If Yeshiva University (YU) wants to be a vibrant presence in the United States, it has to create stronger relationships with the Modern Orthodox community, so said YU President Richard Joel during his keynote address at the Orthodox Union's (OU) 13th annual West Coast Torah Convention, which was held Dec. 11-15 in Los Angeles. The theme of this year's convention was "The Secret to Jewish Survival: The Jewish Family."
The OU is the central coordinating organization for Orthodox communities in the United States and Canada. In Los Angeles, the OU has 14 member congregations. While it is well known for its kashrut supervision and its youth organization, the National Council of Synagogue Youth, the OU has recently started to focus on strengthening the Jewish family.
Convention sessions took place at local synagogues and at the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The sessions ranged from talks by psychologists on "Keeping Our Marriages Spicy" and maintaining the balance between family relationships and religion, to lectures by rabbis on the halachic (Jewish Law) obligations of husbands, wives, parents and children.
In his speech, Joel said that in order for families to survive, they need an environment of a community that defines itself as a family of families.
"It can't be cold, forbidding or exclusionary," Joel said. "It can't build walls and needs to reinforce values and offer services to the family."
"I'm saying that we have a lot of work to do," Joel continued. "I am here to say that YU must fulfill a role of being in partnership with the communities with a passion for our world view and our passion for Torah."
After his speech, Joel clarified his vision to The Journal, saying that YU needs more community-based programs, because the Modern Orthodox community feels under siege.
"They see a vigorous left and a vigorous right, and they are feeling defensive, even though they know that the lifestyle that they have and the life values that they have are relevant and strong, but they don't understand why," he said.
"YU needs a speaker's bureau," he added. "We don't have organized ways to provide services to the day schools. We haven't galvanized the rabbis and the educators we have trained as a strike force."
"We need to provide an engine to the broad Jewish community for continuing training for Jewish professionals, for being a cauldron for educational planning for people from all the day schools," he said. "The vision that we have to have is that we have to take some responsibility for the Jewish future."
Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a YU biology professor and the rosh yeshiva of YU's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, also spoke at the convention. Tendler is known as an expert on medical ethics and halacha. He spoke on two subjects: "The Genome and the Jews: Responding to New Discoveries and Tests" and "Providing Care/Withdrawing Care: Halacha in Conflict With Changing Legal Doctrines."
Tendler said that the Torah perspective is one that welcomes genetic research. In an interview with The Journal, Tendler explained that stem cell research is one of the most hopeful areas in disease therapy today. He said President Bush's intrusion in that area was tantamount to the destruction of the separation of church and state, and the cause of the exodus of many U.S. scientists.
"President Bush, under the influence of the fundamentalist Christians, declared that humanhood begins at the time of fertilization," Tendler said. "Never in the history of humanity has that definition been accepted."
"Nobody could even think that something in a Petri [dish] could be declared human, but President Bush did and then declared it abortion at a time in America when abortion is your constitutional right [thus prohibiting] all stem cell research," he said. "In Torah law it is quite clear what is humanhood and what is not humanhood."
Tendler also criticized Republican Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida for disregarding the separation of the legislative and judicial branches of government, when he interfered in the case of a comatose woman and ordered her feeding tube replaced. However, Tendler did say that ethically, Bush did the right thing, and that halacha would require the woman to be kept alive and receive care.
"Now the secular God in America is 'autonomy'" Tendler said. "You can refuse therapy if it pleases you. In Jewish law, it is my obligation to provide health care for everybody."
"If someone wants to refuse therapy, then you would say that they are in violation of halacha," he said. "We are coercive in providing medical care [because] we have a far greater concern for the sanctity of life."