The Rabbinical Council of America held an “armchair conversation” Tuesday night during its annual convention at Teaneck’s Cong. Bnai Yeshurun. From left, Bnai Yeshurun’s Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Rabbi Kenneth Brander, moderator Nachum Segal, Rabbi Barry Gelman, and Rabbi Pesach Lerner. Photos by Josh Lipowsky

Before the Rabbinical Council of America, the country’s largest Orthodox umbrella group, concluded its annual convention yesterday in Teaneck, its leaders voiced their support for making Modern Orthodox Judaism more inclusive of the wider Jewish community.

“We want to show that … the Orthodox world is not monolithic,” said Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, co-chair of this year’s conference and religious leader of Cong. Bnai Yeshurun where the convention was held. “It is a big tent and there’s room for a variety of opinions within halacha, and especially for individual community articulations of that community vision.”

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of Boca Raton, Fla., was the event’s other co-chair.

Some 200 rabbis from across the country came to discuss the future of Modern Orthodoxy and the challenges they face. Sessions at the convention, which began Monday, focused on such challenges facing congregational rabbis as the financial crisis, concerns raised about kashrut by the Agriprocessors scandal, and support for Israel.

“Whatever’s been in the news the last one or two years, we try to prepare the rabbis to deal with it in an effective and substantive way,” Pruzansky said. “Not just platitudes, not saying words, but giving people direction and facts, ideas, programs that implement those values.”

Aside from being a co-chair’s home, Teaneck was chosen for this year’s conference site because of its thriving Orthodox community.

“Teaneck is a prototype of a Modern Orthodox community where people are engaged in every profession with the modern world, strong commitment to halacha, to Jewish law, to Jewish values,” Pruzansky said.

This year the RCA partnered with Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future. Richard Joel, YU’s president, addressed the convention on Tuesday, while the organizations have split costs and organization responsibilities. The partnership has been successful, said Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive director.

A session Tuesday night open to the public dealt with the challenges congregational rabbis face in interpreting halacha for their communities and the roles larger organizations play in such decisions. Nachum Segal, host of the radio program JM in the AM, moderated the discussion by Rabbis Kenneth Brander, Barry Gelman, Pesach Lerner, and Pruzansky.

The panel addressed such questions as how should a central body rebuke a colleague, how the movement can survive outside influences, and the recent controvery over Rabbi Haskel Lookstein’s attendance at an interfaith prayer service with President Obama. The RCA had castigated Lookstein in a press release, saying he broke the organization’s rules by entering a church.

“The RCA mishandled how they dealt with Rabbi Lookstein,” Brander told the gathering. “We made a terrible mistake. We looked like people who don’t respect the president.”

Herring chose not to address the issue when speaking with The Jewish Standard after the session. Noting earlier statements about inclusiveness and discussion during Tuesday night’s session about increasing global fundamentalism, he said that the RCA does not want to be seen as an extreme organization.

The organization is working on a set of ethical guidelines for the kashrut industry, as have the Conservative and Reform rabbinical organizations. Such guidelines, Herring said, could be construed as left-wing. On the issue of conversions, the organization has taken what some would call a more right-wing approach in calling for uniformity in the conversion process, he said.

“We don’t want to be pigeon-holed or stereotyped as moving to the right in its entirety or moving to the left in its entirety,” he said. “Each issue has to be dealt with on its own merits.”

Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, the incoming president of the RCA, wants to make the organization as inclusive as possible, he told the Standard.

“We are a very diverse organization,” he said. “We are diverse regionally. We are diverse ideologically, within certain norms. We need to focus on what unites us so we can be as inclusive as possible without compromising our values.”

The RCA represents close to 1,000 rabbis throughout North America, the majority of whom are congregational rabbis. Those rabbis have to reach beyond their synagogues, said Kletenick, in order to reach the wider Jewish community. For example, he said, noting that he lives in Seattle, he serves on the faith advisory board of Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

“We certainly are not only rabbis of our individual congregations but we are rabbis involved in our communities on many, many levels,” Kletenik said.

Herring pointed to rabbis who had been at AIPAC’s annual policy conference in Washington earlier in the week before arriving at the convention, as well as RCA’s interaction with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, federations, and JCCs.

“The spirit you see here is the spirit of leaders,” Pruzansky said. “People want to go back to their communities and tell them, ‘This is what we expect from you, this is where we’re going, and this is how I intend to take you there.’ And that’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”