From Institutional Decay to Primary Day: American Orthodox Jewry since World War II

By Waxman, Chaim I. | American Jewish History, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

From Institutional Decay to Primary Day: American Orthodox Jewry since World War II


Waxman, Chaim I., American Jewish History


A number of works on American Jewry written during the early second-half of the twentieth century began with the contrast between the very pessimistic evaluations about the state of American Judaism at the end of the nineteenth century and the authors' more optimistic prognoses at mid-twentieth century. (1) An even starker contrast can be made between the state of American Orthodox Jewry at the time of World War II and at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The New York area has always been home to the majority of Orthodox Jews in the United States. According to the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, 73 percent of those who identify as Orthodox Jews live in the Middle Atlantic states, i.e., New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In the 1920s and 1930s, the overwhelming majority were in New York City proper, and as a result of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1923-1926 the period was the "heyday of American Orthodoxy." (2) The sense of elation and self-confidence dissipated rather quickly. Indeed, as Jeffrey Gurock's detailed analysis demonstrates, the first half of the twentieth century was the "era of non-observance" for American Orthodoxy, (3) and Orthodoxy was increasingly viewed as doomed in American society. As Jenna Joselit put it,

   By the 1940s the English-speaking Orthodox rabbinate had
   suffered somewhat of a reversal and was forced to take stock of
   its future. Now muted, its characteristic buoyancy and optimism
   was succeeded by a barely disguised sense of thwarted expectations,
   especially pronounced among the second and third generation of
   RIETS [Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva
   University] students, as the interwar years gave way to wartime
   and the fifties. To the modernized Orthodox Jews, once confident
   that their form of Judaism would become the dominant religious
   expression of second-generation Americanized Jews, it now seemed
   as if a true modernized Orthodoxy could be found only in
   isolated instances, in "pockets," and that the anticipated
   orthodoxization of middle-class American Jewry would not
   materialize. "A lost cause," reflected a RIETS graduate of
   1942, "Orthodoxy was not going anywhere." (4)

One of the problems was that when immigration was feasible, the most traditional and Jewishly-educated of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry, and especially its rabbinic-intellectual elite, were the most resistant to migration to the United States for several reasons. As a rule, the more traditionally religious are the most resistant to geographic mobility, in part perhaps because of its negative consequences on religious participation. (5) Eastern European Orthodox Jewry was further discouraged from migrating to the United States because of negative reports about religious life there. For example, New York's Rabbi Moses Weinberger (1854-1940), who had immigrated from Hungary, wrote a sharply critical portrait of Judaism in New York in the 1880s. (6) He viewed American society as totally materialistic, and he bemoaned the low levels of Jewish education and observance of dietary rituals in the country. His book was in large measure a warning to his fellows in Eastern Europe that the United States was a spiritual threat to religiously traditional Jews.

In the early 1890s, Rabbi Israel Meir Hacohen (1838-1933) of Radun, Belarus, one of the most revered rabbinic authorities of his generation, who was widely known by the title of one of his works, Hafetz Hayyim, published his own warning to Eastern European Jewry about the dangers of immigrating to America. In the conclusion to Nidhe Yisrael (The Dispersed of Israel), which is a work that clarifies some of the basics of halacha (traditional religious law) for those who were in "distant countries," especially America, the author warned of the risks of leaving Eastern Europe, and asserted that the economic opportunities were not worth the price of losing one's Judaism or that of one's children. …

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