As Modern Orthodoxy Dies in Israel, It Thrives in New York

Israeli mainstream religious thought is increasingly dominated by the view that complexity leads to heresy, not least in the school system, where the indoctrination begins. In New York, it's like a different religion.

I could have written about the number of children and teachers in the classroom. I could have written about my son’s enrichment class in archaeology. Or maybe about the iPad my daughter received from her school for study purposes, thanks to which she can now point out North Carolina on a map without labels. But I won’t, because even I know that it isn’t fair to pit an Israeli public school, with its ongoing budget woes, against a private Jewish school in the United States, whose budget is well-watered by a tuition fee of $22,000 per year per child, not including donations.

But money – as important as it is, and as nice as it is – is not the story here. The story here is about the ability of an Orthodox Jewish school to educate its pupils, girls and boys alike, to a life that doesn’t involve continual brainwashing about religious conceptions of modesty, a preoccupation with petty, embarrassing minutiae of Jewish religious law or a refusal to cope with the challenges of modern life.

I don’t want to sprinkle salt in the wounds of my friends in Israel, who have already gotten used to believing that if they want their children to feel at home with works such as the Mekhilta [a third-century commentary on the book of Exodus] or Tractate Kiddushin [of the Babylonian Talmud], they must put up with their children being subjected to harsh, one-dimensional indoctrination.

That’s why many of them didn’t even get upset when their children came home at the end of the first week of school this year with a calendar that had a photo of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook on the cover and its pages filled with quotations from his works. A quick clarification showed that this was no coincidence. The head of the religious education department at the Education Ministry had chosen Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook as the religious figure who would be studied that year and whose doctrine must inform the younger generation. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the spiritual leader of the settler movement? Heaven forbid it should be his father, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the revolutionary and challenging philosopher. Several parents tried to contact the school system to tell them how problematic the choice of Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook was. The administration shrugged.

None of this would have seemed all that unusual to me if my older children had not left an Israeli public religious school three and a half months ago and begun attending the Salanter Akiba Riverdale Academy (better known as SAR) in Riverdale, New York. It has an Orthodox identity, but here that means much more than an endless medley of songs in honor of Jerusalem Day.

Sometimes it’s uncomfortable to admit what gets me enthusiastic about it, since that means I set a very low bar when it comes to a well-rounded Jewish education. That’s exactly what happened during our first month in New York, when I told all my friends on Facebook that my daughter, who is in the sixth grade, was asked to choose one of the leading Jewish scholars of the modern age and write a composition about his life. Among the choices were the 18th -19th century Vilna Gaon and Hatam Sofer, the 20th century Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (yes, Zvi Yehuda’s father, the philosopher). But what caught my eye was the name of Nechama Leibowitz. It appeared there as a matter of course, as if women had always appeared in the pages of Jewish texts. She was the one my daughter chose.

When I went over the study material for her history test, I was surprised to find a long and detailed unit about the Stone Age. The various prehistoric periods numbered millions of years, with no apology. “Did they explain how it goes together with the story of Creation?” I asked cautiously. “No,” my daughter said laconically. “There’s nothing about how the six days of creation took millions of years?” I asked, quoting the well-known apologetic attempt to reconcile the two. “No, nothing,” said my daughter, leaving me with a big smile on my face.

Here’s another example. The school principal, Rabbi Binyamin Krauss, held a parents’ meeting where he laid out the new programs of study. During the meeting, he mentioned that many pupils undergo a crisis regarding prayer services once they reach middle school. I was impressed that the school even admits to such a problem and chooses to address it. It would be so much easier to put the responsibility on the children or their parents. To deal with this crisis, the school created an option of alternative prayer several times a week. Anyone who wishes can attend a shorter service (that includes the main parts of the service), and then join a group that studies a short excerpt of the prayer texts. The purpose of this, said Rabbi Krauss, was “to personalize prayer.”

Well, all right, the detractors will say, rolling their eyes. This kind of education will turn out children who are quite modern, but not very Orthodox. After all, a basic principle of the world view that has taken over religious thought in the Israeli mainstream is that complexity leads to heresy. But now I’m seeing my children come home from school loaded with religious experiences for the first time in their lives. I see echoes of this in the conversation one of the teachers had with my son about his difficulty with wearing tzitzit. I see traces of it in the depth of Bible and Talmud study.

I felt the force of this disparity very strongly, and very sadly, during the bat mitzvah preparation classes my daughter and I attend at the school once a month. Each meeting focuses on a different Jewish woman, from the Bible onward. The girls and their mothers read the relevant texts together, study the ancient Jewish sources, and everybody hopes that the young women-to-be will manage to live at peace with the dissonance between Orthodoxy and feminism for another few years. At the last meeting, the topic of study was Deborah from the book of Judges. I was particularly amused by the opening sentence: “Then Deborah sang, and [so did] Barak son of Avinoam.” In the original Hebrew, the past-tense verb “sang” is written in the feminine singular. From this, we know it was Deborah who sang. So what is Barak son of Avinoam doing there?

It reminded me of how, during my childhood, I heard that in order to avoid violating the dictum that “a woman’s voice is tantamount to nakedness,” girls in the co-ed Bnei Akiva choir, which has since been disbanded for reasons of modesty, would not be allowed to sing solo. Look, I thought, even Deborah had to have someone sing with her.

I almost raised my hand to share this memory with the other mothers, but then I remembered two things. The first was my daughter thinks that a mother with opinions is a social embarrassment. The second was that only two weeks before, I heard the co-ed choir of Ramaz, another Jewish high school, sing in synagogue. The boys sang solo. The girls sang solo. The girls and boys sang together. The audience enjoyed it, and I sat there asking myself how religious society in Israel had reached such a point that to a woman who had grown up there, a co-ed choir singing religious songs could seem like an anomaly in the landscape, almost a provocation.

"Modern orthodoxy has died in Israel," I murmured to my neighbor in synagogue, "and lives and thrives here. And only here...."

Vered Kellner has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years. She recently moved with her family from Tel Aviv to New York.

Kobi Gideon / BauBau