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Local Jewish leaders discuss hot-button issues at the YJCC civility forum. From left are Rabbi Joel Mosbacher, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, Rabbi Adina Lewittes, Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, Chaya Batya Neugroschl, and Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu. Courtesy JCRC

The second of three programs initiated by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey to model communal unity was held Jan. 30 at the Bergen County YJCC in Washington Township.

Called “Are We One?,” it explored “how to foster tolerance and acceptance in the diverse community, especially around the areas of intermarriage, patrilineality, and homosexuality,” said Rabbi Neal Borovitz, religious leader of Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and JCRC chairman.

The point of the dialogue, said Joy Kurland, JCRC director, was not just to hash out the issues but to demonstrate that while perspectives might differ, individuals can respect one another’s approach.

Questions drafted by moderator Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, a Teaneck resident who is a faculty member of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, had been distributed to the panelists in advance.

The event, which drew some 100 attendees, was co-sponsored by the JCRC, the YJCC, and the Kehillah Partnership. Panelists included Rabbis Adina Lewittes (Sha’ar Communities, Closter, Conservative); Joshua Finkelstein (religious leader of the egalitarian minyan at the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, Conservative); Elyse Frishman (Barnert Temple/Cong. B’nai Jeshurun, Franklin Lakes, Reform); Joel Mosbacher (Beth Haverim Shir Shalom, Mahwah, Reform); and Nathaniel Helfgot (Cong. Netivot Shalom, Teaneck, Orthodox). Also on the panel was Chaya Batya Neugroschl, head of school, Samuel H. Wang Yeshiva University High School for Girls (Orthodox). The Jewish Standard spoke with them after the event.

Finkelstein suggested that the JCRC program was especially necessary given the existing “zeitgeist” of both the Jewish and secular world. While periods of incivility have existed throughout our nation’s history, he said, “This is the time of the Internet, not just a few people with printing presses. The Internet never goes away.”

The rabbi said that in some ways, “the people at the [session] were self-selected. If they couldn’t talk to each other, they wouldn’t be there.” He noted that during the 16 years he has served as a rabbi in Bergen County, “I’ve never had the sense of [our] not being able to speak with one another,” even while holding differing positions.

Finkelstein said that Neugroschl’s presentation “made me realize that one can disagree while recognizing that people with other views are trying to be true to themselves. When other movements are struggling, we can be understanding.”

He pointed out that the Conservative movement still has issues to resolve in the area of homosexuality and that “Modern Orthodoxy is struggling, too. When you hear someone explain and work through an issue, there’s more that unites us than divides us.”

Neugroschl, a Teaneck resident, said that while the goal of the session was “for the community to hear in a thoughtful manner about some of the significant issues and differences the Jewish community is facing,” it also sought to “put forward a model for the community of people who are deeply committed to resolving or digging deeply into ways of building greater understanding” of the approaches being explored to deal with these issues.

She said she understood “that some of the ways in which communities draw their defining borders are emotionally stressful for anyone on the fringe.”

“These issues are really about that,” she said, and called for “great sensitivity, so – as much as possible – we can maintain a cohesive commitment to all Jews who are striving to be part of the community.” She added, however, that there is a big difference between civility, tolerance, and acceptance.

“They come with many different connotations,” she said. “To me, it’s not about changing halacha but [about] how we treat individuals and train our community to think about each other and recognize that we’re all on a path of growth. It’s the mandate of the Orthodox community to always keep in mind the dignity of each member of the Jewish community without compromising definitions of what is halachically acceptable.”

Lewittes said she found one of Neugroschl’s comments particularly touching.

“She said that when you’re sitting across from someone who turns to you for guidance on matters of Jewish identity and enfranchisement, it’s important to remember that for those people, you are the face of Torah, the essence of the spirituality they are seeking.”

Lewittes called the concept both “humbling and emboldening. It teaches both humility and passion, the twin pillars that make up what it means to be a rabbi.”

The rabbi said it was important to acknowledge that for some segments of the Jewish community, “welcoming efforts are important but still limited.”

She cited, for example, the readiness with which synagogues around the nation acknowledged the Jewish identity of Gabrielle Giffords but pointed out that – because of patrilineal descent – Giffords could not receive an aliyah in many of those shuls.

“This balancing act, between acknowledging someone as Jewish and recognizing someone as Jewish, is possible, but increasingly cumbersome – halachically, spiritually, and emotionally – for many of us, and of course for patrilineal Jews themselves,” she said.

Of the panel, Lewittes said, “My hope is that the renewed sense of respect for each other will allow for greater understanding and patience when those positions collide.”

Frishman stressed that the panel “wasn’t really an exchange of views but [rather] an opportunity for the assembly to hear our different positions and understand why we might not agree.”

“As a Reform Jew, I am used to and expect Jews to think differently, depending on where we are on the spectrum,” she added. “The challenge is when we judge one another and isolate one another because of those responses. I’m willing to say you don’t have to agree, but don’t condemn me for my views.”

Frishman noted that two of the participants referred to their own “pain” when they had to turn down an individual’s request, feeling bound to honor tradition. But there are two kinds of pain, she said. One leads to personal growth, but the other “is a sharp alert that something is seriously wrong and if we don’t attend to it, we will die.”

“On issues like homosexuality, it’s the ‘I’m going to die’ kind of pain,” she said, calling it an ethical rather than a legal issue. “It’s not a question of empathy but of sustenance,” she said.

Despite the civil nature of the forum, Frishman said “there are significant differences between us. It’s not about being friends. You’re either pluralist or not.”

Still, she said, bringing people together to listen and learn is important, especially since it is generally parents, not clergy, who teach their children to say hurtful things about people with different positions.

Helfgot said he appreciated the fact that the panelists had a chance to listen to one another, but that it would have been helpful, as well, to have more of a chance to address each other’s comments.

“It’s helpful because it demystifies the different communities to each other,” he said. “It fosters personal relationships and it sets a good tone about how difficult issues should be talked about in public, with a willingness to appreciate other people’s sincerity.”

Helfgot said that most of the attendees did not seem to be Orthodox, “so it was worthwhile for them to hear a clear, hopefully measured, and articulate presentation on some of these sensitive issues from someone with a Modern Orthodox point of view, which they might generally not have a chance to hear.”

He said in his own presentation he tried to reflect on the “tensions that exist when you’re trying to balance classic halachic values, and sometimes limits, inherent in the system together with one’s sense of compassion and wanting to be open and accepting.”

“People were very respectful,” he said, and added that the forum “confirmed for me … that there are very passionate and sincere leaders in all the movements, working very hard and committed to the Jewish people.” He also noted that while there seemed to be unanimity among speakers from the Reform perspective, the Conservative speakers “reflected the tension that exists within that movement.”

Mosbacher said that while the forum was “nice, it’s sad that a panel like this is so extraordinary. In other communities, such a panel would almost not be newsworthy. I want Bergen County to be such a place.”

The real test of whether the forum was meaningful will be if it creates an opportunity for ongoing relationships, he said.

“I wanted that to be a theme of my rabbinate,” he said, “deepening relationships among people across whatever lines. I don’t want us to pat ourselves on the back so hard that we feel we’ve done our intrafaith work for the year. It should be the start of something meaningful and ongoing.”

Mosbacher said that “it was interesting for me to hear how the colleagues I didn’t know speak about their movements and their work.”

Also, he said, the forum “confirmed in some ways where some of the differences are.”

It will be helpful, he said, when congregants ask him about the positions of other movements.

The next forum will take place in March in Wayne. For information, call Kurland at (201) 820-3946 or e-mail joyk@ujannj.org.