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100 YEARS YOUNG :Young Israel Marks a Century of Activism

Binyamin Rose

Between 1890 and World War I, a period when more than 90 percent of America’s 200 synagogues were Reform and vast numbers of the 2.5 million newly arrived Jewish immigrants spent Shabbos at work, it’s no wonder Jewish youngsters living in America, though free to practice their religion, didn’t find it all that appealing. It was this initial period of challenge and opportunity that gave birth to the Young Israel movement.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In a recent Viewpoint article, “The Young Israel Story: How a movement inspired the rebirth of Torah in America,” former Viewpoint editors Yaakov Kornreich and Joel Saibel note that the traditional date cited for the origin of the movement is 1912.

“In fact, that date simply marks the first time the name ‘Young Israel’ was applied to one of two groups of young American-raised Jews who banded together to create Young Israel as a multifaceted, revolutionary, and uniquely American Jewish movement,” they explain.

Young Israel started offering Friday night lectures on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1913, hoping to lure youngsters back to structured Judaism by offering a stellar list of the leading English-speaking lecturers of the day on contemporary but authentic Jewish topics.

At first, the Orthodox establishment viewed Young Israel as part of the assimilatory threat of American culture, but soon accepted it as a mainstream branch of Orthodoxy. In fact, the Young Israel charter, passed into law by the legislature of the State of New York in 1926, mandated that every member synagogue have a mechitzah and shomer Shabbos officers, clauses that went a long way in ensuring the continued Orthodoxy of every branch.

Young Israel of Flatbush, founded in 1921, was the first branch to design and build its own synagogue. Its leaders also became the founders of local yeshivos and mikvaos, establishing the basic infrastructure and services that enabled Flatbush to emerge as a world-class Torah center. By 1926, a second branch, the Young Israel of Brooklyn, had 500 members and by the mid-1920s, Young Israel had 5,000 members in 18 branches in New York and New Jersey.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, the Young Israel concept spread overseas to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and England. Today, the Young Israel movement has about 150 shuls in North America and about 50 affiliated member shuls in Israel, according to Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.

“One hundred years ago, the movement started with the notion that Torah Jewry in America needed to be saved for the young generation of American-born Jews,” reflected Rabbi Lerner. “During these past 100 years, the movement has been able to maintain the standards and the vision of the original founders: traditional Torah values, while adapting to the modern world without having to sacrifice the basic principles on which Young Israel was built.”

Today, the National Council services and assists both Young Israel and nonaffiliated shuls, focusing its activities on the spiritual and physical wellbeing of the members and the institutions. In the recently announced round of Department of Homeland Security funding, Young Israel garnered some $800,000 in security grants for eleven shuls.

“Shuls are still calling us and asking us if we can help them in the next funding cycle,” said Rabbi Lerner.

As Young Israel approaches its 100th anniversary, Mishpacha assembled a roundtable of retired Young Israel rabbanim at our Jerusalem offices. Each opened a window to the role played by Young Israel in their personal and communal lives. In doing so, they added vivid strands to a joint tapestry of the American-Orthodox Jewish experience that has left few in our community untouched.


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