Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Symposium: Why People Become Orthodox II

(continuation of this series: I)

Conservative Rabbi Charles L. Arian is the rabbi of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, CT. He has served as a Hillel director, a staff member of the University of Judaism, a think-tank scholar and a Conservative pulpit rabbi.

Like most sociological phenomena, the phenomenon of Jews not raised Orthodox turning to Orthodoxy is a broad spectrum. There is little in common between the product of a Solomon Schechter school, USY and Camp Ramah who now belongs to a Modern Orthodox congregation, on the one hand, and the former beer-guzzling “frat boy” who now has multiple children and lives in B’nai B’rak. Lest one think I am conjuring up stereotypes, I am personally familiar with both of these individuals.

Click here to read moreAlmost twenty years ago, I was working as a Hillel director in Washington, DC. Since the Hillel I directed only rarely had services on Shabbat morning, I generally attended a large Conservative synagogue. This synagogue hosted a number of different types of services under its roof, and soon after I started to attend there, together with a number of other people in their twenties and thirties, I helped to found a service which we called the “Traditional-Egalitarian minyan.” This was a service which was liturgically Orthodox (including reading the complete Parasha rather than the more-common “triennial cycle” used by most Conservative shuls) but featured equal participation by men and women. At the time, I believe there was only one couple in our minyan that had children -- a boy and a girl, both in elementary school, who attended a Solomon Schechter school as had both their parents.

At some point, over Shabbat lunch, this family told me that they were looking for a house in the suburbs so that they could join a Modern Orthodox synagogue whose rabbi they admired. While ideologically they still considered themselves Conservative, they felt that for the sake of their kids they were better off in an Orthodox shul. Why? Because there were no other shomer Shabbat kids in the neighborhood. Shabbat was a lonely experience for the kids and the dissonance between their lifestyle and those of most of the other families in the congregation was increasingly untenable.

This phenomenon is a fairly common one. A young man or woman attends a Schechter school and learns about Shabbat and kashrut and tefillin and so on. At Camp Ramah, they live halachic Judaism (by Conservative standards if not Orthodox ones) 24/7. They may attend a college with a strong Conservative minyan at Hillel and many other Conservative Jews who participate in the kosher meal plan. Then they go out into the world and want to be a part of a community where this level of observance is maintained. If they happen to live in New York or Washington or Boston or LA -- and perhaps a handful of other places -- they can find either an independent non-Orthodox minyan or a “Library Minyan” within a larger Conservative shul where this level of observance is, if not the norm, at least not considered outlandish. If they are not so fortunate -- or if they are single and looking to find a spouse with the same observance level and want to broaden their dating pool -- they may well gravitate towards the Modern Orthodox community.

This is a sort of “Orthodoxy by osmosis” and it is not even clear to me that most of the people who go through this transition would necessarily even describe themselves as Orthodox. For sure, they do not subscribe to the formal delegitimation of Conservative Judaism which is the theoretical normative Orthodox position. They will still eat in their parents’ home, attend their parent’s Conservative synagogue when visiting, accepting an aliyah, davening for the amud, perhaps allowing themselves to be counted as the tenth in a minyan which counts women. They may even send their kids to Camp Ramah in the summer. But in their home communities, they function as part of the Orthodox community.

Other people make a more radical break with their past. Sometimes they manage to live bifurcated lives, earning a living as physicians or lawyers or accountants or in other professions, but practicing a type of Judaism that at best teaches isolation from, and at worst contempt for, the non-Jewish and non-Orthodox worlds.

One of the most puzzling conversations I ever had was with an attorney of my acquaintance. He had been a law student nearly twenty years ago at the university where I was the Hillel director, and at the time had just returned to the States after a year studying at a ba’al teshuvah yeshivah in Israel. Subsequently we both lived in Baltimore and I happened to mention to him that my office was on the same street as the house where F. Scott Fitzgerald once lived. He said to me “I got a lot of spiritual benefit reading him when I was in college. But I don’t want my kids to read him.”

Since it was a pleasant Shabbat afternoon and I was a guest in his home, I didn’t press the point – in retrospect I wish I had. But I recall another conversation I had with an emergency room physician who embraced Orthodoxy while doing his residency in Washington DC. He told me “I saw so much horror day after day; I needed to be a part of something unchanging, something which would give me an anchor and prevent me from going crazy.”

For the second group, then, turning to Orthodoxy provides certainty and stability in a world of rapid change and multiple sources of meaning. For the first group, a turn to Orthodoxy provides communal support for an observant lifestyle – a support which, to my chagrin and that of most Conservative rabbis, is sadly lacking in our own congregations.

There is another group who also adopt Orthodoxy for communal reasons, but they differ significantly from the Schechter/Ramah group. These are people who for various reasons have had difficulty fitting in elsewhere in the Jewish community and in society as a whole. Through the work of kiruv groups, particularly but not exclusively Chabad, they have found affirmation of their worth and a place to belong.

As a pluralist, I believe that most (not all!) of the different varieties of Judaism have something to offer to the well-being of the k’lal. We are fortunate that the American Jewish community is so diverse. As a Conservative rabbi, I am generally happy when someone chooses to increase their observance and if an assimilated Jew chooses to become Orthodox, he or she no doubt benefits as does the Jewish community as a whole. It is a path I myself have not chosen because I find some of the "truth claims" Orthodoxy makes to be manifestly lacking in credibility. I wish that we Conservatives were more successful in creating observant communities so that we did not "lose" so many of our best and brightest to Orthodoxy – but that is a problem we will have to tackle on our own.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Favorites More