Although I often agree with Jay Michaelson, a brilliant writer and scholar, I was taken aback by the tone of his most recent article in the Forward. Citing recent scandals involving sex abuse and money laundering, as well as struggles surrounding the kotel and circumcision, he expresses fear that Haredi populations are growing exponentially in New York and Israel. He predicts that the results of the demographic shifts “will be catastrophic.” As a non-Orthodox Jew who has written about Orthodox Jews, I am offended by this prediction and feel obligated to respond.
Using data from a recent survey of New York Jews, Michaelson warns of the growth of Haredi communities: “pretty soon, the hierarchy will overwhelm us… Non-Orthodox Jews will look like the secular Persians of Iran: once the complacent majority, now a minority oppressed by fundamentalists.” This analogy works well for Israel but seems a stretch when applied to the United States. Yes, the demographic trends will lead to non-Orthodox Jews being a small percentage of U.S. Jewry in a few generations. But why should this scare us? And why should our response be to undermine Haredi hierarchies? A more appropriate response, I think, would be to build up non-Orthodox institutions, culture, and families, a point also made in a response to Michaelson’s article by Forward Editor Jane Eisner.
Even if we followed Michaelson’s suggestions, the demographic trends among Haredim would likely still continue. Let’s suppose that non-Orthodox Jewish institutions stopped supporting impoverished Haredim, convinced the U.S. government to block loans for yeshiva students, and somehow engineered an exodus of many open-minded Haredim. Would the majority of those who remained Haredi then decide to have small families? Highly unlikely.
If we did begin lobbying against educational funding for yeshivas, we might bring negative consequences for other Jews. Michaelson writes, “We can demand an end to all federal and state subsidies to yeshivas that do not prepare students for contemporary economic and civic life.” Yeshivas prepare students to be rabbis, scholars, educators, and leaders in the Jewish community. The same is true for non-Orthodox rabbinical seminaries and institutions like Hebrew Union College’s School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, where I teach. A major difference is numbers. A large percentage of Haredi men attend yeshivas, compared to a tiny percentage of non-Orthodox Jews. Should we then lobby state and federal governments to fund only a few yeshiva students each year? It seems to me that any lobbying effort against Haredim could backfire for Jews more generally.
Another issue that arises in Michaelson’s article is where to draw the line between Haredim and the rest of Jews, which he refers to as “the mainstream of Jewish denominations — including Modern Orthodoxy.” As I explain in my book, Modern Orthodoxy and Haredi Orthodoxy exist on a continuum. Many people are uncomfortable labeling themselves as one or the other and use the terms instead to distinguish themselves from those to the right and left of the continuum. Take for example a man who wears a black hat and learns daily and a woman who wears skirts and a sheitel (wig) and strictly follows the laws of menstrual purity. Are they Haredi? What if they work as doctors and allow their children to watch cartoons? Are they Modern Orthodox? If I was a frum Jew in the middle of the continuum, I would not know whether Michaelson’s suggestions apply to me or only my more Yeshivish neighbors.
But the most glaring problem that I find in Michaelson’s article is the implication that Haredim as a group are to be feared. He does mitigate his critique (“Of course, there are wonderful Haredi Jews out there”), but his juxtaposing sex scandals and religious coercion with warnings about demographic trends in America leading to catastrophe smacks of essentialism. I agree that there are problems in Haredi communities, just as there are problems in any group. But to indict all (or most) Haredim for the misdeeds of some of their leaders and for some systemic issues is akin to holding non-Orthodox Jews responsible for the Madoff scandal or blaming all African Americans for the crimes of gang members.
I do think that Michaelson makes some important points. Organizations like Footsteps are crucial in helping former Haredim integrate into American society, and non-Orthodox funders should support them, as he suggests. I agree with his proposed response to developments in Israel: “We can support our allies in Israel that are fighting for religious pluralism, for equal conscription of all Israelis, for civil marriage and for the defunding of the rabbinate.” And there’s no denying that because of high birth rates, Haredim will be the majority of world Jewry in just a few generations. But instead of seeing this trend as an impending catastrophe that we should work to counter, let us instead begin the process of getting to know the Jews who will soon be in the majority. Through dialogue and relationship building, Haredim and non-Haredim can learn from each other – from our similarities and our differences.