- The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s
The title of Jeffrey Gurock’s important essay, “Twentieth-Century American Orthodoxy’s Era of Non-Observance 1900–1960,” suggests that the decade of the 1960s was a watershed in the character of Orthodoxy in America.”1 By implication, the “era of non-observance” gave way to something else. The reconstruction of Hasidic communities, advance of English-language Orthodox publishing, and growing number of day schools, yeshivot and summer camps are some of the changes commonly cited by observers of the American Orthodox scene. Part of the story has also been a growing polarization within Orthodoxy as different communities have emerged, commonly termed modern Orthodox, haredi, and Hasidic. The range of institutions and philosophies of these Orthodox branches became more pronounced following the 1960s. At present, they generally pray in their own synagogue and support their own schools, rabbinical seminaries, and summer camps. With regard to modern Orthodox Jews, sociologists have described fluctuations of religious behavior as “sliding to the right,” or “sliding to the left,” or “flipping out.”2
With the publication of The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s by the late Benny Kraut, we now have a significant historical study exploring some of the changes in American Orthodoxy [End Page 230] during that pivotal decade, with particular attention to issues facing the modern Orthodox community. While the specific focus of Kraut’s book is the college student organization Yavneh: The National Jewish Religious Students Association, the work raises important questions about American Orthodoxy as it emerged from its “era of non-observance.”
Founded in 1960 by students from thirteen college campuses, Yavneh hoped to promote religious observance on university campuses, explore the intellectual challenges between Judaism and Western thought and culture, and provide a social community that would address the alienation felt by many observant college students. Instead of defecting to Conservative synagogues or even totally rejecting Jewish practice, this generation of Orthodox youth exuded self-confidence, eager to articulate a compelling argument for the practice and beliefs of Orthodox tradition in a modern world.
The founders of Yavneh insisted on complete autonomy, unlike the many Zionist and synagogue youth groups affiliated with, and dependent upon, the financial and administrative assistance of adult organizations. Not surprisingly, this proved difficult to realize, as Yavneh inevitably required financial support and adult cooperation. The author emphasizes the pivotal role of Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg in formulating Yavneh’s vision and representing its interests to other communal organizations. It was Greenberg who initially envisioned and promoted Yavneh’s study program at the Merkaz Harav Kook Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He negotiated a much needed understanding between Yavneh and B’nai B’rith-sponsored Hillel and mediated among Yavneh and the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Torah Education and Culture Department of the Jewish Agency.
While Kraut admirably presents the details of Yavneh’s student leadership and advisors, publications and programs, internal politics and relations with other organizations, the major contribution of this study is the author’s presentation of Yavneh within the context of modern Orthodoxy over the past half century. As a robust expression of Jewish life in matters of demography, observance, synagogue attendance, Jewish education, and connection with Israel, modern Orthodoxy also saw growing internal fractures as well as tensions with an emerging haredi community. The scope of rabbinic authority, the balance of Torah study with secular education, interaction with non-Jews, and Zionism became increasingly divisive issues within Orthodoxy. Yavneh’s student members and adult supporters wrestled with many of these concerns, which continue to challenge the various streams of Orthodoxy.
The author notes that throughout the 1960s, Yavneh sponsored lectures and panels led by academics, rabbis and roshei yeshiva, representing [End Page 231] the spectrum of American Orthodox leadership. Among those involved in speaking at Yavneh events and advising their student leaders were heads of haredi yeshivot such as Moshe Feinstein, Schneur Kotler, and Yaakov Ruderman. The author asserts that current polarization within...