It seems AS is on winter break and home back East for a while. He has given me lots to think about the Midwest and Orthodoxy. There is much here to discuss. Do I have any Midwest readers (besides Evanston) to collaborate? Any Thoughts?
Here is the Guest Post by AS
Because you asked….since moving west of the mid Atlantic Appalachians for the first time in my life and as a result becoming a bit of an unwitting anthropologist, I offer the following: I quickly noticed that the East Coast elitist narrative (which I have realized surrounds explicit intellectual and tacit economic aspirations) does not resonate in the Midwest on almost any level (just to take one trivial example – East Coast transplants find it crazy that the centrist school curriculum is at least one year behind the east coast schools they went to in Limmudei Kodesh curriculum, the natives don’t notice the difference). And aside from some ardent but not very ideological Zionism there is nothing to take its place.
Centrist communities are very much in decline by most metrics from the rust belt to Chicago and many are and have been trying to import East Coast products to compensate but with limited long-term success thus far. The only Centrist narrative I can detect is still very much the immigrant success story: they came from Europe, they became American, and they remained Orthodox. But that is a given for those who are two generations removed – it is not the story of their lives. There is no master narrative of Centrist Orthodoxy to provide the building blocks for Centrist/MO identity formation.
As a result a lot more people gravitate to the Lith. Yeshivish circles (if they grew up frum) or the BT Aish or Lubavitch circles if they did not – not for ideology, but for a more robust narrative that actually talks about God, and popular religion that more easily provides a large variety of spiritual engagements for different tastes. Challah baking, inspiring talks simulcast around the world, tehilim groups, school plays, quasi hassidic tisches, chavrusas with full time learners, weekly halakha sheets that give easy entree into the world of chumrot, stories about sephardic miracle workers, shiurim about how mitzvot are magical, Torah as a series of simple moral lessons.
So my guess is that Centrist shuls turn to popular culture in an attempt to add more to the religious smorgasbord hoping that given that all the other stuff is pretty much spoken for, this will appeal to the people who want shul to be a continued affirmation of their American identities, the only centrist narrative that is yet discernible. I think that you will find that most of their appropriations of popular culture play on distinctly American themes or react to the ways in which the American identity has become problematic.
The most interesting to me has been the idea of shul as a refuge for men, maleness and the besieged American male ego (this is especially true for members of the decimated Midwestern middle class – East Coasters tend to forget that there were actual Centrist true middle class communities where most of the members lived comfortably on single income blue collar jobs or small businesses, and there were only a handful of professionals). The result is a flourishing of men-only programs, some official some not. Men seem to gravitate toward shiurim for men, some offering cigars or single malts (and of course kiddush clubs), father-son learning, men only leisure activities organized by the shul, and a variety of men’s sports leagues organized by shulgoers. Shul is marketed as a place where you can comfortably seek out a fraternal and masculine identification which you can no longer get at the workplace and which in mass popular culture is almost always presented as sophomoric testosterone-fueled self-parody.
For someone who grew up with an elitist narrative (perhaps a particularity extreme form, where nearly everyone in your shul had semicha and an advanced degree) , and will admit that it is still very constitutive of my religious affiliation, this is pretty bleak. Centrism here provides no compelling story and is now struggling to fill in the gaps left over by streams of Orthodoxy that have done a better job of presenting an appealing popular religion. And if not for its unreflective quasi religious Zionism, it would be even weaker.
In sum my verdict is that Centrist Orthodoxy writ large does not provide a framework for a flourishing of popular religion, and perhaps has not since the early 60s. The result is that there are few building blocks for many second, third and fourth generation Centrist Americans Jews to form the stable religious identities necessary to maintain their communities.
The elitist narrative will still work for some of the people – certainly for many of the kids attracted to some of the old overseas hesder yeshiva programs and some others who have spent a year or two in Israel and now feel that they have got it. They probably do learn better than they ever did in high school. And they will likely be attracted to the shiurim that play on their strengths and ignore their weaknesses – that at least is what I witnessed over the course of 8 or so years in and around YU.
Is there a point in bursting the bubble? Do you put them in a room with an English speaking bochur from Chevron so that they can see what someone their age could achieve in learning if they did almost nothing else? Is it worth pointing out that the spiritual satisfaction they ostensibly get (or are told that they get) from learning a number of hours a day will likely not carry over once they start working the hours necessary to pay for day school tuition?
Centrism needs a narrative that is triumphant yet grounded. For an older generation it really was enough that you became American, helped build a synagogue and day school, and most of your kids remained religious. But centrism today requires a narrative that holds its own against hareidi themes like rebuilding what was lost in Europe, the self-evident authenticity of its fundamentalism, or of everyone, even the little people having a role to play in a larger elitist story. But aside from those three necessary components I cannot flesh out the story. (maybe we need centrist focus group researchers asking questions like: what are you proud about in your Judaism; how do you see yourself as distinct from other Orthodox groups; what would you tell your kid if they asked you… etc?)
As far as economic aspirations: you have to remember that this region has had a massive exodus of young college graduates for richer pastures. For those that stay thee are clearly different economic aspirations. You don’t need to go to a top law school or get a job in finance. The cost of living is much lower resulting in lower tuition. A successful professional can pretty easily be a sole provider. And there are more blue collar workers and tradesmen who are Orthodox than I have seen in any other region (compare to New York where the Orthodox who were not college educated went into small businesses and real estate). There is also a suspicion of East coast elitism – not the Tea Party kind, but more of a “stop telling us how we are screwing up all the time” fatigue. In the Centrist community there is also a wariness of rabbis and educators who come from the East and are perceived as seeing it as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
So how will they react to WINGS? On the one hand they are probably desperate to revitalize shuls that may be slowly shrinking. On the other hand they don’t have the cash to blow on certain kinds of programs and they probably feel that people like Steve Weil, despite his Midwest cred, is now thoroughly out of touch with what goes on in flyover territory.