Mind the gap between Orthodox and other Jews

Mind the gap between Orthodox and other Jews

NEW YORK — When journalist Peter Beinart talks about the growing alienation between young American Jews and Israel, and with their Jewish practice, he is quick to point out that he isn’t referring to the Orthodox.

Indeed, young Orthodox Jews, reflecting their elders’ behavior, are the exception to his rule, deeply committed to their religion and the Jewish state.

At a time when the issue of West Bank settlements is increasingly divisive in much of the American Jewish community, it’s still a no-brainer among the Orthodox, who support the settlements enthusiastically. (In fact, it seems like some Orthodox congregations here rarely invite a speaker from Israel who lives inside the Green Line.)

Settlements are but one issue where the gap between the Orthodox community and the rest of American Jewry is disturbingly wide, and growing, from politics in the Mideast and Washington to religious practice, education and family values.

I’m often taken aback by how little each group is aware of, and sensitive to, the concerns of the other.

For example, one reason why support for the Jewish communities in the West Bank is a given in Orthodox synagogues is because many congregants have family members, friends and former neighbors living there. (Keep in mind that the large majority of Americans making aliya each year are Orthodox.)

It is not uncommon for congregants to visit Israel several times a year, especially if they have a son or daughter studying in an Israeli yeshiva post-high school, which has become the default pattern for Orthodox teens over the last two decades.

In recent years, there has been a major shift in voting patterns from Democrat to Republican among the Orthodox, primarily over the issue of Israel. Whether or not he is seen as a Muslim or follower of Rev. Jeremiah Wright — it seems unlikely he could be both — President Obama is viewed with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility, as a negative factor for the Jewish state.

The fact that the levels of strategic and military cooperation between Jerusalem and Washington are at a high point is trumped by the troubled personal relationship between Israel’s prime minister and the American president, and the feeling that Obama has disrespected Netanyahu publicly and privately.

More and more I hear friends in the Orthodox community express their willingness to vote for anyone but Obama in the 2012 election, convinced that he has no patience or sympathy for Israel. Even moderates in the Orthodox community on domestic issues say they are willing to tolerate an ultra-conservative president who will be demonstrably supportive of Israel.

That reflects the fact that many Orthodox Jews list “Israel” as the No. 1 issue on which they will determine who to vote for next year in the national elections, unlike most other Jews.

One reason why close to 80 percent of American Jews voted for Obama in 2008, and a majority will do so again next year — though his numbers are likely to decline — is that only a small percentage of the U.S. Jewish community is Orthodox, generally estimated at between 10 and 20 percent.

Most American Jews are still liberal, and see themselves as supportive of Israel, certainly, but also caring deeply about a wide range of domestic concerns, from the economy to human rights, and deeply distrustful of Republican candidates who speak about their fervent Christian beliefs.

According to a recent American Jewish Committee survey of American Jewish attitudes, 53 percent of American Jews disapprove of Obama’s policies toward Israel; among Orthodox Jews the disapproval rate is 81 percent.

Overall, 45 percent of American Jews approve of Obama, a 23 percent drop-off from 2008, but 6 percent higher than Americans in general; among Orthodox Jews, who represent 9 percent of the AJC sampling, Obama’s disapproval rate is 72 percent.

But politics is not the only issue that divides the Orthodox and overall Jewish communities.

It really goes deeper, to issues of values, and Orthodox Jews are more traditional not only in religious practice but in cultural behavior as well. They marry younger, have more children and put a great emphasis on intensive Jewish education.

Day schools and yeshivas are a major priority, with a focus increasingly on the tuition crisis. The combination of a sinking economy and large number of children is making affordability a huge concern for Orthodox families. But they believe the general Jewish community, including the federation world, is not interested enough to alleviate their plight in a meaningful way.

So, Orthodox Jews tend to see federations as not addressing their needs, and federations see the Orthodox as not wanting to be involved in the communal agenda and campaign. Which is a shame, because if more Orthodox Jews were active in federation, chances are there would be more attention given to the day school agenda.

In addition, the Orthodox perceive the mainstream Jewish organizations as having too liberal an agenda, championing a strong church-state divide, for example, when many parents of day school children would prefer vouchers or some other form of government financial aid.

As society has become more open, religious families are increasingly conservative, culturally as well as politically. It’s true of Americans in general, and it certainly holds among Jews.

Orthodox families often are resistant to sending their children to universities where coed dorms, sexual experimentation, drinking and drugs are common. And while the majority of American Jews admire the Orthodox for their commitment to Torah study and observance, and preserving family and tradition, they also feel alienated from their very different worldview, seen as sheltered and parochial.

That love-hate feeling works both ways, with Orthodox Jews regarding the high intermarriage and assimilation rates among most of American Jewry as a disregard for essential Jewish values and deeply disturbing in terms of the future.

A number of surveys show that with Orthodox women averaging between 3.3 and 7.9 children (the more observant, the more children) as compared to 1.86 for other Jewish women, it won’t be too long before the Orthodox become the majority of an American Jewish community that will continue to decline in overall numbers.

Whether or not anything can be done to stem the growing divide within and among our people, at least we should be more aware of it, and talk about it. There are discussion groups between Jews and Christians, and Jews and Muslims; how about a few more between Orthodox Jews and the rest of the community?

(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)