Orthodox Judaism in America

A history of Orthodox Judaism in America since World War II.

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The following article is reprinted from the American Jewish Historical Society’s American Jewish Desk Reference: The Ultimate One Volume Reference to the Jewish Experience in America, published by Random House.

Eminent Orthodox leaders among postwar Jewish refugees 

American Orthodox Judaism in general and yeshiva education in particular were transformed following World War II, when several distinguished rabbis, rosh yeshivas [heads of Jewish academies], and Hasidic rebbes fled Europe and relocated their institutions in America. [A Hasidic rebbe is a religious leader of a particular group of Hasidim, members of a pietist movement which originated in the first half of the 18th century.]

orthodox judaism in americaRabbi Eliyahu Meir Bloch and Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Katz established a Telshe yeshiva in Cleveland in 1941. Initially comprised of a small number of European students who had escaped war- torn Europe, by the 1960s the Telshe yeshiva had developed a boys high school, post-high school yeshiva, a kollel [for higher level study], and a girl's seminary. In 1944, Rabbi Aharon Kotler established the Beth Midrash Gevoha in Lakewood, New Jersey. After developing some outstanding students of Talmud, the Lakewood yeshiva came to have an enormous influence on American Orthodoxy and its graduates established new yeshiva schools and kollels throughout North America.

These transplanted European yeshivas were different from the American institutions established prior to World War II. The American yeshivas established prior to World War II encouraged secular study and promoted programs in rabbinical ordination, while the Telshe yeshiva in Cleveland, Beth Midrash Gevoha in Lakewood, and other postwar yeshivas founded by eminent European rosh yeshivas, encouraged Torah study exclusively, and eschewed accommodation with American mores.

A new era of leadership for modern Orthodoxy

Not all distinguished rosh yeshivas agreed with this approach. A new era of leadership for modern Orthodoxy began when Rabbi Yoseph Dov Soloveitchik, the eminent Talmud scholar, was appointed Talmud instructor at RIETS in 1941. Inspired by Rabbi Soloveitchik's brilliance in both secular and religious knowledge, modern Orthodox Jews in particular looked to him for direction not only in matters of halacha [Jewish law], but also regarding religious and political issues confronting Jewish life in general. Rabbi Soloveitchik's leadership was crucial as modern Orthodoxy continued to grow in America alongside a growing community of Haredim [literally "those who fear [God], often referred to as ultra-Orthodox Jews].

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Moshe D. Sherman is an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Jewish Studies, Touro College.