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Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University

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Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University

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Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University tells the story of the emergence of Torah Judaism in the United States and Canada between the years 1940 and 1975. It was during this period of time that Jewish religious life and education succeeded in a modern, pluralistic and democratic society for the first time in history. Much of the Torah practice and scholarship that typifies American Jewry today stands as a tribute to Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, a singularly gifted man, and to the university he helped create. A young, poor immigrant, Belkin grasped the opportunity of an open, benevolent American society to renew the Jewish community?s ability to combine its eternal teachings with the contemporary virtues of the adopted land which he deeply loved. This book also discusses the rebirth of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, an important agency of Torah life, and describes the priceless legacy of Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the preeminent Torah giant of this exciting period. About the Author During a professional career that extended over four decades, Victor Geller played a significant role in the development of the Orthodox Jewish community of North America. Prior to his retirement as Dean of Communal Services at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) of Yeshiva University, he occupied a series of important roles at Y.U., including the organization of many Orthodox synagogues in the post-war era. Most remarkably, perhaps, was his position as Director of Rabbinic Placement at RIETS. In this unique capacity, Mr. Geller was the only layman in America to ever supervise rabbinic placement. Prior to joining the Y.U. staff, Mr. Geller also served on the staffs of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations and the National Council of Young Israel. From Halifax to Vancouver, from Los Angeles to Miami, Mr. Geller?s travels afforded him the opportunity to study Jewish communities, large and small. A gifted speaker, he has lectured and written extensively about the ever-changing trends in Jewish life. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Legacy (HarperCollins), Tradition, Judaism, Jewish Life, Jewish Action, Jewish Horizon, and Jewish Spectator. A decorated veteran of World War II, Mr. Geller and his wife, Hanya, made aliyah in 1999, and live in Jerusalem. Praise for Orthodoxy Awakens: Dramatic, gripping and perceptive, Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University is a fascinating and provocative look at a crucial period in American Jewish history. Victor Geller was an active participant in much of this history and personally knew its leading figures, which adds to the impact of this book. For anyone who wants to know about the amazing growth of Jewish life in America, and of the influence that individuals can have upon history, this is a ?must-read.? Rabbi Emanuel Feldman Retired Editor of Tradition and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Beth Jacob, Atlanta, Georgia Great, witty and thoroughly Jewish. This is one of those books that you will not put aside until you complete it. Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo Noted author and lecturer and Dean of the David Cardozo Academy, Jerusalem Victor B. Geller was both an active participant and keen observer during the formative years of the renaissance of Orthodox Judaism on the American scene. His memoirs are filled with valuable insights and details of unique events during this period. Above all, Geller brings to life the saga of Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, the second president of Yeshiva University. This is a volume that will be welcomed by scholars and devotees of the greater Yeshiva University world. Rabbi Aaron Rakeffet Historian and author of Bernard Revel and The Silver Era and Professor of Rabbinic Literature, Gruss Kollel, Yeshiva University (Israel) Victor Geller is the Alexis de Tocqueville of the Orthodox world. He writes with elegance, charm and wit, and is gifted with a perspicacious eye and a discerning intellect. Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University not only documents the fascinating story of the growth of the preeminent Jewish institution in America from a college to a university, it also?and even more importantly?insightfully describes the emergence of the Golden Age of the Orthodox Rabbinate, presenting through fact and anecdote how and why Orthodoxy emerged from irrelevance and obscurantism to its present place as a major force in American Jewry. Along the way we are treated to inside glimpses of the genesis of both the Union of Orthodox Congregations as well as the Young Israel movement. Victor Geller is the right person to document this extraordinary story: he was in a position to have made much of it happen, and he served as a wise and caring guide and mentor for many of the fledgling congregations and their inexperienced, unseasoned, but profoundly committed rabbis. I can personally attest to this since he was one of my wisest tutors. Rabbi Shlomo Riskin Chief Rabbi of Efrat and Chancellor and Dean of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs The life and achievements of the great Torah scholar, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Belkin, should be well known to the Jewish community. He built Yeshiva University into a magnificent institution of Torah U?Madda. The Yeshiva and its Torah studies remained the major focus of the University when he was its Rosh HaYeshiva. I am happy, therefore, to welcome the publication of Orthodoxy Awakens: The Belkin Era and Yeshiva University. It is interesting, insightful and very informative, for Victor Geller was intimately associated with this great and fruitful era and its colorful personalities during his many years of service at the University. It should be read by all who seek to understand the forces that made American Orthodoxy the dynamic movement it is in Jewish life today. Rabbi Solomon J. Sharfman Past President of the Rabbinical Council of America and Rabbi Emeritus of Young Israel Orthodoxy's unexpected vitality HOW MODERN ORTHODOXY CAME TO LIFE I found this to be a fascinating book for two reasons. The first is the macro story that it tells; the second is the micro story that it tells. The macro story is the rise of Yeshiva University from a struggling European style yeshiva to a major educational institution with a medical school, a law school, and thousands of students, and the rise of Orthodoxy from a movement that was expected to die off with the immigrant generation into what has become a vital and vibrant force within Jewish life. The micro story is the behind the scenes glimpse that this book provides into the personalities and the politics behind these transformations. Victor Geller is uniquely qualified to tell both these stories because he was deeply involved in both the Yeshiva University and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations for many years and because he obviously loves a good story and knows how to tell it well. The macro story is largely the story of Samuel Belkin, who molded Yeshiva University in his image. He was an Eastern European Jew, who studied in the yeshivas of Europe, but who understood that America was different and that it represented opportunity as well as threat to traditional Judaism. He got a doctorate from Brown, and did his dissertation on Philo and the Halacha, something that no yeshiva bochur of his time would have dreamed of doing. But the macro story is also the story of NCSY, the Orthodox youth group, which attracted young people to traditional Judaism. And it is the story of the U, the Kashrut symbol of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, which not only was a major source of income, but which gave status and standards to the supervision of kosher food in this country. And it is the story of the creation of a placement agency for rabbis?something unheard of until this time?which helped Orthodoxy participate in the explosion of new synagogues that took place in suburbia when the soldiers came home after World War Two. And it is the story of Torah Umesorah which created Orthodox day schools all over America in those years. And it is the story of a new breed of bright, talented and effective Orthodox rabbis, people like Emanuel Rackman, Gilbert Klapperman, Yits Greenberg, and Shlomo Riskin, who showed by their own example that one could be sophisticated Americans and committed Orthodox Jews. And it is the story of a movement whose challenge during the first post war years was dealing with unobservant members and competing with Conservative Judaism. For example, how do you send rabbis to synagogues that have mixed seating and how do you hold on to these synagogues for the movement if you don?t? Towards the end of this book, the challenge changes. Now the challenge is from the right, not the left. Now the question is: how does an Orthodox rabbi function when his learned and observant members turn to their roshei yeshivas for halachic guidance and not to him? How do the day schools function when their teachers come predominantly from the yeshivas of the far right? How does Yeshiva University survive when its motto: 'Torah Umada??Torah and Secular Learning is being challenged from within? What does it do now when some of its alumni find their own children no longer seeing the need to go to college and want to study only Torah instead? And what will happen in the years ahead when Modern Orthodoxy begins to sound like an oxymoron because of the move to the right that is taking place? Victor Geller?s book is not just a hymn of praise to the leaders of Yeshiva and the Union, as might be expected from one who was involved in public relations and institution building for both. Instead, it is a thoughtful and honest account of the amazing rise of Modern Orthodoxy in this last half century and then of the new and unexpected challenges that it now faces. That is the macro story that Victor Geller tells in this book. The micro story is his account of the behind the scene politics that the Yeshiva and the Union, like all human institutions, had its full share of. He tells, for example, of how Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, who was himself a candidate for the presidency of Yeshiva, threw his support to Dr. Belkin, because he thought that he could control him and be the power behind the scenes, and then found out that Dr. Belkin was not the meek scholar that he seemed but a powerful authority who insisted on running the institution his way and would be no man?s lackey. There is one story in this book that the reader will find astonishing. For almost all of his years at the Yeshiva and even after his death, Rabbi Soloveitchik has been revered as the shining star of Modern Orthodoxy. He was the model of enormous Torah learning combined with western education. He was the one who made it possible for others to acquire secular educations while remaining authentic Orthodox Jews. He gave Yeshiva University its credibility on the right, and its stature on the left. And yet, Victor Geller has unearthed a letter in which the board of trustees of the Yeshiva offered him a contract covering only one year, and this, only on condition that he drop all claims of Hazakah, of entitlement to the position which had been his father?s. To the surprise of many?and to the great good fortune of the Yeshiva?Rabbi Soloveitchik accepted this demeaning contract. As Victor Geller puts it: 'despite itself, the institution won its greatest victory?. Victor Geller also includes a letter that Dr. Soloveitchik wrote to the Yeshiva in 1937 in which he reminded the institution that the sum of one hundred and twenty five dollars that was due him in back pay was long overdue, and he includes the answer that he got from Moses Isaacs, the assistant to the President, admitting that because of financial difficulties, the payment of salaries was in arrears, and promising to pay him at the rate of five dollars per month for six months. Rabbi Soloveitchik had waited for two years before writing his letter; it took the Yeshiva nineteen months to reply, and in the end, they only paid him twenty four cents on the dollar! Those were the fiscal realities of the institution during the Depression. And these are the kinds of fascinating human interest stories that Victor Geller has gathered together in this book. Has Modern Orthodoxy gone from its tender beginnings to enormous success and is it now on the way down again?this time, not because of the attractiveness of the left but because of the success of the right? It is too soon to say, but the difficulties that the Yeshiva encountered in finding a successor to Dr. Belkin?s successor, Dr. Norman Lamm, who would combine Talmudic learning with secular knowledge, indicates that it may be so. We may have arrived at the situation that Rabhi Soloveitchik lamented about years ago when he said: My problem is that those that I can daven with I can?t talk to, and those that I can talk to, I can?t daven with. But let me finish this review with a story that I think symbolizes and explains what brought about the success of Orthodoxy and what still gives it its staying power. Victor Geller says that one year, in a certain city, a hurricane was predicted for Kol Nidre night. The local Reform rabbi called the local Orthodox rabbi and said to him: ?I know that you do not belong to the board of rabbis and that you do not usually share with us in programs. But this is an emergency. We are announcing that because of the impending hurricane, we are postponing Yom Kippur till the following Saturday, and we would like you to join us in our statement.? The Orthodox rabbi replied that he would do whatever he could to respond to this emergency but that he did not feel that he was authorized to postpone or cancel a holy day. And then he issued his own statement to his members. He asked them to come to services at the synagogue on Kol Nidre night---and to bring their bedding with them so that they could stay overnight on the synagogue floor. The congregation did as he asked, and they were the only synagogue in town that had Kol Nidre services that night. That story speaks to me, and I hope that it speaks to you. I think it explains the unexpected, unpredicted vibrancy of Orthodoxy in these last fifty years. This rabbi was right: a holy day cannot simply be cancelled because of bad weather.. But a brave and innovative rabbi can find solutions to a problem, within the Law, and make it possible for his people to observe in safety and with sense. Somehow this story, it seems to me, contains the explanation for the success of Orthodoxy in this last half century, because it describes a rabbi?s unyielding commitment to the Law combined with good sense, imagination, and a willingness to be innovative. That spirit, if it continues, and if it is not deterred by the pressures that come from both the right and the left, may enable Modern Orthodoxy to continue to live into the future. At least we hope so. Rabbi Jack Riemer

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