Va'yechi 5773 -- Too Early to Celebrate; A Lesson from Senator Daniel Inouye
by Jonathan Rosenblum
December 29, 2012
Too Early to Celebrate
In a short article entitled "The Turning of the Torah Tide," historian Diana Muir Appelbaum quotes fellow historian Marc Shapiro: "Torah Judaism today retains more of its youth than at any time since the Haskalah." That is something to savor – at least, if true.
Appelbaum seconds Shapiro's opinion, and makes the case for it. The devastating impact of the opening of the ghetto walls in Western Europe is well known. In the early decades of the 19th C., nearly 90% of Berlin Jewry made its way to the baptismal fount. By the time of the Holocaust, Eastern Europe was headed in the same direction, argues Appelbaum based on electoral and census data.
In a 1922 election for the lower house of the Polish Parliament, for instance, the combined seats of Agudah and Mizrachi were less than half of those garnered by the Zionist and non-religious parties. And that is not even taking into account the Jewish Bundists (probably the largest Jewish movement in Poland at the time) and Communists, who voted for the general Socialist and Communist lists.
A Polish school census of the late '30s shows 100,000 children registered for primary schools associated with Agudah or Mizrachi versus 400,000 attending primarily secular schools (with some in secular Zionist schools). Of the four-fifths who attended non-religious schools, most of their parents were raised in Shabbos-observant homes, according to Appelbaum.
Not until the 1981 Greater New York Population Study did the first signs of a reversal show up. The survey found that those brought up in Sabbath-observant homes born after 1945 were far more likely to themselves be Sabbath-observant than those born prior to 1945.
Appelbaum offers an explanation: the birth of the State of Israel, and the pride it restored to Jews everywhere.
I THINK THAT SHAPIRO AND APPELBAUM are correct about the rate of retention of those from shomer Shabbos homes being higher than, let's say, inter-war Poland or America in the same period. I'm less sure that the trend line, however, is straight upwards, and that the retention rate is higher today than it was thirty years ago.
My impression is that the there were fewer drop-outs in the '70s and '80s. Perhaps "kids-at-risk" were just not discussed. But my memory is that in both the secular and religious worlds, teenagers had not yet discovered that taking a multi-year vacation from life, with no goals whatsoever, is one of the options.
Having entered that caveat, I'd like to turn back to reasons for the reversal of the straight downward trend from the time of Moses Mendelssohn until 1945 or thereabouts. Appelbaum offers her explanation – to wit, Israel – without much support in the way of argument, evidence or logic.
She could have argued plausibly that the creation of the State of Israel and the Six-Day War lead to a resurgence of Jewish pride and helped stave off rapid assimilation for a few more decades among non-religious Jews. Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky once said that but for the State of Israel most of non-religious world Jewry would have been immediately lost in the general despair after the Holocaust. But that effect has long since worn off even among secular Jews, whose identity as Jews is declining by every statistical measure.
But why should the State of Israel have been decisive for observant Jews, who presumably were not lacking in Jewish identity. If anything, it could be argued that Zionism and Israel offered a means to identify as a Jew, while casting off halachic obligation, and should have been a cause of lower retention among the shomer Shabbos. That indeed happened in Israel in 1948 and thereafter, when it was said that even in Meah Shearim there was "no house without its dead."
APPELBAUM IDENTIFIES the tipping point as around 1945, which date provides some clues. It coincides with the creation of Torah Umesorah, and the spread of day schools across the United States. Until then, the overwhelming majority of children from shomer Shabbos homes attended public schools, and their Torah education was generally limited to after school Talmud Torahs – in many of which the American-born students and European-borns rebbeim confronted each other with mutual loathing.
Rav Aharon Kotler was just recently arrived in America in 1945, and beginning to unfurl the banner of long-time Kollel-learning, as was the Chazon Ish in Eretz Yisrael.
The post-War period also witnessed the influx of large numbers of Chassidic survivors into America. A century and a half after the beginning of the Haskalah movement, those whose faith remained firm constituted a hard core upon which revival of religious life could be built.
Thus the key ingredient in the revival of Torah observance in America and the ability to transmit that observance from one generation to the next was just what one would expect: more Torah education and higher aspirations in Torah learning, combined with an infusion of intense religious commitment.
Other factors have also played a part in the lower level of drop-outs. When the ghetto walls first fell, the temptation to see what lay on the other side and to take advantage of new freedoms was powerful. Over the passage of time, that particular allure lessened.
Rabbi Shia Geldzaler once pointed out to me another factor: It became easier to be an Orthodox Jew. Religious observance once carried with it an aspect of deprivation and sacrifice. Today almost all pleasures have a "kosher" variant. In the Antwerp of his youth, Rabbi Geldzaler remembers, there was intensity in religious observance. During the Three Weeks, for instance, one witnessed a change on the faces of the older generation. But not many of their children remained observant. They simply found it too hard. Today, Rabbi Geldzhaler suggested, they would not find it so hard.
In short, it has become easier to coast along within Orthodox society, without any burning religious commitment or feeling of closeness to Hashem. And that poses its own dangers. Just as we have witnessed over the last sixty years how an intense core can spur rapid growth, so too can rot within spread rapidly.
We are entitled to celebrate the reversal of the post-Enlightenment flight from religious observance. But the celebration should not lead us to complacency lest we sow the seeds of another reversal.
A Lesson from Senator Daniel Inouye
I had the privilege of interviewing Senator Daniel Inouye, who passed away this past week, in his Senate office a couple of years ago. During his more than half century in the Senate, Inouye probably did more for Israel, as chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, than any other Senator since 1948. He was also a great friend of the Jewish people. The sprawling campus of Neve Yerushalayim in Jerusalem is named after him, the only building on which he ever agreed to place his name.
At the time of our interview, the Senator's memory was no longer sharp on details, but the rich baritone and courtly manner made famous in the Watergate hearings were fully evident. On some matters he was crystal clear. He described finding "bodies stacked like cordwood" upon entering a concentration camp as a U.S. soldier, and wondering why.
One of his proudest memories was from his law school days at George Washington Law School. He was tapped for a certain honor society, but two Jewish friends were blackballed, until he announced he would quit unless they were admitted. One of them, Sheldon Cohen, went on to become the youngest director of the IRS.
Senator Inouye first came to fame as a war hero. He was an officer in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a unit made up exclusively of soldiers of Japanese descent, and the most decorated combat unit in the history of the United States military. The descriptions of his heroism in his Medal of Honor citation read like the script from a Rambo movie. Leading a platoon late in the war, he almost single-handedly took out a nest of three German machine guns at close range, the third after his arm had already been nearly severed (it was later amputated) by a bullet.
At the time of that heroism, the United States government was holding thousands of Japanese-American citizens on the West Coast in internment camps. And I could not help but wonder what led the 442nd to fight with such out-sized bravery.
The answer, I suspect, is that the Japanese soldiers in that unit believed deeply in the promise of America and its ideal of equality under law, even if those ideals were not yet realized. The same could be said of the tens of thousands of Jews who served in combat, though anti-Semitism was still rampant, and of all-black units who fought heroically for a country in which their basic civil rights were still denied in the South.
Many of those soldiers lived to see America make good on its promise. The U.S. government officially apologized and compensated Japanese internees; Congress passed sweeping civil rights legislation in 1964, and the American people have twice elected a black man president; and anti-Semitism is no longer a factor in American life.
THERE IS A GROUP WITHIN TORAH SOCIETY that bears some resemblance to Daniel Inouye and his comrades in arms: the ba'alei teshuva. They often make significant sacrifices in terms of careers and familial relationships based on the high ideals of Torah society.
Yet Torah society has often not lived up to its own ideals with respect to the ba'alei teshuva. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, zt"l, in a shmuess given little more than a decade ago, lamented (at least in the Israeli context) that so many ba'alei teshuva find themselves with nowhere to go and no one to guide them, at a point in their lives when guidance is crucial by virtue of their commitment to "completely different lives." He spoke harshly of those who worry that the children of ba'alei teshuva might damage their own children: "If the children of ba'alei teshuva can damage the children of chareidim, it is a sign that chareidi education is not really education!"
This is a big and multi-faceted subject. But Torah society must make good on its promise with respect to ba'alei teshuva. That means, at the very minimum, that veteran Torah families take responsibility for running interference for ba'alei teshuva – e.g., getting their children into school – draw them close, and provide much needed mentoring.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, American Jewry & Continuity, Chareidim and Their Critics, Israeli Society, Jewish Ethics, World Jewry
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