I have served as rabbi and spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, New Jersey for eighteen years. Cherry Hill is wonderful place to live and raise proud Orthodox Jewish children.
In addition to our growing Orthodox community that boasts four shuls, a Day School, two Eruvin, two women’s Mikvaot and two men’s Mikvaot we also have a large and proud non- Orthodox Jewish community. We have a strong Federation of Southern New Jersey, a wonderful foundation that provides necessary funding for communal needs, a fantastic Coalition of Families for Children with Special Needs, a stunning JCC building and the most successful JCC camp in North America.
The Orthodox community interacts well with the greater Jewish community. As the senior synagogue in town, we at Sons of Israel host the Politz Day School on our campus, oversee the Cherry K Vaad Hakasruth, the West Side Eruv and Mikvaot as well as the local Chevra Kaddisha. Chabad handles the East Side Mikvaot and excellent Orthodox camping options while Torah Links oversees the East Side Eruv. The entire Jewish community benefits and is grateful for the services that these Orthodox institutions provide.
It has been asked umpteen times – if the JCC serves a majority of non -Orthodox Jews why must the kitchen be maintained Orthodox kosher? If the senior housing division provides residence to a majority of non-Orthodox Jews why must it be Orthodox kosher? Why are the burial customs and rituals in town only Orthodox? The compelling answer presented for over the better part of a century first by Rabbi Bernard Rothman shlitt’a and then by me and others is because we want to maintain a community standard that is uniform and satisfactory to all levels of the community. In other words we should rise to the lowest common denominator of normative Orthodoxy in the United States. This is how we transitioned to supplying only Glatt Kosher meat in our institutions, and building and maintaining communal standards that we are proud of. (If you come to Cherry Hill on Chol Hamoed, Yeshiva week or summer vacation you will see hundreds of Orthodox guests enjoying our services).
The OU (Orthodox Union) has played a significant role directly and indirectly in fortifying our positions throughout the years. We looked to the OU for guidance in Kashruth, Synagogue Services, Yachad, political advocacy and more. The reason the Orthodox community maintains confidence in their positions and is respected by all is because of the sincerity and consistency of our positions. In the “out of town” world Orthodoxy stands for tradition and the unbroken chain of Mesorah from Sinai.
We live in a free country and everyone is able to practice their religion as they would like to. But it is duplicitous to espouse non-Orthodox theology and brand it proudly as the New Orthodox. This is simply false. Besides distorting the authentic ways of our religion, it also causes confusion, mistrust and a cheapening of Orthodoxy throughout the non-Orthodox and gentile worlds. It awakens an unhealthy questioning about the eternal truths of Judaism that have been understood as Orthodox until now. Thanks to the OU this will not be the case.
The OU appointed a respected rabbinic panel to author a responsum last year that advanced the clear position that the concept of a female rabbi is simply incompatible with Orthodoxy. This week the OU has courageously adopted the position that they will not tolerate any violation of the response. Failing to abide by the rabbinic decisions in the response will mean exclusion from the OU synagogue network. It asked the four synagogues to change the title by which the women serving in clergy positions are called, but when they did not, decided not to oust them from the organization as the positions were filled before the OU rabbinic ruling. They continue to hold discussions with those synagogues on the subject, however.
Yes there will be fallout. The liberal press will again paint the OU as primitive. There will be a handful of rabbis and synagogues that will feel offended and let it be known. But at the end of the day religion is one of the only arenas left where there is the possibility of pursuing truth, authenticity and clarity in a chaotic and Fake News world. As an Orthodox rabbi in an out of town community in the United States who tries to teach the Torah transmitted to me from my mentors who studied in the great Torah institutions with the Orthodox luminaries of yesteryear I can sleep better now that the OU has made as clear as possible that the principles of Orthodox Judaism do not change with the winds of society.
Ephraim Epstein serves as the rabbi of Sons of Israel, the largest and longest contiuously functioning synagogue in the Delaware Valley. He is a member of the RCA executive committee but these views reflect his own opinions.