Whither American Modern Orthodoxy?

US Modern Orthodoxy failed to raise a young, involved generation, claims Queens Rabbi Yoel Shonfeld. Tzvi Fishman has the answer. Op-ed.

Tzvi Fishman ,

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld
Eliran Aharon

An Open Reply to Rabbi Yoel Shonfeld, Rabbi of the Young Israel Synagogue of Kew Garden Hills.

With profound sadness and dismay, I read your article, published on August 5th in the Queens Jewish Link, in which you describe the widespread estrangement of young married couples from Judaism, a phenomena which you report is taking place in Modern Orthodox congregations throughout America.

Since at the end of your concerned and anguished confession, you call upon readers to reply to your message for the sake of further discussion, with the hope of finding a solution to the problem, I will offer my reaction to your bitter and utterly deterministic observations.

First, let it be known that my words stem from my fond and revered memories of your father when he was the leader of the Kew Garden Hills community some forty years ago, which is when I became a baal tshuva and spent several Shabbatot at the home of the Finkelstein Family, who lived not far from the shul.

In those days I was helping a group of Israeli shlichim establish the Volunteers for Israel-Sarel Project, to bring volunteers to Israel during the First War in Lebanon. Your father graciously allowed them to speak at the shul, and he did everything he could to help make the emergency recruitment drive successful. Back then, the large Young Israel Synagogue was filled to capacity with a vibrant Religious Zionist community, young and old alike, and so it was especially disturbing for me to read that you claim that all of that wonderful Torah energy and spirit has vanished.

The moment I penned the title of my reply, which I was going to call "Death of Modern Orthodoxy", I thought of the Arthur Miller play, “Death of a Salesman,” and the tragic character of Willy Loman, the traveling salesman whose demise came about because he based his life on being successful and winning acceptance in the society around him, rather than on being himself – a destiny similar to the tragedy of the traveling Diaspora Jew.

For readers who have not seen your article, allow me to quote a few of your boldly candid and controversial observations. You write:

“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 (since the Corona outbreak)?’ I was stunned by the number of answers that I received from Rabbis in many parts of the country, with the exact same observation… They are not coming because there is no point in davening if there is no kiddush and no socializing. In other words, if going to shul is not fun, then why bother?”

In a tone of great disappointment, you relate how 1,500 young people took part in a nightly Zoom Torah session throughout the Corona epidemic, but not one student was from the Modern Orthodox community. You write: “The members of the young modern generation are leaving our values – and fast. Israel is not on their agenda either. Yom HaAtzmaut is celebrated with great gusto in the elementary modern day schools, but how many of these same kids celebrate when they are no longer in school? We do not get one young married to attend any Yom HaAtzmaut celebration or davening. Yom HaShoah? Forget about it!”

You ask: “What happened to the teachings of Religious Zionism? Has it gone kaput? Trust me when I tell you that more and more of our kids will grow up drinking the milk served on the college campuses and develop anti-Israel attitudes. It just won’t be cool to support the notion of a uniquely Jewish State. Modern kids do not want to be out of step with what is the notion of the day.” And you continue:

“Undoubtedly, there are many Modern Orthodox kids who are growing up with the right values and attitude towards Torah and Israel. But I can’t deny what I see. And I see trouble ahead for too many in our camp. What can we do about it? Well, since my contention is that the problem starts in the elementary level of modern chinuch/education, that’s where the issue needs to be addressed. However, it requires an overhaul in the whole system.”

Dear Rabbi Shonfeld – with all due respect – you are right that an overhaul is required in the whole system – but not in Kew Garden Hills. The only thing that will save the young generation of Jews, and insure that Jews remain Jews, is to uproot Diaspora communities and relocate them to the Land of Israel.

Haredi communities may be more connected to Torah, as you point out, because of the hermetic world they live in, partly sheltered from the Gentile culture around them, but their community crisis is destined to come as well.

The Diaspora was never intended to last forever. Instead of teaching Jews that the Diaspora was a curse, the message Jews heard from Modern Orthodox and especially Open Orthodox pulpits around the country was that they had discovered the Promised Land in America (excluding your father’s powerful Religious Zionist sermons which inspired many people I know to make aliyah).

Yes, Diaspora Jewry is approaching its end, and it is only natural that this come to pass. Yes, the estrangement from Judaism is painful to watch, but Baruch Hashem, the Exile is fading away. The Galut is nearing its end! Isn’t this what we have prayed for the last two-thousand years? Why should young Jews come to shul in America when the prayers for the ingathering of the exiles and the building of Jerusalem are like, in the holy words of “The Kuzari,” the empty chattering of nightingales? Why take part in communal prayers when people don’t act on what they say? The young generation senses the hypocrisy and flees from it.

For the diehard remnants of the Diaspora, the time has arrived to come home. Instead of saving the Diaspora, we have to save the Jews, and that can only be done today in the Holy Land. That is the revolutionary educational message and overhaul that Diaspora Jews need to hear.

Hazak v’Amatz!



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