Beyond Sec­tar­i­an­ism: The Realign­ment of Amer­i­can Ortho­dox Judaism

Adam S. Ferziger
  • Review
By – September 15, 2015

Until the mid-1960s, Ortho­dox Judaism was viewed as a mar­gin­al fea­ture of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life which, in the words of the influ­en­tial soci­ol­o­gist Mar­shall Sklare, was expe­ri­enc­ing insti­tu­tion­al decay.” Fast for­ward to 2013 with the pub­li­ca­tion of the Pew Report, which offered a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent view — that Ortho­doxy was the most vibrant sec­tor of Jew­ish life with the low­est inter­mar­riage rates and high­est like­li­hood of Jew­ish continuity.

The com­mu­nal turn­ing point in 1965 was the pub­li­ca­tion of an essay by Charles Lieb­man in the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Year­book which point­ed to the vital­i­ty and bright future of Ortho­doxy. By then, the insti­tu­tion­al infra­struc­ture had become more sol­id: there were many more syn­a­gogues with the kind of deco­rum to be found in the more lib­er­al branch­es, the num­ber of Ortho­dox Day Schools had expand­ed nation­al­ly (although many of their stu­dents were not Ortho­dox), orga­ni­za­tions like the Nation­al Con­fer­ence of Syn­a­gogue Youth were pro­vid­ing mean­ing­ful activ­i­ties for teens, the chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors were mov­ing into adult­hood, and the Ortho­dox com­mu­ni­ty was becom­ing more affluent.

Adam Ferziger looks back­ward and for­ward from Liebman’s sem­i­nal work. In a series of inter­con­nect­ed essays, he traces the evo­lu­tion of Ortho­dox Judaism in the U.S., focus­ing on some of the schisms but also the devel­op­ment of what some con­sid­er to be the tri­umphal­ism” of Amer­i­can Ortho­doxy at the present time.

He accom­plish­es this by pre­sent­ing a debate between two Ortho­dox rab­bis in the 1920s and the cur­rent debate over the inte­gra­tion of fem­i­nist ideals in com­mu­nal insti­tu­tions; a dis­cus­sion of the evo­lu­tion of Manhattan’s Con­gre­ga­tion Kehi­lath Jeshu­run, which served as a mod­el of deco­rum and the spon­sor of an ear­ly coed day school; the Ortho­dox-led Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment, which brought togeth­er a broad cross sec­tion of Jews; and the expan­sion of out­reach pro­grams, evi­dence of a more cos­mopoli­tan focus on the part of right wing Yeshiv­ish and Lubavich seg­ments of the Ortho­dox community. 

Ferziger traces impor­tant realign­ments such as the grow­ing split between so-called Open” Ortho­doxy and the right­ward turn of the Jew­ish­ly well-edu­cat­ed chil­dren of mod­ern Ortho­dox par­ents. While gen­er­al­ly com­pre­hen­sive, the dis­cus­sion over­looks some impor­tant ini­tia­tives, includ­ing cen­trist Ortho­dox out­reach such as the mul­ti-denom­i­na­tion­al Nation­al Jew­ish Out­reach Pro­gram (NJOP) and the Ortho­dox Union’s Jew­ish Learn­ing Ini­tia­tive on Cam­pus. He also over­looks the strik­ing lifestyle dif­fer­ences between Ortho­dox and non-Ortho­dox youth today which make it dif­fi­cult for the for­mer to active­ly par­tic­i­pate in events like the March of the Liv­ing which are not under Ortho­dox aus­pices. But the book’s cen­tral idea is high­ly orig­i­nal: that the cur­rent strength of Ortho­dox Judaism con­tributes to a con­fi­dent stance vis-à-vis non-obser­vant Jews and the abil­i­ty to reach out to them in order to pro­mote Jew­ish continuity. 

Relat­ed Content:

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions