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only were most Hillel chapters indifferent to their needs, some Hillel directors viewed Orthodox religious practices as outdated and unnecessary.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.