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The Only Way to Wean America's Orthodox Jews Off Trumpism

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Ultra-Orthodox protesters carrying pro-Trump signs gather to denounce a localized lockdown due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, Borough Park, New York City, October 07, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters carrying pro-Trump signs gather to denounce a localized lockdown due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, Borough Park, New York City, October 07, 2020Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP
Hannah Lebovits
Hannah Lebovits

For the last four years, Orthodox Jewish institutions have shown broad support for the actions and rhetoric of President Donald Trump. Many Orthodox institutions encouraged their members to see Trump’s rise to power as a unique and exciting pathway to support religious insularity, the State of Israel, and traditional gender and family dynamics. 

For years, those Orthodox institutions would not engage with those of us who pointed out the clear signs that Donald Trump was not a moral guide of any sort, but a childish, irrational, and even violent autocrat.

Indeed, his abhorrent views on women, racial minorities, and other already marginalized groups were not only ignored, they were celebrated – as finally the quiet sexist, classist, and racist prejudices could be stated in the public sphere with few repercussions. 

Over the last six months, these Jewish community organizations doubled down. They mobilized to get out the vote, but only for Trump: sending out mailers, statements from rabbis, and videos from prominent Roshei Yeshiva (yeshiva heads and community leaders).

After the results indicated a win for former Vice-President Joe Biden, they then permitted questions about the election results to remain legitimate in the eyes of their constituencies, by passively allowing the questions to remain in the air and entertaining their legitimacy in public fora. 

The front cover of the 5 Towns Jewish Times, a weekly Orthodox Long Island paper, featuring one of its pro-Trump columnists participating in the rally at the CapitolCredit: Twitter

Only in the days since the siege of the Capitol on January 6 have some Orthodox organizations finally agreed that they were wrong to support the chaos and confusion of the last few months. There have been calls for change, for the community to engage in a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. 

But now we must wonder: will the Orthodox Jewish community really change in any significant way? Is a real soul-searching likely? 

Based on my research and my own experiences, I would argue that if we do not work much harder to move away from blind Trumpism, and from supporting the most undignified elements of this country, it's highly unlikely that any real or lasting change will occur. 

As an institutional scholar, my research focuses on the ways that organizations, particularly governmental and nonprofit organizations, create and deploy processes, policies, and practices to generate outcomes for their constituencies. Rather than focus on individual human behaviors (micro-systems) or large-scale social processes (macro-systems), I study the middle space (meso level) where groups of individuals come together to engage in collective action efforts. 

One of the research puzzles I think about quite a bit is the question of how institutions operate when they are trying to shift the status quo for their constituencies. It’s a timely question, particularly for the Orthodox community right now. 

The answer, in short, is that it is incredibly difficult, and must be supported by people inside the institution as well as the network in which the institution situates itself.

And though several major Orthodox institutions - including media outlets ("We have to say al cheit" [a collective admission of sin], educational organizations, (January 6th "should force our community to recalibrate our moral compass") and political groups ("We call on President Trump to...restore that peace") have stated for the record that they did not support the violence at the Capitol, they have not proven to be dedicated to the behaviors that will actually enable change. 

What exactly are these behaviors? In my research studying chapters of federated agencies, I have found that a successful effort to promote change requires (1) internal practices that encourage collaboration and reduce hierarchical systems, (2) strong support from the central agency in the federation, and (3) a collective action-framing device to reduce fracturing. 

Ultra-Orthodox Jews wave Trump flags in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against COVID-19 restrictions in New York. October 7, 2020.Credit: YUKI IWAMURA/ REUTERS

In other words, in order for an Orthodox Union member shul or a Torah Umesorah school or an outpost of a Chassidish community to truly change its trajectory, the institution itself should be highly collaborative, the larger network it is a part of should support the effort, and the institution should find a way to frame all of this so that individuals feel they are collectively tied and accountable for one another. 

Currently, there’s little proof that the local institutions most intimately tied to the everyday lives of Orthodox Jews are engaging in any of these behaviors to wean their communities off Trump’s election conspiracies or acknowledge his responsibility for the January 6th events.

From what I have gathered from publicly shared data, following their formal decry of last Wednesday’s insurrection, they have not been engaging collaboratively with their constituencies in any of the ways that Orthodox leaders use to take a stand or educate its community: forming task forces, creating shiurim or even sending out information on the next steps forward. They also do not appear to have been given any significant assistance or guidance by the leading nationwide, well-resourced organizations to which they are members. 

And while there have been statements that call for moral clarity, there have been few efforts to clearly frame the issue as one that demands our collective attention, based on our unifying identity as American Jews

But there is hope. Based on the preliminary findings of my co-authored research studying synagogue responses to COVID-19, I believe we already have the systems and infrastructure in place to do this work - if we so choose. 

An Orthodox Jewish protest against new coronavirus restrictions featuring Trump flags in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. October 7, 2020.Credit: Mark Abramson / NYT

The global pandemic demanded that we all significantly change our behaviors, and some Orthodox synagogues were at the forefront of these changes. As Shabbat services, the central component of Orthodox synagogues, could not be performed online because of halakhic restrictions, rabbinic leaders felt the pressure to figure out how to retain the value of the synagogue without endangering their members. 

And, in studying their efforts to respond adequately and accurately to the dangers of COVID-19, I have found that Orthodox synagogues across the United States displayed exactly the three tendencies that are needed to draw the line with Trump. 

They immediately sought to work with their members to collaborate and divide responsibilities. They also sought and received guidance from their vertical and horizontal networks. Lastly, they used collective terminology to frame the issue not as something the individual must be burdened with, but as something the entire shul would do together. A collective effort to keep each other safe. 

Drawing on this existing infrastructure, I do believe that Orthodox institutions, particularly the federated ones, can encourage a soul-searching effort to shift the trajectories of their constituencies towards a definitive embrace of rational, pro-democracy politics. 

But, unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, Orthodox leaders must recognize that the threat to the viability of their institutions comes from within. This time, we will not be combating an external threat, but will be engaging the hearts and minds of our own.

Thankfully, as Jews we have a strong tradition of doing exactly this, of taking internal stock of our current state of affairs. Hopefully, it will be exactly these traditional values that we can draw on in the coming months and years to rehabilitate the Orthodox community. 

Hannah Lebovits is an assistant professor of public affairs and urban planning at the University of Texas at Arlington. A Hasidic Jew, she is a graduate of BJJ and Lander College for Women and a frequent contributor to Jewish media publications. Twitter: @HannahLebovits

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