The Green­ing of Amer­i­can Ortho­dox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s

Ben­ny Kraut
  • Review
By – October 31, 2011

In 1970, Charles Reich pub­lished The Green­ing of Amer­i­ca, high­light­ing the six­ties coun­ter­cul­ture as a new form of con­scious­ness. Build­ing on the image, Ben­ny Kraut notes that Yavneh played a sim­i­lar role for mod­ern Ortho­dox Judaism. His posthu­mous­ly pub­lished book, The Green­ing of Amer­i­can Ortho­dox Judaism, is an orga­ni­za­tion­al his­to­ry of an impor­tant youth move­ment in the six­ties and the sev­en­ties. Despite its short life, this stu­dent-run effort devel­oped a host of inno­v­a­tive pro­grams which served as mod­els for cur­rent youth pro­grams. Draw­ing on the resources of larg­er orga­ni­za­tions — pri­mar­i­ly the Ortho­dox Union, which pro­vid­ed space, mon­ey, and staff — Yavneh estab­lished a short-lived year in Israel pro­gram, Torah tours to var­i­ous cam­pus­es, a sum­mer learn­ing pro­gram, cam­pus-based social and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, and served as the mod­el for the net­work of cam­pus-based Chabad Houses.

Clear­ly the orga­ni­za­tion cre­at­ed an impor­tant space for Ortho­dox stu­dents on cam­pus­es which often did not accom­mo­date stu­dents’ reli­gious needs: cours­es and exams were held on Shab­bat and Yom Tov, and not only were most Hil­lel chap­ters indif­fer­ent to their needs, some Hil­lel direc­tors viewed Ortho­dox reli­gious prac­tices as out­dat­ed and unnec­es­sary. The Hil­lel rab­bi at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, for exam­ple, told one Barnard pres­i­dent that it was not nec­es­sary to keep kosher while liv­ing in a dor­mi­to­ry since “…being in a dor­mi­to­ry is like being in the army.” This was not an iso­lat­ed incident. 

Kraut empha­sizes anoth­er facet of the organization’s impact, one which he admits was not a major moti­va­tion for most par­tic­i­pants, that mem­bers wres­tled with many of the inter­nal con­tro­ver­sies that faced mod­ern Ortho­doxy as it engaged mod­ern cul­ture, reli­gious plu­ral­ism, and the Yeshi­va world.” Undoubt­ed­ly, Yavneh served as an impor­tant incu­ba­tor for a num­ber of today’s lay and reli­gious lead­ers and teachers.

Bear­ing in mind the fact that the book was in draft form at the author’s death, there are sev­er­al glar­ing lim­i­ta­tions which might have been mod­i­fied if Kraut had had the oppor­tu­ni­ty. First, is the author’s bias toward a cer­tain strand of mod­ern, what some call open’ Ortho­doxy. This is evi­dent in unsub­stan­ti­at­ed claims and over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions. He points out that While the reli­gious palette of the Ortho­dox right in rhetor­i­cal style and sub­stance tend­ed to the mono­chro­mat­ic, that of the mod­ern Ortho­dox exhib­it­ed a dis­tinc­tive­ly col­or­ful spec­trum of halacha and the­o­log­i­cal hues.” At a lat­er point, he claims that Yavneh mem­bers cre­at­ed a mod­el for Art Scroll pub­li­ca­tions but that they, in con­trast to Art Scroll founders, were astute­ly aware of the defi­cien­cies of Amer­i­can Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al resources and ped­a­gog­ic method­olo­gies and con­ceived of reme­dies for the sit­u­a­tion.” In a dis­cus­sion of the lega­cy of Yavneh’s sum­mer learn­ing pro­gram, his one exam­ple is Drisha, a small pro­gram lim­it­ed to young women, while over­look­ing the high­ly suc­cess­ful and far more numer­ous NCSY sum­mer pro­grams and learn­ing and work/​learning pro­grams in the cen­trist and mod­ern’ camps Morasha, Meso­rah, Lavi, and Moshava. 

A sec­ond lim­i­ta­tion is the fact that the broad­er con­text of Ortho­dox life is not ade­quate­ly por­trayed ear­ly in the book. Key works on mod­ern Ortho­doxy, espe­cial­ly the work of Jen­na Weis­man Joselit and Jef­frey Gurock, are notably absent. A detailed dis­cus­sion of cam­pus con­di­tions for Ortho­dox stu­dents at the time of Yavneh’s found­ing is not described until Chap­ter 7, with very brief ref­er­ences at ear­li­er points in the book. Com­plete­ly miss­ing is the fol­low­ing fact: the year of Yavneh’s found­ing coin­cides with the begin­ning of a grow­ing num­ber of col­lege stu­dents who were grad­u­ates of the Jew­ish day schools found­ed in the late 1930’s and ear­ly 1940’s. More­over, some of these young peo­ple were prob­a­bly the chil­dren of Euro­pean refugees whose out­look was quite dif­fer­ent from ear­li­er Ortho­dox col­lege stu­dents. Regard­less, Kraut has pro­vid­ed an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion of a mul­ti-cam­pus effort advo­cat­ing for Ortho­dox stu­dents on col­lege cam­pus­es, giv­ing them social and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties, expand­ing access to kosher food, and pro­vid­ing them with a ref­er­ence group.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

Discussion Questions