While attending the Siyum Hashas celebration at the Meadowlands in New Jersey, I realized just how much the American Jewish landscape is slowly beginning to look like the current State of Israel: a people with a shared past, slowly diverging from each other into two separate civilizations.
Reflecting on my life the other day, I realized that I am used to spending most of my time around Jews. Growing up I attended a Jewish day school. Most of my Shabbatot were spent in my Conservative synagogue with my family, and sometimes were spent attending shul with my Orthodox friends and their families. I attended Jewish camp and was active in USY, a Jewish youth group. Nearly, if not all, of my friends to this day are Jewish. Generally, I attend to excel at the game of Jewish geography, as I rarely find that I am more than one or two degrees of separation away from most other Jews.
However, the 90,000 Jews that I spent last Wednesday night completing the seven a half-year cycle of Talmud study with were an entirely different crowd. The only other person I knew that evening was my modern Orthodox friend who had bought us the tickets. All of us present that evening may have come together to celebrate the same book, but that was the extent to which our commonalities manifested themselves. I grew up in an environment where it was expected we would be strong supporters of the State of Israel and where we would learn to speak Hebrew, whereas this event may have been the first large Jewish gathering I can recall that did not play Hatikvah: a reflection of the ambivalence that many ultra-Orthodox Jews feel toward the modern State of Israel. Several divrei Torah were delivered, but more of them were delivered in Yiddish (and understood by the majority of people in attendance) than Hebrew.
There was also a moment during the ceremony when I realized that the speakers were advocating for a much more exclusive definition of K’lal Yisrael than the more inclusive one I am used to promoting from the pulpit. Generally, when progressive American rabbis speak about the Jewish people collectively, we tend to speak in rather broad strokes, whereas many of the speakers, one even quite bluntly, acknowledged how wonderful it was to have the entire Jewish spectrum united and represented that evening: from “black hats, to streimels, to velvet yarmulkes, to kippot srugot (crocheted), and even baseball caps.”
This of course left me wondering, whether among the 90,000 gathered there was room for the non-kippah wearing Jew. Or, perhaps, for the women who sat under dimmed lights in the upper deck behind multi-tiered mechitzas whose cost was estimated at $250,000?
Certainly, it is no secret that there is an increasingly rightward shifting haredi community in America – in particular, surrounding the New York metropolitan area. I just had no idea in my naïveté that they could be so isolated and enclosed to other forms of Judaism like the Israeli haredi community continues to be. Living in the Diaspora, I have watched the events transpiring in Israel between the Haredi community and secular Israelis with interest, but with a degree of skepticism about that happening here. Unlike Israel, to stay on the Jewish community’s radar screen, American Jews must make more of an effort to connect. We must affiliate with a synagogue, belong to a Jewish Community Center, or give to a Jewish Federation to remain as a part of the community. More American Jews are connected to the religious establishment than Israeli ones, which I thought had given us at least minimal religious and cultural ties to the haredi population. Now, I am not so sure.
The event did live up to the hype; I have attended two Giants games in MetLife Stadium, but never in my life did I ever dream that I would find myself praying in a minyan there alongside 90,000 other Jews. The multimedia video presentations dazzled, and the programs were glossy and professional. There was dancing, celebration, and a sense of joy at having completed the Daf Yomi Talmud cycle.
But I left the stadium wondering whether this was a celebration for the entire Jewish people, or just a selection of it. Sitting in MetLife Stadium, I felt like a stranger among my own people. Many of them may not have even counted me among them at all. As the event proceeded, I came to the realization that the event would never belong to me, nor to the other eighty percent of Jews in America.
Instead, it belongs to a K’lal Yisrael in which increasingly, like the State of Israel, we are not seen as playing a legitimate part in the religious life of the country.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.
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