The Conspiracy

Orthodox Judaism is moving–where?

In honor of my first blog post, I’m going to steer clear of all issues pertaining to elected Israeli officials, elected (maybe?) Iranian officials, and Holocaust museums. As important as these things are, I’ll wait to discuss the more controversial ideas bouncing around on this blog until I feel a little more comfortable. But in the meantime, there’s no shortage of subject matter to discuss (we are Jewish bloggers, after all). For now, I’d like to bring the conversation back down to the lives of Jewish college students, soon to be adults beginning “real lives” in America.

A Long Island town called Stony Brook got some interesting press in this past issue of the Jewish Week. Stony Brook, located out in Suffolk County on the eastern half of the island, a good hour’s drive (at least) from New York City, is known primarily for the university in the neighborhood, State University of New York at Stony Brook. So you can imagine my surprise at the sight of it on the Orthodox Union’s list of areas around the country that are attractive to the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.

The article—as I did—immediately questions the legitimacy of a place like Stony Brook on a list of locations conducive to practicing Orthodox Judaism. It’s always cool to see Jewish life thriving in unexpected places, but Stony Brook seemed a little offbeat compared with places like Atlanta and Houston. However, interviews with Rabbi Moshe Roffman, spiritual leader of the Stony Brook Hebrew Congregation, and David Ebin, chairman of the university’s math department and a founder of the congregation 30 years ago, among others, confirm that a small community does exist, though it currently consists largely of members of the university’s academic community who mainly participate during the school year.

So what would a practicing Orthodox Jew find so special about Stony Brook, of all places? And what does this all have to do with young adults?

I must confess that I am far from an expert on emerging Orthodox communities, mainly because I grew up in the Five Towns, an area on the western part of Long Island that has “emerged” quite a bit. The Five Towns are home to such a large percentage of Orthodox Jews that yeshiva parents dominate the school board (a controversial issue that I do feel comfortable talking about and hope to address at some point). Living here has been a privilege. And although I am in no way qualified to tell you anything about living anywhere else—Stony Brook, Long Island in particular—I can confidently say that given the opportunity to start again, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up and move out east.

Why?

The reason is quite simple: to feel more Jewish. Life in neighborhoods like the Five Towns—where there are three Orthodox synagogues in walking distance from your house and stores are open Sundays because Saturday has simply become the universal day of rest—is a privilege. It’s convenient. It’s easy. Too easy. So easy that it becomes virtually unconscious, so comes a point when we’re not going to buy kosher groceries, we’re just going to buy groceries. Everything here is arranged and adjusted in line with Orthodox custom to the extent that we fail to see and appreciate the uniqueness of the lifestyle. I’m of the opinion that though it may seem difficult at the outset, living in an alternative community such as Stony Brook can enhance Jewish values and help Jews to more fully appreciate their tradition without having the convenience of immediate Jewish resources.

One may argue that despite the more “unconscious” lifestyle that exists in areas with larger Orthodox populations, having a substantial community is important. I don’t disagree: A Jewish experience has a strong social aspect. Growing up with Shabbat-observant neighbors, for example, makes a difference for a child. A synagogue crowded with enthusiastic congregants creates a more joyous atmosphere for occasions like Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and aufrufs. Undoubtedly, people are a big part of Judaism. If I had to guess, the services that take place in Rabbi Roffman’s basement in Stony Brook probably don’t match the lively, sometimes rowdy Shabbat services of a Five Towns synagogue. But that’s okay. Areas like Stony Brook afford the opportunity to take an active role in building a Jewish community in which to live, to celebrate, to welcome other Jews from different locales, and to welcome Jews from the neighborhood who may have once felt disconnected. By joining a smaller community, one truly has the ability to effect change for the better. This Jewish experience differs significantly from the large, already-established community with hundreds of synagogue member families—but there is also something to be said for the spiritual and physical fulfillment of participating in the creation of your own community.

Of course, an emerging community isn’t the right choice in every case, and fortunately, there’s still plenty of time to mull things over. Big or small, every Jewish community has something to offer—first and foremost, a comfortable place to observe holidays, practice customs, and share the rich tradition that belongs to all of us.

10 Older Responses to “Orthodox Judaism is moving–where?”

  1. Naomi
    June 17, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    Thank you for this post. I completely agree with you – while there was quite a strong Orthodox presence in the community where I was raised, it was also a very diverse community where I interacted with all sorts of Jews. The community was richer for it. While having a mivka, a decent school, and kosher food availability is crucial for an Orthodox community, that’s about it. You and your kids don’t only have to be friends with other Orthodox Jews. You don’t need lots of kosher restaurants. And (in my experience) small, heimish synagogues are a LOT more pleasant to be a part of than massive, impersonal, 400-family behemoths.

    You should really read this relevant article in the Jewish Week by Gary Rosenblatt that just got posted today: http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c52_a16104/Editorial__Opinion/Gary_Rosenblatt.html
    Here’s a great paragraph that really clinches it for me: “Rabbi Brander said that moving to Teaneck has, on one level, been a kind of spiritual exile for him personally. That community, a bastion of Modern Orthodoxy in the U.S., is widely admired for its many well-attended synagogues, Torah learning and highly involved Zionist activities. But the rabbi observed a downside of its homogeneous nature, noting that few if any of the local shuls, accustomed to like-minded congregants, offer beginners’ services for novice worshippers. There are no boxes of kippot for visitors, he said, no posters about the plight of Darfur in the halls. His critique was leveled at similar Modern Orthodox enclaves that tend toward complacency when it comes to wider interaction. “Our community and our children are poorer” for that lack of diversity, he said, “and our Orthodox community is poorer when it retreats and withdraws” from engagement with other Jews.”

    Being a part of a community like Atlanta, Houston, or even Stony Brook probably provides a much richer, more meaningful Jewish life than living in Teaneck or the Five Towns.

  2. Barbara Bietz
    June 17, 2009 at 12:04 pm #

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. I think we must be careful not to create one model of ideal Jewish living. The quality of one’s Jewish life is a personal issue. Community is important – and meaningul realtinships can be built in any community. If an individual or a family oprts to live in a strictly Orthodox xcommunity – there is no doubt numerous opportunities for personal and spiritual growth. The same can be said for a more heterogenous community. We need to avoic standing in judgement about the quality of another Jew’s lifestyle.

  3. Eli
    June 17, 2009 at 1:08 pm #

    Although I enjoyed your article, I disagree (or maybe misunderstand) your main point. I don’t think that it is necessary to be in a less Jewish bigger community in order to “feel Jewish,” mainly because I don’t think that spiritual fulfillment needs to come from either sacrifice or “standing out.” Having a strong Orthodox community is very important for the growth not only of the community but also of the individuals there. It reinforces the values that you want your kids to grow up with, and there’s a much smaller threat of your children being tempted to throw out those values. I’ll agree with you that in a more diverse environment, it is easier to feel more proud to be Jewish and to cherish what you believe in more, but it is also easier to get caught up in your surroundings and have a deep spiritual crisis. Of course, that diversity will be very productive to many individuals, but that risk is not something that you should place on the masses.

    But it’s not just a matter of risk. A more homogenous community where there is a constant striving among everyone for a certain ideal adds much more meaning to each individual’s endeavour. For example, in Israel, where everyone is Jewish, and where many communities are also very homogenous, the fact that those values permeate the streets of the community is a very positive thing. I don’t see why the same argument shouldn’t apply for an area like the 5 Towns or Teaneck as well.

  4. CaseyFronczek
    June 21, 2009 at 10:46 am #

    I saw that Casey Fronczek is offering fishing trips now down in south Florida. Does anybody have any input on these trips or has anyone been on one of these trips before?

  5. Zashkaser
    August 5, 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    Nice site. go to my favorites. TNx

  6. hotyuew
    October 20, 2009 at 12:40 pm #

    Замечательно написано. Я очень рад, что мы умеем писать и выкладывать интересную и полезную информацию

  7. C
    March 3, 2010 at 5:01 pm #

    Hi, This is very interesting information! I am a newlywed my husband is from a Sephardi community in Brooklyn and I an from out east not to far from stony brook. I was completely unaware there was a orthodox community even a small one in stony brook. We are now looking for a place to live that we would like start our life.. we are now living in rego park which has a good Jewish community but we find it a bit harder to brake into and intimidating as most are not of ether of our cultures. Is there any way you can email me a list of the temples in fives towns as well as the one in stoney brook? I want to go around and do a bit more research before I decide to rent. We are on the more modern orthedox side of things, but we do want to send out kids to yashiva. Thank you for this bit of information it was very interesting to read!

  8. David Ebin
    January 15, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    For information on the Stony Brook Hebrew Congregation (Orthodox), see our web page:
    stonybrookhc.com or contact me at: 631 751-3971

    With best wishes,
    David Ebin

  9. Daniel
    April 22, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    Nassau County has many Orthodox Jewish communities besides the Five Towns. Smaller Jewish communities in Nassau County are in Oceanside, Long Beach, and Plainview. Even Suffolk County has some Orthodox Jewish life in East Northport but not as much as Nassau County.

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  1. We’re Proud of Our Intern! « Jewish Book Council Blog - June 17, 2009

    [...] Magazine). Her first post, “Orthodox Judaism is moving–where?”, can be found here: http://blog.newvoices.org/?p=527. Stay tuned for more posts from Rebecca on NewVoices and possibly the JBC Blog! Comments [...]

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