This week Commentary magazine published a personal narrative by Jay Lefkowitz, entitled, ‘The Rise of Social Orthodoxy.’ In it, he describes himself as an observant Modern Orthodox Jew. However, he is not exactly sure he believes in God and attributes his observance to the social culture of Modern Orthodox within which he lives. The tone of the piece seems to pitch this phenomena as something new, but it really isn’t- not by a long shot.
During my middle school years, my family lived in Norfolk, Va. My father was a rabbi of a Conservative synagogue and an adjunct professor. Although a Conservative rabbi, our day to day family life would be considered as Modern Orthodox. We strictly kept kosher, Shabbat and Holidays. The surrounding Jewish community was hardly observant. I estimated that I was probably the only 13 year old girl in a 250 mile radius who observant. There was no peer pressure to maintain observance. In fact it was quite the opposite. When the local Jewish day school ended at sixth grade, I attended an Episcopal Prep School. The school had a decent but restricted Jewish population. At the time, I was the only observant Jewish student of the entire student body. Each day we were required to go to chapel and recite The Lord’s Prayer. We also had to eat the school’s prepared lunches each day and sit at assigned tables that changed every six weeks. What that meant for me as a twelve year old was that I was constantly explaining my beliefs and practices from Kashrut to Shabbat observance. I was explaining this not only to the non-Jewish students but to the Jewish students as well. While there was an occasional snicker from my non-Jewish classmates, I had a harder time with my Jewish ones. For many of them who desired complete assimilation, I stood out and was a big thorn in their sides. I missed out on a lot of activities and social events due to my observance. Shabbat was particularly difficult as I really had no Shabbat friends. While not to sound totally depressing, it did allow me at a young age to get comfortable talking about my beliefs and talking about God. Although the time was lonely, I did feel very close to God.
Then, the summer before High School, my father accepted a pulpit at a Conservative synagogue in Far Rockaway, NY. It was the first time that I lived in a community with other people my age who were observant. I distinctly remember my first Shabbat in my new community when a number of Orthodox girls with whom I would be going to school came to meet me at our Conservative synagogue. They were so welcoming and kind. I could spent Shabbat in their homes and eat in them as well. The social orthodox atmosphere for me was intoxicating. I felt to some degree a huge religious burden was lifted from my shoulders. Here I was living with people who were observant. There were kosher restaurants. I could attend a Yeshivah High School. I could finally have a social life and a religious life at the same time. I assumed that all Modern Orthodox New Yorkers would appreciate the ease of their life, that they wouldn’t take it for granted and would truly understand the what and why of their chosen life. Boy, was I wrong.
At fourteen (that’s over thirty years ago), I came to the realization that a large number of my peers and their families observed because of social pressure. It was easy to do so and had become rote. Their Jewish education included nothing about Hashkafa (Jewish belief) and certainly nobody talked about God. They hadn’t done the work to truly own their Judaism because it wasn’t asked of them and it was too easy not to bother. It was clear to me that if I picked up a good chunk of these families and dumped them in Norfolk, Va. they would be running to the nearest McDonalds in no time flat. What made matters worse, is that because my father was a Conservative Rabbi at the time, the general Modern Orthodox community deemed me not religious or not religious enough. This was infuriating when many throwing the insult hadn’t really led an authentic religious Jewish life. They hadn’t questioned or had been challenged in their beliefs. They just did and continue to do what they do to conform to social norms.
So what’s the solution to move from Social Orthodoxy to authentic observant Judaism? Part of the problem, I believe, is the discomfort among Modern Orthodox to talk about God. Mr. Lefkowitz mentions in his article how a Catholic colleague was very comfortable about talking about God. Somewhere along the way God-talk got relegated to Christians. When a Jewish person talks about God, they are suspect as being some sort of clandestine Jesus freak. We need in our schools to talk about God beyond the nursery song of ‘Hashem is here, Hashem is there, Hashem is truly everywhere.’ In Yeshivah High Schools especially, there is a pressing need for real Hashkafa classes that go beyond general Jewish philosophy. As a parent, when modeling behavior, it is imperative to tell your children, why exactly you are doing what you are doing. The Passover Seder is the perfect opportunity to accomplish this task. But it will require you to do the work and go beyond the rote.
I hope Mr. Lefkowitz and all of you have a Chag Kasher v’Sameach. Embrace the opportunity to truly own your beliefs and traditions— and do the work.