HUC Press is pleased to announce the publication of Benny Kraut's "The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s," the history of the Yavneh religious students collegiate organization that flourished in the 1960s.
This fascinating historical study tells a story within a story. Benny Kraut’s primary aim was to reconstruct the history of a relatively unknown and short-lived Jewish collegiate organization, Yavneh: The National Jewish Religious Students Association, particularly during its heyday in the sixties. But his historical narrative of Yavneh—its surprising appearance in 1960, its mission and organizational efflorescence, its stunning educational innovations, its problematic engagement with inter-Jewish pluralism, and its lamentable but understandable demise in 1980-81—is framed within the context of an evolving American Orthodox Judaism that during these precise decades began to undergo both a remarkable religious revival and a deep-seated religious polarization. The history of Yavneh thus exposes both trends in bold relief. On the one hand, in so many intellectual, religious, and cultural ways, Yavneh and its members and supporters contributed significantly to the (modern) Orthodox revitalization. On the other hand, the organization and its students experienced the gamut of internal Orthodox divisions over religious ideology, educational priorities, and openness to non-Orthodox movements and secular culture.
Yavneh, therefore, serves as an illuminating historical marker by which to probe the broader Orthodox vicissitudes of the day—vicissitudes that it both reflected and to which it was subject. Benny Kraut’s historical account not only brings this singular organization to public consciousness, but also offers a revealing glimpse into the unfolding drama of American Orthodox Judaism at a critical juncture in its recent growth.
Benny Kraut (1947-2008) was the author of From Reform Judaism to Ethical Culture: The Religious Evolution of Felix Adler (1979) and German-Jewish Orthodoxy in an Immigrant Synagogue: Cincinnati's New Hope Congregation and the Ambiguities of Ethnic Religion (1988), as well as many articles and essays. He earned his doctorate at Brandeis University and taught at Vassar College, the University of Cincinnati, and Queens College, where he most recently directed the Queens College Jewish Studies Program and its Center for Jewish Studies. Over the span of his career Professor Kraut was the recipient of multiple awards for distinguished teaching.
Kraut's book has a detailed and wonderful foreword by Dr. Jonathan Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University. Dr. Sarna wrote, "Modern Orthodoxy stands front and center in this book. Using the techniques of “microhistory,” Kraut brilliantly shows how Yavneh both reflected and anticipated larger trends in the past half-century of American Orthodox life. In his analysis here, and in private conversation, Kraut celebrated the “more open Orthodoxy of yesteryear” and lamented “the profound socio/religious polarization that has characterized Orthodoxy these last decades.” To the very end of his tragically foreshortened life, he personally embodied that “open Orthodoxy.” He read widely, maintained friendships across the Jewish spectrum and beyond, and engaged students of all religions and races.
"Modern Orthodoxy, for Kraut, entailed the highest standards of ethical behavior. Living and working for much of his career in the community of Cincinnati, where the Orthodox formed a small minority, he knew that many would judge Orthodoxy as a whole by how he acted and behaved. He did everything in his power to bring honor to Orthodox Judaism by modeling a virtuous life. Students and colleagues noticed. They often spoke of Kraut as a “prince” and a “real mensch.” The widow of a prominent Reform rabbi who studied with him became one of his close friends and admirers; so did numerous Reform rabbinical students at nearby Hebrew Union College. His door was always open to students. And he frequently opened his home to them as well, inviting them to share his Sabbath table. He exemplified for them what it meant to be a committed Orthodox Jew and a generous and selfless human being.
"Modern Orthodoxy also shaped Kraut’s award-winning teaching. Throughout his career, at Vassar, at the University of Cincinnati, and later at Queens College, he taught highly successful courses that spanned the Jewish tradition from the Bible to contemporary Jewish life. He knew and studied traditional sources, but he also took care to master the full range of scholarly sources on any subject that he taught. He searched for truth wherever he could find it. In the classroom, he never was satisfied with easy or traditional answers. Instead, he pushed students to address the most difficult and intractable of humanity’s conundrums: Job and the problem of evil, the mystery of antisemitism, the unfathomable horrors of the Shoah. He also insisted upon openness in addressing these questions. No answer or opinion was “off limits.” Students in his classroom learned to think for themselves."
The book is available from HUC Press's distributor, Wayne State University Press. Click here to purchase the book.