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We Talk A Good Game
Tue, 03/19/2013 - 20:00
Editor and Publisher
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt much, if any, cooperation and collaboration can there be — or should there be — among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities, starting with their rabbis?

At times we talk a good game of Jewish peoplehood, Clal Yisrael and Jewish unity; crises still can bring us together, like concern about the fate and security of Israel, threats of anti-Semitism, the need for Jewish education. But when you get down to the practical level, the fact is that there is very little interaction between liberal and Orthodox Jews. We tend to socialize with those in our own congregations and religious communities, and view “the other” as too different for our tastes.

One of the unintended benefits of two programs for high school students sponsored by The Jewish Week — Write On For Israel, an advocacy and educational project, and Fresh Ink, a webzine written by and for Jewish teens — is that they bring together students from public, private and day schools who otherwise would never meet each other, and often they become friends.

That’s just what worries some educators and parents. They’d rather keep the teens apart, concerned they might socialize, date and perhaps marry someone they feel is either too religious, or not observant enough, for their comfort level.

“When our kids get to college they’re intimidated by the Orthodox kids at Hillel,” said Rabbi Kenneth Emert, a Reform rabbi who leads Congregation Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, N.J. “They can’t interact with the Orthodox, they don’t have their Jewish educational background, and they don’t know each other.”

Speaking at an interdenominational dialogue the other night in Englewood, N.J., Rabbi Emert called for more opportunities for both young people and adults to study and socialize across denominational lines.

The program, sponsored by a new group called Unite4Unity to promote such dialogue, was moderated by Linda Scherzer, director of Write On For Israel/NY, and attracted more than 250 people. They witnessed three Bergen County rabbis — in addition to Rabbi Emert they were David-Seth Kirshner of the Conservative Temple Emanu-el of Closter and Shmuel Goldin of the host Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Torah — interact with a rare blend of candor and collegiality about the possibilities and limits of cooperation.

While they each promoted more interaction between the religious streams and called for learning from each other without trying to change each other, they also were open about the challenges, and boundaries posed by their beliefs.

“As Orthodox Jews, as Jews, we have to build walls,” Rabbi Goldin observed, “but if we don’t reach beyond the walls we’re not succeeding.”

Rabbi Kirshner responded that he didn’t want to see walls but rather portals to paths of connection. He noted that after his father passed away, he came to the daily minyan at Rabbi Goldin’s synagogue on days that his own temple did not have services, and he was impressed with the warmth and dedication of the congregants and their rabbi.

He said the experience left him with a “bittersweet” feeling in that he felt close to Rabbi Goldin but regretted that he had no relationship with other Orthodox rabbis in the area. It was a shame, he said, that the Orthodox rabbis have their own rabbinic organization instead of joining the New Jersey Board of Rabbis.

Rabbi Goldin said membership in the Orthodox group did not preclude joining the statewide board, and explained that “90 percent of our discussions [in the Orthodox group] are about kashrut.”

Another sign of communal segregation: just last week a new Jewish weekly newspaper began distribution in Bergen County. Called The Jewish Link, it is geared toward the growing Orthodox population in its local news coverage and choice of columnists. The paper was launched, in part, because some felt The Jewish Standard, which has covered the community since 1931, was either too critical of the Orthodox or did not give them sufficient coverage, or both.

At the Ahavath Torah program, Rabbi Emert said he envied the level of Jewish learning widely found in the Orthodox community and the degree to which congregants care for each other in times of need or in Shabbat meal invitations. But he said that as a liberal Jew he was proud of his synagogue’s levels of inclusion, creativity, autonomy and innovation and would not sacrifice them for the sake of unity.

Looking ahead, he said that while the evening was a success, it must not be a one-time event. “What are we going to do as a community together?” he asked.

Rabbi Goldin, who is president of the Rabbinical Council of America, echoed the call for follow-up but noted that “there are real differences, and first we have to respect” that fact. “I won’t validate everything you believe, but I can value what you do.”

He recalled previous attempts to establish interdenominational dialogue, through the local Jewish federation. Many rabbis came to the first meeting, he said, fewer to the second, and there was no third. “No one prepared issues for discussion,” he said. “It lacked seriousness.”

The three rabbis agreed that a new attempt should be made and that there were opportunities for their congregations to study together without preaching different philosophical views. Other suggestions included exchanging pulpits for presentations, a joint lecture series, programs training children in philanthropy, and a softball league.

Scherzer, the moderator, emphasized the centrality of Israel across the religious movements and the importance of transmitting Jewish identity and Israel support and advocacy to young people.

Lee Lasher and Ian Zimmerman, the two members of the Berrie Fellowship Leaders program who created Unite4Unity, were pleased with the large turnout and stimulating discussion, and pledged future meetings to bridge the religious divide.

Will other Orthodox rabbis share a platform with liberal clergy? Rabbi Goldin is more open and moderate than a number of his colleagues who feel that such cooperation lends legitimacy to the non-Orthodox movements. And there are liberal rabbis who feel resentful toward the Orthodox and would rather keep their distance.

As in this instance, it is the laity who are most apt to take the lead, and the goal is, and should be, not to pray together but to meet, listen to and understand each other. As Rabbi Kirshner noted in his comments, “how can I know you when we’re apart?”

collaboration, Conservative Jews, Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews

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In the article I just read, there was a great deal of talk about building walls to protect the Torah and building portals for better communion betweem the different schools of Judaism. I prefer to think that on this Pesach, it should be our mission as Partners in Torah, to build bridges to better link ourselves with others,in pursuit of the ways of redemption in all that we do. We are one nation under Hashem and there are many pathways to serve Ha Kodesh Borechu. Let us all pray this Pesach fro Hashem to smile on all our efforts, for His sake, and for us to truly be the light unto the Nations that we indeed are. Have a wonderful Pesach.

relations are better today than during the 1940s. American Jews thought Auschwitz and Birkenau were funny. At least we arent watching Jews being incinerated today

Not only don't the Orthodox have much in common with the other so-called Jews, those others practice and espouse things that are contrary to proper Jewish teachings. I would sooner interact with a Christian than with a Reform Jew.

I agree.I have much more in common with many of Christian clergy than the liberal reform and conservative.There should be no unity because unity would mean recognition and they is not happening,ever!

This is so short sighted. The key is to want to identify. No one is saying that the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements have to agree on the same halachic rulings. But there is nothing in common? Really? Was it a miracle that my college Hillel had a variety of denominations getting along?

What abut a shared history, if not shared halachic views? What about the cultural experience of being Jewish in a country that just isn't? If we can't agree on the specifics, that's OK. We can talk about the other pieces that we do have in common. But we have to want to be at the same table.

Take a look at New Orleans (Metarie ). There is a wonderful degree of cooperation between the three streams of Judaism including programming, education and support.

While our great torah leaders have permitted some cooperation with the non-orthodox on an ad hoc, usually emergency basis, I was very surprised that Rabbi Goldin would say that membership in the NJ Board of rabbi is not prohibitted for Orthodox rabbis. I am not talking about lay people but I am talking about regaularly sitting with "rabbis' who deny the fundamental tenents of Torah Judaism.

As the article inadvertantly shows, there is not a problem with interdenominational cooperation; there is a problem with the lack of cooperation between Orthodox and non-Orthodox. (For example, Reform and Conservative rabbis and congregations seem to get along quite well.) So let's start by calling it what it is.

Now, I agree that there is real value in fostering interdenominational togetherness. However, again, let's start by calling things what they are. For example, it is not (only) that the Orthodox typically have much more Jewish education than liberal Jews. And it isn't only that the Orthodox don't want to "lend credibility" to the liberal denominations.

For one thing, the denominations don't agree on what constitutes Jewish education, since for one thing they don't agree on which rabbis have valid points of view. And as far as "credibility", it is pretty hard to develop a cooperative relationship with someone who starts out by demonstrating that he thinks it's up to him whether to grant you "credibility"!

It is also true that in many areas, liberal Judaism doesn't approve of Orthodox positions, e.g. on the subject of homosexuals and on the treatment of women. (And by the way, our rejection of the Orthodox treatment of women is not because we don't understand their position; it's because we don't agree with it.)

So let's start by respecting our differences and recognizing the realistic limitations that these differences place on our ability to join together. Then let's figure out what we can realistically do and finally let's figure out what we want to do. As the article amply demonstrates "k'lal Yisroel" is just a sentimental slogan in today's world. Hammering out a real working relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox is a much harder (but potentially much more valuable) objective.

According to Reform Rabbi Emert: "They can’t interact with the Orthodox, they don’t have their Jewish educational background." Maybe if the reform and conservative movments started education their congregants, there could be more interaction with the Orthodox.

The Orthodox are generally committed to living a Jewish lifesteyle, and making Judaism a top priority in their lives. But the Reform movement views Judaism as a secondary issue. If the Reform would straighten their priorities, there would be fewer differences between us.

Part of the problem with interdenominational cooperation involves some people's long memories. As late as the 1970's federations treated the Orthodox as an outdated afterthought. Some meetings included non-kosher food (with a boxed meal for those keeping kosher) and Orthodox concerns from Day School subsidies to separate swimming times for men and women at JCC were ignored or rejected. The Orthodox were small, poor and reminders of a past the majority of Jews had worked hard to leave behind.

Fast forward to now. The Orthodox are not only the fastest growing Jewish group, they are the only denomination with internal growth. They have "made it" socio-economically in America and have little desire to help those who once belittled them.

That is a shame. There is much the Orthodox Jewish community and particularly the Modern Orthodox Jewish community can offer American Jewry. From the web to the home to the school, you will find Orthodox groups who are on the cutting edge of technology and out of the box thinking.

Perhaps if other Jewish groups can get over their wistful self-absorbtion on how great the old days were, the Orthodox can be coaxed to join in.