Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Lakewood: How it redefined the nature of American Orthodox Judaism

Tablet Magazine [...] There are assuredly many factors that have contributed to the success of the Lakewood yeshiva, chief among them its determination to be the American yeshiva with the best students and the highest standards. There is another important factor, however, one that went unexamined in the articles published and speeches delivered on the occasion of the yahrzeit: Lakewood’s seamless integration into American society. Although Reb Aharon (as the founder is referred to within the yeshiva world) was radically countercultural, an uncompromising opponent of the American pursuit of wealth and pleasure, his yeshiva has made its peace with American bourgeois values. Many of Lakewood’s alumni sacrifice financially to pursue vocations as educators and community rabbis, and a few do spend their lives in penurious full-time study, but most enter the business world and build lives of white-collar respectability and commercial success, with the attendant trappings of a comfortable suburban lifestyle. Lakewood’s integration of yeshiva ideology and American capitalist lifestyle has been the object of critique from the more hardline Israeli Haredis whose uncompromising stance has put them at odds with the larger society in which they live. But it is these baalebatim, or householders, and others like them who provide the substantial financial support necessary to keep the Lakewood yeshiva, as well as the many other community institutions, going and growing. [...]

The “Primacy of Torah” was an apt phrase for the motto for the azkarah, as it hints that there is something else that serves as a necessary supplement to the study of Torah, namely making money. The pragmatic approach of Lakewood stands in stark contrast to that of the Lithuaninan Haredi community in Israel, where the prevailing ideology is one of “Only Torah.” Yeshiva students there are expected to devote their entire lives to the study of Torah; secular education and jobs are actively discouraged. According to Dr. Benjamin Brown, a Hebrew University lecturer whose research focus is Orthodox Judaism and Haredi society, Israeli Haredis view their American counterparts with a measure of condescension: The bourgeois lifestyle of American Haredis may be acceptable “for them” in America, but not in Israel, where the Haredis hold themselves to a higher, less compromising, and more austere standard. Torah study itself in America is also considered by Israeli Haredis to be on a lower level, which Brown believes is supported by the fact that “American bochurim [unmarried yeshiva students] come to learn in Israel, not vice versa.” The same perspective was shared with me by Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, a Haredi religious court judge in Jerusalem. According to Pfeffer, the “mainstream” Israeli Haredi “looks upon his Lakewood counterpart as being part of the American experience of affluence and luxury and generally believes that Torah greatness cannot emerge from America—even from Lakewood.”

I asked Aaron Kotler what he thought of these assessments of Lakewood by Israeli Haredis and, not surprisingly, like a good CEO, he declined to respond. Kotler does not appear to harbor within himself any doubts concerning the rectitude of Lakewood’s religious path and its scholarly achievements, and he would therefore have no need to defend himself and his institution. He may also recognize that behind the critique there lies covert respect or even admiration. Pfeffer noted that Lakewood, and the American Haredi community more generally, is perceived by Israeli Haredis to be more “tolerant,” allowing its members “greater freedom of choice in leading their lives: the choice to work rather than learn is not shunned, the dress code is not as rigid … and the ‘prohibitions’ (against iPhones, iPads, etc.) are more flexible.” Although some see this greater tolerance and flexibility as evidence of weakness and compromise, others “admire the American model and wish there could be more tolerance and freedom of choice in the Israeli Haredi experience,” he said. As the constraints barring young Haredi men from entering the workforce and business world in Israel are beginning to loosen, and with the political pressure unleashed in the last election on Haredi society to “share the burden,” the Lakewood model may become more than a secret wish. The “primacy” of Torah may one day rival or supplant the Israeli Haredi ideology of “only” Torah—another example, perhaps, of the steady Americanization of Israeli society.


  1. R' Itamar Schwartz, author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh, wrote a blistering, passionate essay about the wealth and materialism he perceived in the American Orthodox community:

    I understand and identify with his call for a simpler lifestyle, but I don't agree with the Israeli charedi approach that looks down on work. In my book, Avos 2:2 is eternally true.

    1. I do not know very much about Rav Schwartz's travels, but allow me to speculate.

      Perhaps Rav Itamar Schwartz is judging American Orthodoxy based on what he has seen in the American Orthodox communities that most champion him, which happen to be communities with extraordinary levels of gashmius.

      I would guess that the families with which he has stayed, as is typical where important guests visit, have the biggest and fanciest homes in the community -- and the fanciest wives to match.

      His exposure, therefore, has been to the very fanciest families within the fanciest communities -- hardly the basis to extrapolate to American Jews as a whole.

  2. Superintendant ChalmersJune 5, 2013 at 5:02 PM

    While I think this article is accurate overall, and it's a fact that many Lakewood alumni do become part of the American bourgeoise, and part of American corporate culture (no judgments from me, I myself am part of it) I think an important question that remains unasked is - would Rav Aharon be pleased with that development? Someone can correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing in his time, you didn't have people leaving BMG to law school etc. Would he have wanted his yeshiva to look like it does now? I'm not so sure of the answer...

    1. Rav Aharon never wanted a "mega Yeshiva", he wanted a hundred or so Talmidim and no more. It was only Rav Shneur and subsequently Rav Malkiel together with R' Aharon Kotler, CEO that made the Yeshiva and the community into what it is today. Rav Aharon would probably not want his "100" Talmidim to be part of the American life but then again he never wanted this exclusive approach for the masses.

  3. Superintendant ChalmersJune 5, 2013 at 5:03 PM

    And btw - the article mentioned a few times the original 14 bochurim. Anyone know who those were, perhaps a list?

  4. Much as I adore the proliferation of biographies of the lives of gedolim of yesteryear (of all factions of the frum world), I struggle with the implications that seem popular. We are told about the foolishness of mimicking, yet we seem to excel in this. The problem is not just the superficiality that comes with the "acting as if", but the misapplication of values. If one would attempt to repair an automobile engine using parts made for another make and model, there is a strong chance that the motor will not function correctly. Rav Aharon Kotler ZT"L had a mission that was actually completed many years ago, and his strategies were appropriate for that mission. He undertook to transplant yeshivos in America. This required a focus on the excellence in learning that was required, accompanied by the austerity of lifestyle that would ward off the influences of modernity. He accomplished this well, and led the yeshiva that produced many roshei yeshivos that spread out across United States. The "Kollel" concept was similarly brilliant, and contributed greatly to Torah in America.

    Generalizing to the masses as well as maintaining the broad scale of this model into today's era is deserving of tough questioning.

    1 - We have a community that cannot sustain itself, having guided too many into low paying jobs appropriate for the uneducated and untrained.
    2 - Many who went into chinuch got into trouble, being unqualified. Still many of them struggle to cope with the challenges of the present time.
    3 - The overgrown yeshiva model is frighteningly poor. It guarantees that no talmid has a Rav Muvhak, essentially violating the edict of the mishna - עשה לך רב. This deteriorates into chaos rather quickly.
    4 - The Lakewood model, in which there was intense control over the community, is debatable altogether. Even if we feel it is positive, it is impossible to do with true leadership when this community is huge. The environment is one of control, dictatorial patterns, and often frank bullying. I do not need to explain this with examples which could be embarrassing.
    5 - The Kollel lifestyle was never intended to become the norm for an entire community. We now witness the very supporters of the yeshiva community - the baalei batim who produce income while remaining true to Torah - shunned in most serious ways. Their children are relegated to second choice yeshivos, while the "first choice yeshivos" who only serve kollel families seek their financial backing. The Zevuluns of the world are easily discarded, except at fund raising events. Rav Aharon ZT"L may have sought to place Torah on a pedestal, but he was nowhere near excluding the working frum as is experienced today.

    Bottom line - Rav Aharon's dream was beautiful, and he was B"H successful. However, it is being misapplied at the current scale and in the present time.

  5. the gemorah says elef nicnosim vachod yotze (one thousand go in and one comes out) having said that there are a thousand bochurim in Lakewood but nothing coming out the one that does come out to be the godal is not from Lakewood just look around who are the true gedolim not bmg talmidim!!

  6. Cheap housing contributed more to the explosive growth of Lakewood than anything Rav Malkiel ever did.

    Graduates of Mir, Torah Vadaas, Chaim Berlin, Torah Temimah, etc. simply could not afford to raise a family in Borough Park or Flatbush.

  7. Recipients and PublicityJune 6, 2013 at 9:56 AM

    VERY IMPORTANT TO NOTE: That the term "Lakewood" must be defined when used.

    On the one hand there is "Beth Medrash Govoha" (BMG) that is known as the "Lakewood yeshiva" or simply as "Lakewood" (Wikipedia: "As of 2012, the yeshiva has 6,500 married and undergraduate students,[1] making it one of the largest yeshivas in the world.")

    BUT, there is also the VAST attached growing numbers of communities, yeshivas and bais yaakovs for girls that are NOT officially part of BMG and that may or may not have rabbis and lay people who are connected with BMG.

    Many new Torah institutions and communities of American Charedim of mostly Ashkenazi non-Chasidim yeshivish type people are sprouting up all the time in the Lakewood Township, New Jersey area that have no prior or present connections with BMG at all, and those communities and yeshivas and institutions are often loosely referred to as being part of "Lakewood" but they have no official connection with the Lakewood that is BMG.

    Of course the main engine that started it all and that is pushing things along for the growth and appeal of Lakewood Township is the original "Lakewood yeshiva" or BMG, but by now when one hears the word or name Lakewood one must ask for clarification EXACTLY which Lakewood is being discussed.

    There are students learning in yeshivas not connected with BMG who try to pass themselves off as "learning in Lakewood" trying to create the impression that they are in BMG when anyone who knows, knows you have to find out more, because "Lakewood" today means lots of different things to different people.

    There are millionaires and rich Charedim with vast wealth living in Lakewood. There are a huge amount of growing businesses in Lakewood the place. There are lots of frum retirees streaming into Lakewood the place not into any yeshivas, there are frum girls being sent from all over America to bais yaakovs in Lakewood. There are young frum professionals who set up families in Lakewood and commute to other places like NYC to the north or Philadelphia to the south, and there are young professionals such as frum doctors who move to Lakewood to set up practices. It is quite a booming place. There are also growing numbers of Chasidim moving to Lakewood setting up chedorim and yeshivas for their children, and many new shtiebels are being set up.

    Lakewood is particularly attractive to non-Chasidic Ashlenazim, who are leaving the dominantly Chasidic centers of Boro Park and Monsey and don't wish to go to more "modern" places in New Jersey like Edison, Passaic and Teaneck. While Flatbush, Far Rockaway and the Five Towns are too expensive and there is too much connection with the influx of either Sefardim, Israelis, Russians, and too many Modern Orthodox influences.

    The Lakewood community is becoming "the place to be" for more serious-minded American Ashkenazi Yeshivisha Charedim. If course it helps that the "big engine" of BMG is constantly growing and expanding and pulling in thousands of new talmididm from all over America and the world all the time making it the "capital" of the Litvish yeshiva Torah world in America.

    By now, the Lakewood behemoth totally dwarfs all the other Litvish yeshiva combined and has basically wiped them out in terms of comparative size. If one deducts the elementary and high school divisions of the famous big Brooklyn yeshivas of Torah Voda'as, Mir, Chaim Berlin, Torah Temimah and a few others, all the combined students of post high bais medrash programs and kollel would maybe fit into about the quarter of BMG size.

    1. RaP:

      Your description is partially accurate. However, you have omitted one dynamic. There is a powerful political force emanating from BMG that has a stranglehold on the town. One need not be affiliated with BMG to be held under its control. Ask those who live there. In some sense, one might feel this is a positive thing. I can hear the argument. But it is highly debatable that this form of control is dictatorial, and is a negative.

      You are correct that there is much in Lakewood that is not BMG. But the degree of control by the BMG administration should not be minimized. As I noted above - I will not specify any examples, which would be embarrassing.

    2. Recipients and PublicityJune 7, 2013 at 12:19 AM

      "Just a Talmid said...RaP: Your description is partially accurate. However, you have omitted one dynamic. There is a powerful political force emanating from BMG that has a stranglehold on the town. One need not be affiliated with BMG to be held under its control. Ask those who live there. In some sense, one might feel this is a positive thing. I can hear the argument. But it is highly debatable that this form of control is dictatorial, and is a negative. You are correct that there is much in Lakewood that is not BMG. But the degree of control by the BMG administration should not be minimized. As I noted above - I will not specify any examples, which would be embarrassing."

      You are right, but my underlying goal was to counterbalance the already critical tone and comments, both direct and implied, in the quoted Tablet article.

      What you point out is just the inevitable consequence of BMG being the "elephant in the room" and they would in fact be foolish if they did not try to wield their muscles. After all, BMG is now built and run on American corporate lines and like all corporations it is determined to retain its monopoly on the "market" not just in Lakewood but wherever they have a footprint on the ground. It can range from "dictatorial" to a "benevolent monarchy" but that is the way it works when living in a community that strives to live according to set rules. The Kotler clan are after all tough people, and Rav Aron Kotler z"l, the original founder, was the toughest one of all, just look at what he fought and accomplished even well-after his passing!

      It is an imperfect world we live in and that is just the way things work for better or worse. No doubt many mistakes are made and nepotism is not a pleasant thing. It smacks of the Mafia unfortunately but it is a universal phenomenon not unique to BMG and its hold over the Lakewood community at large. But as long as you are a peace-loving citizen and mind your own business you will never bump into the Mafia ever in your life. That is the way America works. Is Israel a better place in this regard? Not really. There are so many private vested interests and government controls that it's maybe worse. Are the Chasidic dynasties "democratic" or the yeshivas? or the various rabbinates? Entire towns and sectors are under various forms of strict controls by vested controlling interests. What else is new?

      So bottom line, there are always different ways of coming at a picture, does one want to focus on the fact that the cup is "half empty" or is it better to focus on the cup being "half full" -- objectivity and balancing criticism with praise is never easy.


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