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The Modern Orthodox Conundrum
A three-part series on what the problem is, why is it happening, and the solution.
This piece also appeared in the Jewish Press and the Jewish Home.
Friends, I think it’s time we talk tachlis. What I’m going to say is undoubtedly going to be met with great resistance, most likely from many fellow modern orthodox Jews. But I can promise you this: a large number of modern orthodox Jews, Chasidim, Heimishe yidden, Jewish Day school and college outreach rabbis, and the entire yeshivish world uniformly agree with me: Modern Orthodoxy is in peril. Bigtime.
Having grown up modern orthodox, I attended a Yeshiva Day school, Camp’s Raleigh and Moshava, spent my gap year in a yeshiva in Israel and graduated from Yeshiva University. I could very well be the poster-boy for Modern Orthodoxy. I have also spent the past several years investigating this issue at length, interviewing pulpit rabbis, rebbes, outreach rabbanim, as well as many high school and college students.
First, some background. In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch was the first noted Frankfurt rabbi and Jewish philosopher who articulated the fundamental position of Modern Orthodoxy: the idea of being faithful to Halacha while engaging with the secular world. In America, Rav Soloveithik z”l, furthered this idea with Torah Umadda, combining Torah with worldly knowledge within America’s first Orthodox University, Yeshiva University. In concept, this was a great way to serve Hashem. Become the “ultimate Jew” by educating yourself in both secular and holy things, while remaining steadfast in your religious principles and traditions.
So what is the problem? On the surface, nothing. But only on the surface. And that is no coincidence. In the past 50 years, the number of Orthodox shuls and Jewish Day Schools have grown exponentially, with new building funds constantly in the works. The number of kosher restaurants, Jewish day camps and kosher getaways have also grown exponentially. Many hotels in the country now offer kosher amenities as the number of kosher Jews traveling in America has never been greater. When I was a kid, there was a limited choice of yarmulkes, Talleisim, siddurim and chumashim. Today, there are hundreds of different styles for all Judaica, from Kippah clips (bobby pins are so 80’s) to Shabbos lamps. ArtScroll has a book for everything and anything Jewish. Minyanim can be found throughout the world, and many people are learning Torah online like never before. The sheitel industry is bustling, and many manufacturers have started making clothing specifically for the frum market. The Siyum HaShas recently took place in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey with a sellout crowd of over 90,000. So for all intents and purposes, it’s business as usual. Only it’s not.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about texting on Shabbos within the modern orthodox community and the coverage and response was huge. I’d clearly hit a nerve and since that time, the discussion has only grown. Truth be told, what we see is deceiving, because while there may be more modern orthodox Day Schools and synagogues popping up around the country, it is what goes on behind these walls that tells the real story. Namely, that a large number of our children are not really frum, ignoring mitzvot such as Shabbos, Kashrut and Tefillin. And if your kids go to secular college and they aren’t the rare, disciplined select few who can withstand the challenges of college life, then they too may fall short. A larger growing number of young modern orthodox families no longer come to shul regularly. Some rabbis blamed it on the Covid epidemic, but many others are more frank and tell it like it is: That for many people, except for the social dynamic, many do not miss going to shul. The proof? The number of Agudah Shuls as well black hat and yeshiva minyanim have only increased. In the modern orthodox community in Hollywood where I reside, they bought a house and started a 100% no-talking minyan. The result? Can’t get a seat and they’re currently seeking another establishment.
A few years ago, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, Rav of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, NY since 1991, courageously penned an article discussing this very real dilemma. He explained:
“Strikingly, I have noticed that the young married generation does not come to shul. Period. I can’t think of any young married person who joins us with any regularity. I put the question out on a Young Israel Rabbis chat that I belong to: “Do you observe that young marrieds are not coming back to shul?” I was stunned by the number of answers that I received from rabbis in many parts of the country, with the exact same observation. One rabbi chats with me offline about this. I was surprised by the intensity of his words, as he vented his frustration with his young community concerning the minyan issue as well as a whole host of other problems stemming from apathy from this generation. He came to the same conclusion that I did: They are not coming because there is no point in davening if there is no kiddush and no socializing.”
In my community, it’s now common to see dozens of young kippah wearing parents in the park, yet few attend shul, let alone become a member of the shul. Many in my community haven’t returned to shul because they’d rather have Shabbos kiddush at people’s houses or stay home. They simply used Covid as an excuse to check out.
There is a very strong number of modern orthodox people who take Halacha extremely seriously and are a credit to what the Rav stood for. But for many, it isn’t a top priority, prompting comedian Elon Gold’s funny, yet telling line: “I’m ‘Modern’ Orthodox”- as in ‘not so’ orthodox.” Poor attempts are made to modernize Orthodoxy and broaden its meaning in hopes of becoming more inclusive, yet sadly the opposite is happening.
If you ask the average yeshiva boy, are you frum, the answer is usually yes. And his definition of frum means he’s shomer mitzvot and aside from the occasional sin we all do, this person identifies with Daas Torah and presumably respects the Mesorah and halacha. Yet if you were to ask several different Modern Orthodox people to define their specific observances (I did), no two answers will be exactly the same. For instance, growing up M.O. meant a kosher home, (some dairy outside), keeping Shabbos, wrapping tefillin, Co-ed schools and camps. Today, the lines have blurred even further, making “Modern Orthodoxy” so much harder to actually define. In fact, many kids polled consider themselves orthodox, regardless of the fact that they texted on Shabbos, didn’t put on tefillin regularly, weren’t strict about davening three times a day (exceptions noted)… I should also mention that because the topic is so sensitive, there is very little statistical data discussing what I have observed, and as such, a large part is anecdotal. This is because when you ask many modern orthodox parents if their kid texts on Shabbos, most do not know, or do not want to know. Worse are the parents who don’t really care. Only, their kids know that too, reinforcing the idea of pick and choose Judaism. Children will not be forthright when asked about their true level of observance because they do not want to rock the boat and disappoint their families. Sadly, many families don’t truly care so long as their children get into a great school and make a good income. Many community leaders are simply too set in their ways or too busy to accept the current situation.
Eitan Gross’s article in Times of Israel entitled, Modern Orthodoxy from a Teenager’s Perspective, explains that “Living in a Modern Orthodox world is like letting an alcoholic shop by himself in a supermarket….As kids, we are exposed to media and entertainment that is contrary to Halacha…Is it realistic to assume that a teenager’s value system will not be corroded? Modern Orthodox teenagers can tell you who Kobe, Jay Z, or even Shakespeare is, but very few will know R’ Chaim Kanievsky or R’ Herschel Shachter. We’ll know how to solve math equations, but we can’t read a simple mishnah.”
A few years ago, I had a Shabbos meal with some neighbors, along with their daughter’s twenty year old friend. During the conversation, the friend innocently revealed that while she considered herself Modern Orthodox, she sometimes still turned on lights and texted on Shabbos. Recently, I spoke to a bunch of college girls who all mentioned the difficulty they found in meeting normal yet frum Modern Orthodox guys. It seems that many of the boys who were from frum homes who’d spent a year in Yeshiva in Israel, didn’t wear Tefillin every day, didn’t go to Minyan, and/or didn’t fully keep Shabbos. Because of this, many people today aren’t quite sure how to classify themselves. Recently, my daughter’s friend visited a popular Upper West Side building inhabited by mostly modern orthodox singles. Surprisingly, while waiting in the lobby, she noticed that well over half of the kippah wearing boys pushed the elevator button and walked through the electric sliding door.
Why are so many kids from modern orthodox families leaving the derech once they leave their homes? A recent pew poll suggested that as many as 1 in 3 children from modern orthodox families will more than likely be mechalel shabbos. While the black hat world is not immune to problems, the numbers do not even come close to what is happening in the modern world in terms of religious observance. Yes, there are always exceptions but as a general rule, the frum world has done a way better job at preserving the mesorah. Plain and simple. Why do a large number of the high school and modern orthodox college kids who attended Jewish Day Schools text on Shabbos or worse?
Next week we will discuss why this is happening….