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High Stakes For Politically Liberal Modern Orthodox Jews

Young members struggle with their community’s politics—and values

Illustration by Ellen Weinstein

By Shira Hanau

When Emma and her husband moved to a new Modern Orthodox Jewish community last summer, she knew she needed to make friends quickly. Moving from New York to a new city with no family or friends in the area, she knew she needed to make a good impression. So she decided to keep her political views to herself for a while, working against her nature to speak out until she felt more settled.

“I didn’t want to be known as the crazy liberal before people got to know me,” she said. “I kind of moved in knowing that I would have to hide some stuff and lay low so as to not isolate myself from the people around me, because I needed them no matter what.”

It’s a familiar choice to many politically liberal members of the Modern Orthodox community, a segment of the Jewish community characterized by a melding of rigorous observance of Jewish law with educational, professional, and cultural engagement in the secular world, and, in recent years, by an increasing tension around political allegiances, especially with regard to Israel.

Though American Jews are known as one of the most liberal religious groups in the United States, the segment who identify as Modern Orthodox are a notable exception. Compared with 70% of American Jews who identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning in a 2013 Pew study, just 37% of Modern Orthodox Jews identified as such, while 56% identified as Republican or Republican-leaning. Hawkish support for Israel is also higher among the Modern Orthodox: Compared with 61% of Jews surveyed in 2013 who believed in the possibility of a peaceful two-state solution, just 33% of Modern Orthodox Jews said the same. Whereas 17% of Jews surveyed think settlements in the West Bank contribute to Israel’s security, with 44% believing it hurts Israel’s security and 29% thinking it does not make a difference, 38% of Modern Orthodox Jews believe settlements contribute to Israel’s security, 12% say it harms, and 44% say it has no effect. Modern Orthodox Jews are also the Jewish group most likely to say the United States is not supportive enough of Israel, with 64% claiming this as compared with 31% of all surveyed.1

As the Modern Orthodox community has moved steadily rightward on politics in recent decades, its more liberal adherents, who are often its youngest members, are in an especially difficult position. In this period of intense polarization, can politically liberal Modern Orthodox Jews remain members of such a tight-knit religious community while holding political positions diametrically opposed to those of their neighbors or rabbis? For these young Orthodox Jews, and even for some who have lived in the Modern Orthodox community for decades, the stakes are frighteningly high. It’s not just about politics, it is about Orthodoxy’s most basic values. It’s a fight for Orthodoxy’s soul.

The Modern Orthodox community wasn’t always so conservative. For years, they were just as politically liberal as their Reform and Conservative peers. That began to change in the 1970s, according to Rabbi Zev Eleff, historian and author of Modern Orthodox Judaism: A Documentary History. Since the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the United States’ recognition of the new country shortly thereafter, strong support for Israel was a bipartisan cause in American politics. Though Israel was widely supported by most American Jews, the Modern Orthodox were unique in their adoption of a religious form of Zionism, one which regarded the founding of a Jewish state as a first step in a redemptive Messianic process, whereas others saw a largely political or cultural goal. This embrace of religious Zionism was especially pronounced after the Six-Day War in 1967, in which Israel emerged victorious from what observers feared would be a death sentence when several surrounding Arab nations attacked the young country simultaneously. With expanded territory in the West Bank, Golan Heights, and Sinai Desert, the seemingly miraculous victory was interpreted by many Orthodox Jews as just that, a miracle, and the status of religious Zionism as a key tenet of Modern Orthodoxy was established.

Within 15 years, the bipartisan nature of support for Israel in American politics seemed to slip. During the 1980 presidential election, which pitted incumbent Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan, Carter was perceived by many Modern Orthodox pundits as less pro-Israel than Reagan, based on his rhetoric around Israel and his decision to sell arms to Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and he was viewed as perhaps less likely than his opponent to lend support to Israel in the form of defense spending. “For the Orthodox community, it broke them free from voting in almost automatic fashion for the Democratic Party,” said Eleff of the Carter years. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the Orthodox community began to take on some of the characteristics of the religious right that was coalescing as a voting bloc at that time. However, the Modern Orthodox have never become as uniformly loyal to the Republican Party as Evangelical Christians, continuing to align with the broader Jewish community on certain issues, such as immigration.

“What’s contributing to our current moment is that Orthodox Jews didn’t side consciously or not with the religious right in America in the 1980s, nor did they totally alienate themselves from voting patterns and certain considerations of the larger American Jewish community,” said Eleff. “It’s [been] left in tension for the last thirty years.”

The result of that political limbo is a religious community with a wider diversity of political opinion compared with most other religious groups. But where political opponents once prayed peacefully side by side, politically liberal Modern Orthodox Jews are now finding themselves increasingly embattled and isolated as the Trump era has lent political issues a higher emotional charge. With record-high political polarization and a frenetic news cycle, tensions in the Modern Orthodox community are at an all-time high.

“Most Modern Orthodox congregations have Republicans and Democrats,” said Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago. “I think in the age of Trump it’s harder to sustain that because these political affiliations are so much more fraught than they were.”

 

For many Modern Orthodox individuals, the feeling of being politically different from their communities started during the 2008 presidential election and the Obama administration. Shoshana Edelman, who grew up in the Modern Orthodox enclave of Teaneck, New Jersey, said classmates made fun of her for voting for Obama in a mock election in middle school. That was the first of many experiences in which she felt different from those around her, but it was more painful in 2016. “I think 2016 was a test of values and a test of principles and I just remember being really disappointed in who didn’t pass the test,” said Edelman.

For Aharon Schrieber, the Modern Orthodox community’s reaction to the 2016 election was less a surprise than a confirmation. “What Trump did is he took the whole veneer off of this pristine spirituality of the Jewish community and reduced it to this base animalistic tribalism and materialism,” he said. Schreiber felt like those around him “don’t believe in anything as long as you get school vouchers and military aid to Israel.”

Shabbat meals have become particularly difficult for Jordyn Kaufman, a recent graduate of Yeshiva University. “Before the presidential election, I never really had issues having discussions with Orthodox people about the LGBT community, feminism, my politics,” said Kaufman. Now, she frequently finds herself either in a political argument or biting her tongue at Shabbat meals in her neighborhood of Washington Heights, an area with a large community of Modern Orthodox students and young professionals.

For Naftali, 24, who grew up in a large Modern Orthodox community and chose not to use his last name to protect family members who are still part of the community, his progressive politics are a major part of why he no longer identifies as Modern Orthodox.

“It was a pretty convincing factor in my leaving Modern Orthodoxy,” he said. He recalled noticing instances of racism and prejudice against Palestinians in his community growing up. “I sort of saw this as not a bunch of individual events, it seemed that it might be systemic or emblematic of Modern Orthodoxy itself, that this was something that was constantly tolerated in the community and it didn’t seem that anyone was really making any effort to change anything.” By his freshman year of college, he had abandoned Modern Orthodox practice.

“They miss the forest for the trees in terms of their Jewish values,” said Naftali. “It allows people to use Jewish law in a really cynical way.”

 

Some liberal members of the community have begun to organize in the hopes of turning their peers toward a more liberal political outlook. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Rebecca Krevat and Navah Friedman, two graduates of Modern Orthodox high schools, founded Hitoreri, a group dedicated to bringing issues of social justice into Modern Orthodox synagogues, day schools, and camps. Krevat noted that the value of tikkun olam, the Hebrew term generally used for social justice, has been almost entirely appropriated by more liberal streams of Judaism and excluded from Orthodox practice.

“I think social justice is viewed as a sort of leftist issue,” said Krevat. “We know that those are our values but somehow it seems like they got lost along the way. We would like chesed [kindness] and tzedek [justice] and social justice to be a pillar of Orthodox practice, just as keeping Shabbat and keeping kashrut [dietary laws] are.”

For many of the politically disaffected Modern Orthodox, the comfort with which the community’s leadership seems to interact with the Trump administration has been especially frustrating. Hitoreri recently orchestrated a series of protests targeting the Orthodox Union, the Orthodox synagogue association and kosher-certifying agency that has become a de facto representative for Modern or Centrist Orthodoxy, after its political advocacy branch honored then attorney general Jeff Sessions at an event in Washington. Coming amid an immigration crisis in which children were separated from their parents at the Mexico-US border, the event, where representatives of the Orthodox Union presented Sessions with a plaque inscribed with the Hebrew verse, “Justice, justice, you shall pursue,” enraged pockets of the Orthodox community. The protests, which took place on five consecutive Mondays, took the form of a minyan, a prayer quorum, in front of the Orthodox Union’s headquarters in downtown Manhattan.

Though the Orthodox Union later released a statement condemning the policy of family separation, the OU’s original silence on the issue continued to irk observers. “It gives an impression of coziness, of smugness, that all is as it should be,” wrote Rabbi Elli Fischer, a former employee of the Orthodox Union, regarding a photo of several Orthodox Union leaders together with Jeff Sessions that was later removed from social media. “It communicates the sense that as long as the particular interests of its constituents are served, everyone else can go to hell.”2

“For all of the diversity in the Orthodox community, the Orthodox establishment has by and large treated the Trump administration like any other administration,” said Wolkenfeld. “That’s seen as wholly inadequate by the liberal segment of the Orthodox community.”

Some of those frustrated by the community leadership’s response to recent events have looked outside the Orthodox world for support. Rabbi Shai Held, president and dean at the egalitarian Hadar Institute in New York City and a graduate of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, has become a moral voice for many of the disenchanted Modern Orthodox. During the campaign for the 2016 presidential election, he often found himself writing essay-like Facebook posts to work through his own thoughts on the political situation. Those posts took on a life of their own, accruing hundreds of likes and comments and turning him into something of a rebbe, a spiritual mentor and teacher, to Orthodox Jews who felt alienated from the rabbis of their own denomination.

“In the last few months, I have had conversations with some Orthodox rabbis who tell me they no longer want to be Orthodox because of their congregants’ Trump support. I have had conversations with Christian ministers who tell me they no longer want to be Christian,” said Held. “The crisis is so deep.”

Others have turned to private Facebook groups for a political and religious community. The group Torah Trumps Hate was founded shortly after the 2016 election as something of a support group for Orthodox Jews feeling isolated in politically right-wing communities. Since then, the group has grown to over 2,000 members, galvanizing many of its members to participate in protests and political actions in New York, Boston, and Washington. Unlike Hitoreri, which is specifically meant for Modern Orthodox Jews, many members of Torah Trumps Hate come from more ultra-Orthodox backgrounds. For members of those communities, matters can be worse for those politically to the left of their coreligionists, making the online community—and the privacy of that network—even more essential.

“We were forced to face certain dynamics in the community that we could overlook before,” said Elad Nehorai, a leader of Torah Trumps Hate. “For a lot of us, it was a wake-up call, a really painful one.”

For some, groups like Torah Trumps Hate are a way of taming their political frustrations enough to allow them to remain Orthodox. For others, the Orthodox community’s embrace of President Trump was the final straw in a long journey away from Orthodoxy.

“I think this is leading to a religious crisis for many Orthodox Jews,” said Wolkenfeld. “That’s something that people have shared with me in my community, that it’s harder for them to be Orthodox. Whereas once Orthodoxy represented tradition and authenticity and values, now it also represents or mostly represents complicity with evil.”

After living in her new community for a year, Emma is thinking about where she and her husband might settle down to live long-term. She hopes to find a community where she won’t have to hide her progressive values, but she’s not optimistic. “I know that I can’t put progressive ideals at the top because I know we’d have to sacrifice so many other things to make that happen,” she said.

“Do you sacrifice a yeshiva education for your children because all the teachers are homophobic? For me personally, I would not,” she said with a sigh, while adding that she would provide a message of LGBT acceptance at home and work to change the school’s approach. She noted, though, that she finds it a “terrible” decision to have to make. “How strong do your political beliefs need to be to abandon your religious ones?”

Notes:

  1. For a summary of this extensive study and to access a full pdf of the report, see Pew Research Center, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” October 1, 2013, www.pewforum.org.
  2. Elli Fischer, ” ‘Justice, Justice You Shall Pursue’ On the OU Honoring Jeff Sessions,” Jewish Week, June 15, 2018, jewishweek.timesofisrael.com.

Shira Hanau is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week.

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