Thursday, April 30, 2009

Is the Modern Orthodox Jewish Community Killing Itself? - Part 1

Modern Orthodox Judaism thrives in a few communities today. There are significant communities in large cities: parts of metro New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Washington and the like. There are also interesting pockets of modern Orthodoxy in Canada, Mexico and in medium sized communities across North America.

But will the economic crises help to kill off modern Orthodoxy within a generation or two? Here's what may be emerging:

So-called "right wing" Orthodox institutions -- overnight summer camps, day camps, early childhood programs and day schools / yeshivot -- tend to charge a lower fee. In many cases, these institutions must do so in recognition of the large families who struggle to pay fees for several children at a time. They are able to do this through a number of means: hiring young and/or lesser qualified staff, large class sizes, offering "no frills" programs, extensive fundraising and more.

What can be easily observed, at least in Long Island (where I live), is that the financial crisis that embraces us all has pushed many modern Orthodox parents to enroll their kids in more affordable, but theologically right-wing programs.

In our particular neighborhood, we are constantly hearing of children whose families lead modern Orthodox lives being enrolled in summer camps and even day schools whose religious practices are far to the "right" of them, but whose fee scale allows them to keep their children in Jewish camps and schools.

I have no particular problem with religious "crossover" within the Jewish community. However the impact on modern Orthodoxy may not be fully realized for another 10 -20 years. Children are certainly influenced (as indeed we would want them to be) by the educators and camp counselors that teach them. And when the staffs are outspoken in their attitudes regarding anything from exposure to American pop culture to the Internet to dress codes, dissonance is being introduced when they return to their modern Orthodox homes.

I have no simple answers, particularly when the economy is what it is. But modern Orthodox leaders (rabbis included) must realize that an educational challenge is emerging that will impact its community down the road. As kids attend some of the more stringently Orthodox camps, rather than the modern Orthodox and/or religious Zionist camps, and study in more stringently Orthodox schools because of affordability, the modern Orthodox world is in danger of not being able to effectively raise the next generation of modern Orthodox leadership.

This is part one of a few postings about the potential dangers that modern Orthodoxy has created for itself. More to follow.