After World War II, the Big One, there was a preponderance of non-observant Jews in Orthodox shuls. So, the question is: Why? Why were so many non-observant Jews identifying with the Orthodox movement?
According to a number of my interviewees, the greatest sociologist of American Jewry was Charles Liebman (1934-2003). Writing in 1965, he wondered why Jews who ‘up to 60% of them didn’t purchase kosher meat regularly’ still belonged to Orthodox shuls. He gave a number of reasons:
There are a variety of reasons why the nonobservant Orthodox affiliate with Orthodox institutions. Sometimes they affiliate because Orthodoxy exercises a monopoly in a city or a section of it… The decision is likely to be more closely related to such factors as geography, socio-economic positions and aspirations, distance from the immigrant generations, general impressions of the relative demands made by a particular branch of Judaism, relationships to parents and childhood experience, their own estimates of their own degree of commitment to what they assume Judaism to be, and many others… Finally, there is the completely marginal Jew, who is almost indifferent about synagogue affiliation but, having been raised in an Orthodox environment, finds nostalgic satisfaction in attendance at familiar Rosh Ha-shanah and Yom Rippur services. To him, as to his coreligionist at the other end of the spectrum, Orthodoxy is “more religious” than Conservatism or Reform.
But then he added:
Sometimes non-observers are attracted to Orthodoxy by its outstanding rabbis.
In my conversation with Rav Hillel Goldberg of the Intermountain Jewish News of Denver, this amazing and astute observer of American Jewry, remarked:
But there was also a group of talented rabbis who were increasingly effective. Because their native language was English—they were American. They knew what a single, double triple were. They knew what people meant when they talked about a sale. They understood the culture. They inspired the community. Old world rabbis could be effective, and there were some outstanding examples. But typically, they weren’t.
Then I spoke with Rabbi Irving ‘Yitz’ Greenberg. Besides his many interesting and well considered comments, he told me the following story:
There was panic about Riverdale (that section of the Bronx, just north of Washington Heights) at YU in the 50’s. A new Conservative synagogue opened and seemed like it would succeed in this area very near to the YU campus. Community Service Division decided to step in and discussed opening an Orthodox shul with some local people, many of whom were European, but not very observant. YU recruited Rabbi Jack Sable (1926-2013), and agreed to pay half of his salary. Rabbi Sable was an All-American type. He was an officer in the US Air Force, and during reserve duty periods in the summer would show up in his very dashing uniform. He was a pioneer, the ‘Daniel Boone’ of rabbis. The small shul grew and the large building at 3700 Riverdale Ave., became known as the ‘House that Jack built’. The initial building had a quite low mechitza to make the women feel more involved. His classes were well attended, but weren’t Daf Yomi. They were more attuned to American topics and issues.
There was an irony in this move. The conservative Synagogue of Riverdale, founded earlier in 1954, was headed by Rabbi Max Kadushin (1895-1980). Rabbi Dr. Kadushin was born in Minsk (then the Russian Empire) and was a prodigious author and scholar. A fascinating set up: the Orthodox had a charismatic American hero; the Conservative had a European-born thinker and philosopher. Eventually both synagogues prospered, but initially it was a big win for the Orthodox.
In 1964, I succeeded Rabbi Sable, who went on to devote himself to public service as New York State Commissioner of Human Rights and Regional Director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
By 1960, a new wave of more observant Jews moved into Riverdale, many of them from Washington Heights. Soon there was tension over the direction of the shul. They had to raise the mechitza to make the new wave of members more comfortable.
The RJC was one of the first synagogues to beat the European Stigma. He showed to be orthodox is to be American, too, and personally exemplified that with his patriotic and communal activities. We can’t underestimate that impact.
Great Story! When Rabbi Sable passed in 2013, his obituary began with the words: Pioneer, visionary, mensch. As the Cowardly Lion said, ‘Ain’t it the truth!’
Rabbi Sable soon wasn’t alone. I actually merited to talk to a number of those pioneering, America bred Orthodox rabbis of the 50’s and beyond. Among them were Rabbis Emmanuel Feldman, Pinchas Steinberg, Reuven Bulka, Marc Angel, but there were so many more.
The shul I grew up in got its first American born rabbi in 1950, Rabbi Charles Weinberg OB”M. Before that this venerable shul had brought rabbis straight from Lithuania, But that rich community died in the Holocaust.
In the 50’s, Orthodoxy started its way back by saying, ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!’ We can represent ‘Baseball, Apple Pie and Chevrolet’ as well as the Conservative Movement. That was to change in the 60’s and beyond. Eventually, the Orthodox movement was moving on from being synagogue based to being centered on the observant home and the centers of learning. But that’s a story for another time.
Next: And the winner is: Number Three!