Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Another Useless Gathering

One of my favourite skeptic comments around the blogosphere is that Orthodoxy is doomed. Time and time again one former frummie or never was frummie will say something along the line of: "Since Orthodoxy is based on falsehood, and since it's not sustainable, in 25 years it'll disappear."
Of course, they were saying that twenty five years, fifty and one hundred ago. Just like the Orthodox speakers who assure us that the Reformers and Conservatives are on their last legs, these predications are always wrong. Remember that the reason David Ben Gurion granted the Chareidi community an exemption from military service in the early days of the State was because he believed they would disappear within a generation. More fool him.
However, it is fair to note that the current crop of non-observant Jews by and large are not the descendants of those non-observants who predicted the demise of Orthodoxy a century ago. The old adage - everyone has an Orthodox grand or great-grand parents is mostly true. Similarly, with the increasing size of the ba'al teshuvah movement, there is now a second generation of Orthodox Jews who come from the other side. However, it's also fair to say that most frum people today come from a long line of observance. The bottom line is that Orthodoxy survives, never becomes a large proportion of the Jewish population but never shrinking into insignificance. Our survival is indeed a success story.
Which is why I'm always surprised that the Orthodox are the one group routinely ignored when it comes to large Jewish community organizations and their efforts to ensure Jewish "continuity". Over twenty years ago the rav in my shul gave a long speech one Shabbos about a study done by major Jewish federations in North America. Their mandate had been to discover ways to make Jewish youth feel more connected, to reduce intermarriage and thereby ensure continuity. They had come up with many recommendation but, as the rav noted, not one actually involved learning Torah or an increased commitment to the performance of mitzvos l'shmah. It was all about trendy stuff - increased day school funding, increased social opportunities, progressive activities, etc.
A few years ago another conference by the Jewish People Policy Planning institute attempted a similar goal while openly telling interested frum would-participants not to bother asking to address the group. Apparently the Orthodox community has nothing to offer when it comes to Jewish continuity.
And so goes the latest conference, the ROI Global Summit for Young Jewish Innovators. As the article in Ynet notes:
The Center for Leadership Initiatives was founded in 2006 as a private operating foundation dedicated to developing Jewish leaders in communities around the world. Lynn Schusterman, founder of the Summit told Ynet, “The participants at this conference work in a wide variety of areas, yet each of them is an innovator in his or her field. The link between them is that they are all seeking to change the world and to contribute to a dynamic future for the Jewish people.” ...
Executive Director of the Center for Leadership Initiatives, Yonatan Gordis told Ynet, “The purpose of the gathering is to advance innovation in Jewish fields by enhancing and improving the management skills of ROI participants and to foster connections and collaborations among them.” ...
These annual summits have fostered a range of creative projects in the past. Sarah Lefton, an alumnus of the ROI leadership summit, has implemented an online Jewish learning site called, “Project G-dcast”. The website explains weekly torah portions using cartoon animation trying to connect Judaism to a new generation. Another program alumnus, Lindsay Litowiitz, developed a web project called “Four Corners”. The website creates a forum for young Jews from around the world to share their personal experiences and stories.
Right. So what unites us as a people? Simply put, if I find myself on the other side of the world in a non-English speaking country, what common connection can I find with Jews living there? The answer, as inconvenient as it sounds, is Torah. I can walk into a shul, pick up a siddur and start praying exactly like everyone else. I can yank a Gemara or Shulchan Aruch off the shelf, start learning and immediately make a connection with the next guy at the table. I cannot do that with personal stories or interesting webcasts. There is just too much variation between cultures to create a deep bond between people with large geographic differences.
All conferences like these create a feel-good ethic that ultimately changes very little. In twenty five years, the skeptics will still be calling for the imminent demise of frumkeit, and the Orthodox right will still be wondering why the heterodox haven't disappeared yet. And we will still be around. As I wrote on the Cross-Currents website two years ago, "we have children, they have conferences. Let's see who wins."


Manya Shochet said...

"As I wrote on the Cross-Currents website two years ago, "we have children, they have conferences. Let's see who wins."

That may be true. It is also true, however, that halachic Jewry, unlike modern Western civilization, sees the individual as subject to the good of the klal, whereas modern society sees the klal as totally subject to the desires of the individual.

e.g.: "What impact does gay marriage have on the institution of the family?"

vs: "You just can't deprive people of their RIGHTS!"

On the other hand, the primacy of the klal can devolve into groupthink ad absurdum and the justification of evils that no one else in your group thinks to condemn or stand up to.

Strong religious cultures and the US military culture are the only ones I see in the US who train young people to think beyond their own individual benefit nowadays.

I'm very big on Hebraicism (or as Grandma Sarah, ah"sh, put it, "Ivri, dabber Ivrit!"), but I think a mentality that values self-sacrifice contributes even more to the survival of Orthodoxy than source text familiarity.

sarah said...

I find value in a lot of your writing, but I'm really sorry that you haven't examined in much depth what some of us "useless gatherers" are doing. My project, for instance, is clearly an attempt to share serious Torah from serious storytellers (more than half of them Orthodox actually) with all types of Jews, in hopes that audiences might be sparked by something that they hear in an unusual setting. If a short and clever cartoon about a talking donkey leads someone to read Chumash for the first time, in my estimation, it was a valuable effort.

In my own life, it was clever and fun stories that lead me to do pick up a Shulchan Aruch for the first time. In fact, most of our team learns at yeshiva regularly and has been known to keep a mitzvah or 613.

I don't wish to attack your entire premise. Yapping about management skills is important, and adds strength to the efforts of someone who is inspired to teach or to do tzedek work. But ultimately it is just part of living a Jewish life. You have a valid position that in your estimation, is is far less important than talmud Torah or doing mitzvahs. But don't discount it too much. I think a lot of us are doing action that leads to study.


Mighty Garnel Ironheart said...

Well spoken Sarah. I wilk take your comments to heart. Thank you for the feedback.

Anonymous said...

To admit that the way of life that one has rejected really is the only hope for Jewish survival would take a lot of guts.

Nishma said...

Answering that the way to maintain Jewish continuity is through the observance of Halacha makes total sense and would seem to be obvious. Thus Garnel's question: why the need for these conferences? We would seem to have the answer already. But under further investigation one sees the problem -- the desire for this reason to be rejected. The real question is: how to maintain Jewish continuity without having to observe the Halacha? To find out that answer may actually take a whole lot of conferences. Sometimes, though, the Orthodox do still sneak in and become able to deliver a message that makes Halacha look cooler or gets people to abide by some of the mitzvot as a method of Jewish continuity. Just look at all the wool tallesin in Conservative synagogues today. And that may actually work for a brief time, time enough to try for another conference to figure out how to maintain Jewish contiuity without actually acting Jewish.

Rabbi Ben Hecht