How American Orthodoxy evolved

How American Orthodoxy evolved

YU professor to trace Orthodox Judaism in two Fort Lee talks

We Jews have a very long history. This is not news.

Our history stretches around the world and across millennia. We have a tendency to see patterns in it — we moved there, it was okay, then they hated us, then they tried to kill us, then we left. (And yes, of course, we all know the joke — let’s eat.)

History’s actually a bit more specific than that, though. It changes by the decade and almost by zip code.

Dr. Jeffrey Gurock is a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, specializing in the American Jewish story. He will talk about some of it — about the complex interplay of ideology, economics, politics, and culture — at the Young Israel of Fort Lee next Wednesday and the following Wednesday. (See box for details.)

Dr. Gurock’s first talk will focus on the search for new leadership at Yeshiva University, a subject that demands the backstory he plans to tell. The second will look at the struggles American Orthodox Jews faced as they adjusted to life in this country. “One talk deals with the leadership, and the other looks at the laity,” he said.

The story of Yeshiva University’s search for its fifth president — its fourth, Richard Joel, announced his planned retirement last year, triggering that search — has its roots in its search for its first president, Bernard Revel, 101 years ago, Dr. Gurock said, and some of the huge changes the American Jewish world have undergone are visible in that story. When Yeshiva University was founded, “believe it or not, there was a great closeness between the Jewish Theological Seminary,” the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism in the United States, “and YU,” Dr. Gurock said. “The two movements are very different today, but the way that Orthodoxy related to Conservative Judaism is a backdrop to this talk.”

He plans on looking in depth at some excerpts from the diaries of Mordecai Kaplan, the rabbi whose career took him through most of the American Jewish world of the early and mid 20th century — he began his career at Kehilat Jeshurun, one of Manhattan’s most iconic and fashionable Orthodox synagogues, founded the Jewish Center, its starchy West Side counterpart, taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and founded the Reconstructionist movement. “His journals have some interesting references to YU’s search,” Dr. Gurock said.

Without wanting to give away too much of what he will discuss on Wednesday night, he said, “there are some references to the possibility that Revel could have become president of the Jewish Theological Seminary. I don’t want to give away too much of the story — but it indicates how close the movements were at that point, before the first world war, when one person could have been president of what are now two very different institutions.”

Dr. Gurock’s second talk, called “American Orthodoxy in the Era of Nonobservance,” looks at Orthodox Jews in the first part of the 20th century — just around the same time as when Rabbi Kaplan was commenting on Dr. Revel in his diaries. “It’s about the religious values of Jews who went to Orthodox synagogues,” Dr. Gurock said. Paraphrasing the introduction to his 2009 work, “Orthodox Jews in America,” he said, “What do you call the following type of Jew: A man whose home is kosher and shomer Shabbes, who regularly goes to shul, goes to the rabbi’s shiur, scrimps and saves so his children can go to day school — but works on Shabbes? How do you characterize that sort of person?

“I have been privileged to teach at Yeshiva for many years, and every year I teach a course on American Judaism at Stern,” YU’s undergraduate women’s college. “I ask them to go home and discuss it at home. If they are privileged to have grandparents, ask them if they knew anyone like that. They all come back and say yes, their grandparents did know people like that.

“Sometimes, it was their own grandparents.

“There always were frum Jews in America, but we rarely talk about what life was like for the rank and file of synagogue-goers prior to our contemporary generations,” Dr. Gurock said.

One of the biggest changes is in the Jewish education available to the community’s children. “It’s been estimated that in the entire United States in 1940, about 8,000 young men and a handful of young women received any sort of day school or yeshiva education, from anyplace ranging from Ramaz,” on the left, “to Torah Vodaas. Maybe it’s not 8,000 — make it 16,000! — but still it was just a handful of students.

“Orthodoxy’s greatest investment in terms of its continuity was the emergence of day school and yeshiva education for my generation, the baby boomers,” he continued.

Another big change is “notwithstanding the phenomenon of baale teshuvah and notwithstanding the arrival of the Jews who came here after World War II, the reality is that the number of people in the last few years who have belonged to Orthodox synagogues and identify as Orthodox Jews has declined. The people who have left the Orthodox fold either have moved into the more liberal denominations or have moved outside Orthodox life. Therefore, the Orthodox community today is made up of people who are more observant than their parents and grandparents. The less observant cohort has dropped out.”

Going back to the “iconic Jew who is shomer Shabbes except that he also works on Shabbes, it’s very possible that he and his wife could have children and grandchildren who are far more observant of Shabbes than he is,” Dr. Gurock said. “In America, Orthodox Jews now are more affluent, and American society is more accepting of us. Here, you don’t have to work on Shabbes to survive economically.

“It has a lot to do with the world around us.”

Jews now have some political power, and that changes things. “In the late 1890s, there was a Rosh Hashanah that fell on Monday and Tuesday,” Dr. Gurock said. This story takes place in New York, which then had blue laws. “The Jewish community got the city of New York to suspend the blue laws that Sunday, because otherwise it would have been four days” with neither shopping nor selling possible. “The community had enough clout to do that,” he said. Similarly, he recalls going to Brooklyn with his wife for a shiva call. “We parked our car at a meter that said it had to be fed Monday through Friday and also on Sunday,” he said. “I said to my wife, ‘Boy, think about it. Your car is legally able to rest on Shabbat.’

“This is political power, and it reflects the maturation of the Orthodox community.”

Who: Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University

What: Will give two talks

Where: At the Young Israel of Fort Lee, 1610 Parker Avenue

When: On two Wednesdays, July 13 and July 20, at 7 p.m.

What: On July 13, Dr. Gurock will talk about “The Yeshiva Presidential Search, 1915 Style.” On July 20, the subject will be “American Orthodoxy’s Era of Non-Observance.”

For more information: Call (201) 592-1518, email, or go to

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