Dec. 12, 2004
US Jewish leaders hail haredi move away from parochialism

By URIEL HEILMAN
NEW YORK

Jewish groups from the Reform movement to the World Jewish Congress are welcoming signs from a major US haredi group that it will seek a greater role in Jewish affairs outside its traditional parochial purview.

After the leader of Agudath Israel of America delivered a landmark address two weeks ago urging American haredim to get more engaged in Jewish life beyond Orthodox communal concerns, leaders of Jewish groups said they would welcome the participation. The call for more Orthodox involvement in things like fighting anti-Semitism, bolstering Israel's economy and lobbying Washington-made in a speech Nov. 25 by Aguda's executive vice president, Rabbi Shmuel Bloom-signaled a possible fundamental shift away from the traditional isolationist mentality of haredim in America.

"My response to that is kol hakavod," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. While the haredim have benefited from Jewish communal activism, they have not really been behind it, Yoffie said. "I don't see why over the last 100 years it has been any less their responsibility than the responsibility of any other Jewish group."

In his speech, Bloom said 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. As non-Orthodox American Jews shrink in number, the Orthodox will have to take over, he said.

Though many Jewish officials took issue with Bloom's demographic prognosis-among other things, Bloom predicted that in 30 years half of all "halachic" American Jews would be Orthodox-they said haredi participation in their institutions would be a welcome development that could benefit Jews generally.

"Too frequently has the Orthodox community insulated itself to deal with its priorities," said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, explaining that Aguda "felt that that was enough to sustain itself and ignored the rest of the issues on the Jewish agenda."

"If now Aguda feels that it wants to reach out, God bless them and we should reach back," Foxman said. "We need all the help we can get."

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said it's fitting that haredim seek a greater role in fighting anti-Semitism given their very visible ethnic appearance.

"They feel it more than other people," Singer said. "They're very concerned. Their visible ethnicity in Europe and maybe even in the United States can sometimes be a big problem for them."

Singer also noted that most Jewish organizations are "largely out of touch with visibly ethnic Jews."

"It's no one's fault. It's just a natural development," he said. "The American Jewish community and the European Jewish community have become secular, and its organizations are secular, and by their nature the relationship is distant. There could be more and further interaction," he said.

Individually, Aguda members long have participated in national Jewish groups dealing with such issues as Holocaust restitution and Israel advocacy. But the call by the Aguda leadership could increase Orthodox influence generally in Jewish America-much as the growth of Orthodox parties in the Knesset transformed Israeli politics.

"The political alignment in Washington... may give us greater access and entrée than the traditional Jewish organizations," said David Zwiebel, Aguda's executive vice president for government and public affairs.

As far as the Jewish world, Zwiebel said, it's not clear "whether we'd work independently or through some of the existing groups."

Julius Berman, a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and a lay leader at several Orthodox institutions, said the primary vehicle for getting involved would be through the federation system. "I look forward to-as I'm sure the leadership of the federations throughout the country does-to the increased active participation of members of Aguda in their activities and their campaigns."

But the real question, some Jewish officials said, is whether the haredim will back up their talk with hard cash-the language the Jewish organizational world sometimes seems best to understand.

"They benefit from what these organizations do, so why shouldn't they contribute to them?" Yoffie said.