In 2004-2005, when I was in 7th grade, there was a movement in American Jewry to mark the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in the United States. My Orthodox elementary school decided that they wanted to undertake a project profiling the top American Jewish leaders in recent history, and assigned each person in the grade (around 100 people) one leading American rabbi or Jewish leader. In fact, we had a special day in school where we celebrated our respective leaders. They gave each of us a necklace to wear with a printed out picture of our respective leaders. We all went up to our friends and asked about who their leader was, as we learned about the gamut of American Jewry.
I was assigned Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, head of Agudath Israel of America, head of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah (“Council of Torah Sages”), and former Rosh Yeshiva (dean) of Khal Adath Jeshrun, a well-established yeshiva in Washington Heights. Rabbi Perlow is no doubt one of the most influential rabbis in America today.
At the Agudah convention that took place on May 27th Rabbi Perlow addressed the general assembly. For whatever reasons, he decided that he would use his podium to bash the Open Orthodox movement. He said that they “seek to subvert the meaning of yiddishkeit” (Judaism), are “apikorsim” (heretics), have “mitigated Mesoras HaTorah” (the Torah tradition), and warned American Jewry to stay far away from these people and their “so-called yeshiva.”
I do not intend to try and refute Rabbi Perlow’s statements; he is entitled to his opinions. Furthermore, such rhetoric is not respondable to—he did not discuss any specific features of Open Orthodoxy, and just made broad claims. I also do not feel compelled to discuss why I think that it is irresponsible of a community leader to speak in such an inflammatory, sensationalist, and nearly hateful manner, or why I believe that these words are antithetical to the Torah in being Lashon HaRah (slander). For me this is all self-evident, if my readers would like sources defending the core of Open Orthodoxy, there are plenty of articles I can show them. Under normal circumstances, I would shrug off the video of Rabbi Perlow’s remarks and continue on with my day.
But I did that project about Rabbi Perlow in 7th grade. I remember doing research on him, writing up a report, gathering pictures, and presenting about him to my classmates. I remember wearing his face around my neck for a full day of school.
I remember this project so vividly because I learned a lot from it. Until that point I had never heard of the Agudah. I found it fascinating that such an organization existed and was so vibrant. To my 12 year old self, a boy searching to find his Jewish identity, I was amazed that there is an organization that is devoted to the spread of Torah and Torah values. I became fascinated with this community. I attended the Siyum HaShas later that year, and began listening to daily Mishna classes on the Shema Yisrael Torah Network, an arm of the Agudah community (though not officially connected). In some ways, the Agudah community inspired me, contributing somewhat to my establishing a proud Jewish identity.
Though we have never met, right now I feel betrayed by Rabbi Perlow. A man who literally just wrote me out of religious Judaism; a man who has, from my perspective, spread so much vitriol and is contributing to the tearing of the American Orthodox community—I wore him around my neck. How could this be? After all that I did for him—this is how he repays me? My Modern Orthodox elementary school celebrated his life, how come his schools denounce and vilify my lifestyle and friends? I do not proudly identify as Open Orthodox—I am simply not a fan of labels—but I am an ardent supporter of the movement. My Jewish identity is in small part due to him and his organization; but now he calls me “pseudo-Jewish?” How do I come to terms with this?
I will not go tear up the report I wrote on Rabbi Perlow, though I was tempted to do so (not that I still have it anyways). Pretending his opinion does not exist or does not matter is not intellectually honest. In fact, it would be a lie. A person is the sum total of his or her experiences. I am happy with where I am religiously (though never content), and Rabbi Perlow played a small role in my religious development. I will keep that report because it is part of who I am today.
If I ever meet Rabbi Perlow I would thank him. Thank him for being a part of my Jewish education. Thank him for being a great American Jewish leader, someone I can proudly wear around my neck as a 12 year old. Thank him for teaching me to always stand up for the values of the Torah, to respect and honor great sages and leaders, values that have compelled me to be open-minded towards both the non-Orthodox Jewish world and the world at large. My Judaism is not in spite of Rabbi Perlow, but rather due in part to him.
I would be thanking a traitor.