Dec. 1, 2004
US haredi leader urges switch from isolation to outreach

By URIEL HEILMAN
STAMFORD, Connecticut

Signaling a possible shift away from the traditional isolationist mentality of American haredim, the leader of a major haredi group said over the weekend that haredim in America need to play a more active role in matters beyond parochial Orthodox needs-by getting more involved in things like fighting anti-Semitism, bolstering the Israeli economy and lobbying the U.S. Congress.

Speaking over the weekend at the annual conference of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, the group's executive vice president, said that demographic trends showing Orthodox Jews growing as a proportion of a shrinking American Jewish population mean that haredim no longer can afford to rely on secular Jewish institutions to bear the burden of Jewish communal responsibilities. Haredim, who heretofore have been concerned with their own parochial interests, will have to take over for secular American Jews, he said.

"The things we rely on secular Jews for-who's going to do that if the secular community whittles down?" Bloom said. "We have to broaden our agenda to include things that up until now we're relied upon secular Jews to do. Until now, we didn't take this seriously as our responsibility."

Bloom's speech on the issue came at a keynote session at the 82nd annual Agudah convention, which drew about 1,500 Orthodox Jews to a Connecticut hotel last weekend. Bloom also reiterated the need for Agudah's constituents-who range from clean-shaven, university-educated Orthodox Jews to Gerrer Chasidim-to reach out to non-Orthodox Jews, a point made at last year's convention and further evidence that Chabad's model of outreach is gaining currency among haredim generally.

The talk at Agudah's convention of the need to play a greater role in organized Jewish communal life is a sign both of the success of the American haredi community in sustaining its numbers and the failure to translate that success into greater influence in the community at large.

That sense is bolstered by demographic studies like the National Jewish Population Survey, which suggest that the Orthodox proportion of American Jewry is growing. The 1990 NJPS found that 16 percent of synagogue members were Orthodox, while the 2000-01 survey showed 21 percent of synagogue members as Orthodox. The later survey also showed a decline in the total number of American Jews by about 300,000, to 5.2 million, from 1990 figures.

Now, after decades spent focused on ensuring the survival of Orthodox Judaism in America in the wake of the Holocaust, confident Agudah officials appear to turning their eyes toward a broader array of issues.

"The reason they can go public with this kind of a rhetoric is because of a greater assurance that they will make it, so they can afford to spend some of their time on things that they would have left to others beforehand," said Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University. "They feel strong enough that they have enough critical mass at this point that they can divert some of their resources and attention."

Agudah has not shied away from involvement in public life in America, lobbying Congress, taking positions on controversial issues like same-sex marriage and even occasionally joining with other Jewish groups to advocate for one thing or another. And prior to the rise of Nazism, the Agudah in Germany was a very political organization, according to Mark Shapiro, professor of Judaic studies at the University of Scranton, in Pennsylvania.

But the Agudah in America has not been at the forefront of non-religious Jewish communal issues, such as Israel advocacy and the fight against anti-Semitism. That now may be changing.

"I think it's sort of a natural development of their growing strength," Shapiro said. "In some ways, this would be a return to the ethos of Germany Orthodoxy, which was very politically adept and interested," he added. "I don't know if this means they're interested in opening up their own organizations. Will they fight anti-Semitism independent of the Anti-Defamation League?"

It's unlikely Agudah suddenly will plunge wholesale into Jewish organizational life, especially given the limits placed on the group by its Council of Torah Sages, a collection of rabbis that often dictate the movement's policies. While at times Agudah does join with other Jewish groups, Bloom said, "we cannot be a part of a group that doesn't recognize Torah as supreme." Agudah's primary mission is to perpetuate the "spirit of Torah" in the world, he said.

David Zwiebel, Agudah's executive vice president for government and public affairs, said the group's plan for greater engagement is a work in progress. "It's not as if we're talking about a sea change-we've always been active," he said. "We're talking about recognizing a new responsibility and new opportunities that present themselves because of demographic changes and the new constellation of the way things are aligned in Washington right now."

Many at the convention pointed to the recent U.S. presidential election, which showed the growing political strength of religious conservatives in America, as evidence that Orthodox Jews need to get more involved in American political life. They said engagement is crucial both because of new political opportunities resulting from the Republican victories in the White House and Congress, and because Agudah constituents need to better represent Jewish viewpoints on such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage, and government voucher programs to help fund religious schools.

Most mainstream Jewish groups toe the Democratic line on those issues, opposing legal limitations on abortion, supporting same-sex marriage and fighting voucher programs; Orthodox organizations tend to take the opposite positions, espoused by conservative Republicans.

"The time has come-maybe, perhaps-to go on the offense," said Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, director of the Midwest region of Agudah.

Many haredim expressed consternation with public positions taken by the organized Jewish community during the presidential campaign, which they felt misrepresented Jewish views.

"If we don't say that these things matter to us-'we' meaning the frum community-then who within the Jewish community is going to say it?" said Michael Fragin, an Orthodox Jew and Jewish community liaison for New York's Republican governor, George Pataki. "Absenting ourselves from the debate is fraught with risks."

Whether or not all this talk will have any lasting impact remains to be seen.

Last year, Agudah's director of public affairs, Rabbi Avi Shafran, told a crowd of a 1,000 that he dreams of a day when there will be "Telzers in Topeka, Gerers in Green Bay, Mirers in Muskogee"-a reference both to various haredi sects identified by their cities of origin in Eastern Europe and to American cities in Kansas, Wisconsin and Oklahoma, respectively, with virtually no Orthodox Jews.

But so far, there has been no rush to the Midwest or South from the haredi heartland of New York. And Bloom's pronouncements about secular American Jews quickly disappearing-he predicted Orthodox Jews would constitute the majority of US Jews in as few as 30 years-are highly exaggerated.

"I don't think it's going to happen in any abrupt way," Shafran said this week. "Inevitably, the voice of the secular organizations is going to be muted because of numbers," he explained. "Concomitantly, the voice of Orthodox Jews will be growing louder, so we'll be taking over those roles."

"With our growing numbers and the maturing of the community and the greater self-confidence that comes with that maturity and those numbers," Zwiebel said, "there's no question that we need to at least recognize that there may be certain responsibilities that now have to shift to our shoulders."