I have been saddened to learn of the dissension within the Seattle Jewish community in regard to the Kollel’s divisive policies. As one who was born and raised in Seattle, I feel a special connection with my “home town,” and always am concerned for its well-being.
I have been serving in the Orthodox rabbinate for the past 38 years, as rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel (founded 1654) in New York City. I have been very involved in local and national Jewish matters, and am past president of the Rabbinical Council of America. I have seen many positive changes in American Orthodoxy over the years — but also some troubling negative trends. I am founder and director of the Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals, which fosters an intellectually vibrant, compassionate and inclusive Orthodoxy.
I have no personal knowledge of the effects of the Seattle Kollel on the established day schools in Seattle, but have read the Kollel Community Impact Statement prepared by David Balint (“Managing change,” Sept. 21). It seems that what is happening in Seattle follows a pattern seen in various North American cities that have invited or accepted Kollels into their midst. After initially supporting the communal Orthodox synagogues and schools, the Kollels tend to operate increasingly on their own terms and with their own agendas. This process can lead to the establishment of separatist schools, the disparagement of existing schools, and the undermining of authority of the local Orthodox rabbis.
The right-wing shift in Orthodoxy has been well documented by Dr. Samuel Heilman in his book Sliding to the Right. This brand of Orthodoxy, while possessing positive virtues, tends to be authoritarian, insular and self-righteous. It sees itself as the only legitimate representative of halachic Judaism, thereby dismissing, ignoring or denigrating the halachic opinions of others who disagree with its viewpoints.
If the Kollel group chooses the path of separation, it is free to do so; but I do hope that members of the Seattle community will not be supportive of this divisive approach. Instead, the community should rally around its existing day schools, strengthen them and take pride in the fine education they provide. It isn’t “more religious” to support a right-wing institution. On the contrary, that support only encourages further divisiveness and undermines the harmony and inclusiveness that should characterize Seattle’s Jewish community.
What you are facing in Seattle is confronting many Jewish communities throughout North America. You can set an example by maintaining high quality community day schools, and not enabling divisive policies to undermine communal solidarity and unity.
The only way to resist the “slide to the right” is to stand up for an intellectually alive, inclusive and confident modern Orthodoxy.