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The Canadian Jeiwsh News

Monday, September 22, 2014

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History of Orthodox student group captures the vibrancy of the 1960s

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Life for a serious Orthodox Jewish student on a North American university campus presents some challenges, but nothing like those that students experienced 50 years ago.

Walking around campus with a kippah on one’s head was unheard of then. Today at York University, for example, many students and faculty members do so without fear or embarrassment. Back then, it was almost unheard of to find kosher food on campus, and accommodations for students with exams scheduled on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays were not as automatic as they are today.

In 1960, the Orthodox student movement, Yavneh, held its founding international convention. Its purpose was, in part, to help individual Orthodox students solve the practical problems that came with attending secular universities. But it was dedicated primarily to more weighty intellectual and spiritual goals: helping students negotiate the perceived conflicts between secular liberal arts and traditional Judaism. Yavneh as an international student movement had enormous successes. The list of community leaders, respected rabbis and leading scholars of Jewish studies who “graduated” from Yavneh is impressive. Yet the movement disappeared around 1980.

A new book, The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism: Yavneh in the 1960s, was published in 2011. The author, the late Prof. Benny Kraut, had just completed the book’s manuscript before he died suddenly in 2008. Kraut grew up in Montreal and studied at Yeshiva University and Brandeis University. He had an impressive academic career as a widely respected professor of Jewish studies, first at the University of Cincinnati and then at Queens College of the City University of New York. A modern Orthodox Jew himself, he was profoundly influenced by the years that he spent in Yavneh and admitted that this micro-history book sometimes bordered on memoir.