nuclear family, of our local Jewish community, of the general Jewish people and as part of all humanity. Being involved with the greater Jewish people, with no agenda other than being counted in helping to shape our collective destiny, is a Torah mandate.
I am so incredibly proud of the participation of our BRS community in our local Jewish institutions. Our members are disproportionally represented in the leadership of our Federation, AIPAC, College Campus Hillel, FIDF, and more. In the last month alone, our BRS members have chaired, been honored by, and attended the FIDF gala dinner, Federation’s big Event and Hillel’s annual gathering. This week, more than 100 of our members will attend AIPAC’s policy conference in Washington.
May the next hundred years bring greater commitment to Torah learning and Torah living. May it usher in an era of Jewish unity, cooperation, and partnership as together we protect the spiritual and physical destiny of our people.