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Boutique Orthodoxy

Posted July 2, 2010

In 1986, Jonathan Woocher published a volume entitled Sacred Survival: The Civil Religion of American Jews in which he argued that there were several tenets that defined the “civil religion” of the American Jewish community. These tenets included; the unity of the Jewish people, mutual responsibility and the centrality of the State of Israel. This argument was made in an era when Jewish umbrella organizations and synagogues drove the agenda of the American Jewish community and it reflected the goal of joint cooperation of this community.

Almost twenty-five years later, the role of the umbrella Jewish organizations has changed and Woocher has recently addressed the relevance of his earlier argument in a chapter that he wrote in The Cambridge Companion to American Judaism. Within the Orthodox community, the large synagogues and institutions have largely been replaced by, what I like to call, Boutique Orthodoxy. Within the synagogue community, the increasing numbers of smaller minyanim, catering to a narrow need or desire within the Orthodox community, create the foundation for this Boutique Orthodoxy. There are minyanim that champion a specific concern within the Orthodox community such as the participation of women in the service as allowed by halacha or the connection to Israel and Religious Zionism. There are minyanim that highlight high level shiurim delivered after davening, others that emphasize the element of song during davening and, of course, the minyanim that are geared to young couples or other subsets of the synagogue community. Even within the larger synagogues, the smaller minyanim have become increasing popular.

This is also true within the Orthodox day schools and high schools where programs are being created within the schools to cater to subsections of the student body. Special masmidim (advanced learning) programs that would have been unheard of thirty years ago are found in many yeshiva high schools today.

While Boutique Orthodoxy has the major advantage of creating greater excitement and passion among the members of the smaller group that share the same vision and values, it carries the risk that members will forget the lessons of Jewish unity and cooperation that Jonathan Woocher discussed. As we work to strengthen the Orthodox community, we must continue to create opportunities for greater involvement and passion but we must never forget the Jews who do not fit into the growing number of smaller groups.

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