Back in the 1950s and 60s, I don’t recall there being any labels identifying one’s religiosity. You were either observant or non-observant. In Yeshiva Torah Vodaath, which was in Williamsburg at the time, I never heard terms such as “Chareidi,” “Modern Orthodox,” or “Yeshivish.” Our classrooms reflected the full diversity of frum life. There were boys from all kinds of homes—some religiously stronger, some weaker, some Yiddish-speaking, others not; it made no difference. We were all in yeshivah for the same reason: to acquire the fundamentals of a good Torah education.
But yeshivot today are different. They are segregated and elitist; they do not reflect the range of Orthodox life. Each yeshivah caters to a specific clientele, distinguished by a particular shade or nuance of religious observance. Even schools that purport to be “community schools” oftentimes segregate children on the basis of family background (under the guise of academic ability or some other pretense).
In a fascinating article that recently appeared in Hakirah, Rabbi Dr. Aharon Hersh Fried, the famed psychologist and founder of Chush, a school catering to learning-disabled children, decries such segregation and claims that it is not the fault of the yeshivot but rather the fault of the parents. Parents are often hypersensitive about exposing their children to others who come from religiously different backgrounds, thus they create artificial arenas in which to educate their children.
There is much to say on this explosive topic, but this is not really the forum for such a discussion.
So why do I bring up the issue of segregation? Simply because such elitism wreaks havoc upon Jewish unity. In this issue, which we have dedicated to the theme of achdut, we ask a number of leading rabbis and thinkers, from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, to Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, to respond to one overriding question: Is unity possible?
Who among us doesn’t bemoan the lack of Jewish unity? Who among us isn’t deeply distressed when hearing about the clashes in Beit Shemesh? But learning how to interact with frum Jews of all stripes starts in the classroom. It cannot start when one is forty; it must start when one is four. We must learn how to play together as children in the sandbox, and then when we are adults we will be able to speak to one another—with tolerance and acceptance—in shul.
When a developmentally disabled child seeks to join Yachad, a program of the OU’s National Jewish Council for Disabilities, we do not ask if he is Chareidi or Modern Orthodox or secular. We welcome him with open arms, because he is a Jew, and therefore a member of the family.
Rabbi Fried cites the Maharal who states that when we are divided as a people, we prolong the exile. Who will bring about geulah? Those individuals who can see past the labels, those who can see past the particular style of yarmulke, past the external and the superficial to the transcendent oneness of the Jewish people.
I hope you enjoy reading this exceptionally meaningful issue as much as we enjoyed putting it together.