Anyone who has visited New York City, and of course those of us who live here, has a story about New York cabbies.
Most of the time, our cabbies speak a dialect of English that is largely unintelligible. There was a time when the New York City cab population was flooded with Israelis, but nowadays, a large number of the drivers hail from what many would call “one of the Stans:” Uzbekistan, Tadzjikistan, Afghanistan… you get the point. Every once is a while you might encounter a cab driver who actually speaks English and knows his/her way around New York, which in general is a good thing. But then you run the risk of having a driver who insists on talking to you non-stop, from pick-up to drop-off, as you’re trying to grab a minute or two of peace and quiet while you lurch from Point A to Point B. It kind of makes you miss the unintelligible English.
To live as a Conservative Jew in America in the 21st century is a blessing, not a curse.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik
In the forthcoming Winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, a colleague and friend of many years, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, has written an article titled “Requiem for a Movement,” referring to the Conservative movement in the aftermath of the recently released Pew Report. As one might imagine, the article has generated a great deal of “discussion” among my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate. I can only imagine that the lay leadership of our movement is similarly engaged.
I am writing this article from Jerusalem, where I have been attending meetings of the Va'ad HaPoel of the Jewish Agency and the Agency's Assembly, leading into the GA. My seat on the Va'ad HaPoel is related to my presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly. Among my fellow movement leaders from all over the world, I am here to represent the interests of the Conservative movement within the workings of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Congress.
My family knows well that the Rob Reiner/Aaron Sorkin film “The American President” is one of my all-time favorites. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve watched it, and during particularly difficult times in this country, notably after the events of 9/11, it served as a source of comfort.
As he would later do so magnificently in “The West Wing,” Sorkin painted a picture of politicians and government who were able to transcend the innumerable temptations to compromise principles for expediency, and actually even reach greatness.
The State of Israel, and indeed the entire Jewish world, lost one of its greatest and most prolific Torah scholars two weeks ago with the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, of blessed memory. Universally recognized, both within his own Sephardic world and the Ashkenazi world as well, as being among the greatest poskim, or adjudicators of Jewish law, of the modern era, Rabbi Yosef left behind a body of work that will be respected and studied for as long as Jews learn Torah. There is no way to overstate his significance as a scholar.
In advance of last week’s Biennial Convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Baltimore, I attended a pre-convention Shabbaton- a kind of optional add-on for those who were inclined. (My wife had intended to come, but sadly, Amtrakhad other plans). As President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I thought it was an important opportunity to “reach across the aisle,” if you will, and spend Shabbat with my friends and colleagues in the synagogue arm of the Conservative movement.
Since its release just a few short weeks ago, the Pew Research Center’s survey and report on the state of American Judaism has stimulated an almost frantic conversation on where we are as a Jewish community, and where we might be headed.
Woody Allen used to say that telling jokes to an audience that’s drunk or stoned guarantees you nothing more than cheap laughs. Anything will be funny to those people, because they’re “under the influence.” Their judgment is impaired.
Of the roughly one thousand rabbis of all denominations who were on a conference call with President Obama shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I would imagine that most- myself included- addressed in a High Holiday sermon the subject that had been a central focus of the call. It was, of course, Syria, and its recent, horrifying use of chemical weapons against innocent civilians. It is what is front and center on everyone’s mind these days, obviously not only within the Jewish community. To ignore it would be to ignore the proverbial eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the living room- or, more accurately, in our synagogues.
There was never a question in my mind that one of my sermons would have to be focused on the Syrian issue, but like many rabbis, I’m sure, I had two issues of concern.
The first was that I was reluctant to write it too far in advance. I still remember how many of us in the rabbinate had our High Holiday sermons completely subverted by the famous handshake of the late Prime Minister Rabin, of blessed memory, and Yassir Arafat, on the South Lawn of the White House announcing the Oslo Accord in September of 1995. No one had a clue that that was coming, and then, right before Rosh Hashanah, we were all thrown into “re-write mode.” Before President Obama decided to seek congressional approval for a military response to Syria, it appeared quite likely that an American attack against Syrian targets was imminent. Why write a sermon that was, as likely as not, destined to become old news? “We won’t be fooled again,” I thought to myself smugly, channeling The Who.