A first step to common ground?

A first step to common ground?

Unity forum gets positive reviews, but follow-up is key

The subject of unity and diversity in Jewish life drew rapt attention. Photos by Eugene Parciasepe

The road to Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood is lined with fairy lights.

Small, white, and sparkling, they are lovely, subtly framing the evening to come as something bound to be festive.

In fact, the lights are purely practical, put there, on a particularly dark and windy stretch of road, to guide drivers and help protect shulgoers as they walk on Shabbat or chaggim. But they guide with beauty. The metaphor is hard to miss.

On March 12, the lights led to a panel discussion for a new organization called Unite4Unity, a brainchild of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Berrie Fellowship. Two Berrie fellows, Lee Lasher and Ian Zimmerman, two very different men who have become close friends, frustrated with the Balkanization of the local Jewish world, each stream huddled in on itself, decided to expand their boundaries to let each other – and the rest of us – in.

They arranged to have three rabbis – the senior rabbi of Lasher’s shul, Shmuel Goldin, who is Orthodox; Dr. Kenneth Emert, the rabbi of Zimmerman’s unaffiliated synagogue, Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, who was educated at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; and David-Seth Kirshner, who heads Temple Emanu-El of Closter and counts Linda Scherzer, a former CNN Middle East correspondent and the evening’s moderator, among his congregants. Emanu-El is Conservative.

The evening began with Lasher and Zimmerman reading biblical and rabbinic texts. Each stressed the unity of the people of Israel. None were about different denominations – and in fact if would have been a neat trick had they been. Such biblical and rabbinic texts do not exist, and that, of course, was the two men’s point.

Each of the three rabbis was given the chance to talk. When they did, most of the time their honesty and candor, even to the point of bluntness, was striking.

Goldin, who also is the president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, was asked about the challenges the modern Orthodox community faces.

“The challenge is to engage our youth, to find a way to make them feel that Judaism – and traditional Orthodox Judaism – is relevant to them,” he said. “The challenge is to define our philosophy.

“Too often, modern Orthodoxy is seen as a compromise,” he continued. “It is not. People often define us by what we’re not – not Borough Park, not Conservative. Our challenge is to clearly delineate our philosophy, which is unique, contemporary, and draws people to it.”

A related challenge, Goldin said, “is that modern Orthodoxy in particular is very cerebral. We think about things a lot. We have to increase our passion and spirituality.”

Moving beyond the internal challenges, he said that the challenge facing all three rabbis is “that we have to find a way to value each other without validating each other. We don’t necessarily have to agree. We have to respect our right to differ, and to value each other’s contribution to the entire Jewish world. If we can agree to do that, we can move beyond our walls.”

Emert was up next. “I would like to see liberal Jews take Judaism seriously,” he said. “Carve out for yourself a Judaism that makes sense, but take it seriously. To many people in the liberal world it is an adjunct to the rest of life, and we suffer from that.”

Another problem, he said, is “finding a way to make children’s Jewish education meaningful. We are trying to use up-to-date technology – but how do we do it seriously? But the first thing is to hook them. You have to be in it to win it.

“Kids need role models who will exemplify the best of modern Jewish civilization.”

Kirshner said that he faced none of the challenges described by his two colleagues; “I don’t have an issue about wishing that I could make congregants take Judaism more seriously,” he said. “Actually, I am continually surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of thirst they show.” He described many ways – or portals, as he called them – in which someone not interested in conventional davening could enter the life and then the heart of the shul.

Emert took some exception to that. “I was commenting not so much on my own synagogue today, but on the fact that one out of five of our own young people who are on JDate say ‘I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious.’ We have to be honest – the fact is that we have not created serious Jews.

“The Conservative movement is shrinking, and the Reform movement is struggling, as well,” he said. (Emert is a member of both the CCAR, made up of Reform rabbis, and the RA, its Conservative counterpart.) “We can talk about our own shtiebels, but we also have to talk about the larger sense in which our young people are being turned off by a Judaism that is not relevant to their lives.”

The next question the moderator posed was what the Jewish community could learn from each of the rabbis.

Goldin began by making it clear that “if you come here a Shabbos morning you will be overwhelmed by the excitement you’d see – but there is more we can do.

“We have to find passion that will translate to a younger generation. We have to offer a vision that says that you can be authentic holding on to that which has kept us together across the ages, and still meet the secular world on its own terms and find meeting in that, as well.”

Kirshner said that Goldin’s description of modern Orthodoxy sounded much like the words the Conservative movement uses to describe itself – tradition and change. And, he added, his movement faces challenges even though his shul does not. One basic challenge is its lack of bumper-stick clarity. The Reform world could use “tikkun olam” – the imperative to fix the world through actions of social justice – and Orthodoxy is “Torah-true Judaism,” he said. “But I would challenge anyone here to give a definition of Conservative Judaism without a semi-colon.

“Reform is Mac, Orthodoxy is Windows, and we’re DOS. It’s great if you’re a computer programmer, but it’s not so user-friendly.”

He is challenged, he added, by the range of Jews within his shul. “JStreet Jews and AIPAC Jews; a lot of Jews who keep Shabbat, and plenty of people who drive on Saturday just as they drive every other day of the week. Kashrut does not enter their consciousness, and Friday night is just about whatever’s on the table.”

Emert talked about the subject that ironically had been excluded until then – inclusion. “Of all Jews, of women, of gays and lesbians,” he said.

He also talked about what his part of the Jewish world has and what it lacks. “The best that liberal Judaism has to offer is autonomy, creativity, innovation, and inclusion.”

On the other hand, “I’m jealous of the Orthodox because of their learning. We could learn a great deal from them. How do you put together a Shabbat community?”

Next, he approached one of the evening’s most sensitive subjects. “One of the challenges we face is a lack of Jewish knowledge,” he said. And that lack creates sensitivity. “Our kids are intimidated at Hillel, when they come up against Orthodox Jews, because they feel something is missing.

“We all look at each other as the other, and if you do that, how do you talk to each other? We don’t know each other. You don’t build relationships in this way.

“So great, we can all sing Kumbaya, but it’s what happens afterward that matters.

“That’s the tachlis of tonight. What are we going to do? Let’s stop extolling what we do. We do some things that are great, some that are not so great. We can learn from each other.

“I wouldn’t give up autonomy or creative or innovation, but it comes at a price – the price of community. You have to be able to give something up.

“If we are to work together, we are each going to have to give up something.”

The moderator asked Goldin how comfortable he felt with the prospect.

“We are very different,” he said. “We have similarities, but we are very different. If we are to move together, the first thing we have to do is to admit to those differences and say that we have the right to disagree. We must value without validating,” he repeated.

Kirshner made the point that each group lives in its own world, and that it is much easier to be dismissive of people you have never met than of people you know to be living, breathing human beings. “We share so much, we all have to get in the sandbox,” he said. “We don’t have to play with the same toys, or in the same part of it, but we all have to be in the same sandbox.”

How to continue the conversation the evening had begun? “We must create a new forum, one that we all can be part of,” he said.

Emert has bigger ambitions. “We need to create a $1 billion fund for Jewish education,” he said. “We don’t pray together, but we can learn together.”

In the days after the program, the two lay leaders who had created it thought about what they had learned.

“I really do think it exceeded our expectations,” Zimmerman said. There was no firm count, but it seemed that the evening had drawn more than 200 people, perhaps as many as 250.

Where to go next is the hard question, he said. “I guess it’s because the conversation brought up so many questions. It’s all about the how. How do we build the portals in the wall? How do we lower the barrier to better understanding? How do we validate other people without having to validate their practice?

“The rules segregate us. We need to find ways to work within them, or to slowly change them.”

Practical things matter, too. “We have to figure out how to get some funding for this,” he said. “We ran this event out of our own pockets. That’s fine. We did it because we needed to.

“We needed to show that people would come out. If 15 people came, we couldn’t go to a funder. But we got 200 people out, so now we can go to some of the funders in our community and say, ‘This is what we did.’

“I don’t believe that we can solve all the problems, but we want to create a space where we can exchange thoughts and ideas. We’re not going to agree about everything, but maybe if we throw out enough there will be something we can agree with.”

Lasher’s expectations were exceeded, too. “I go to the Starbucks on Palisades Avenue in Englewood,” he said. “I was sitting there on Sunday morning, in the corner, reading the Jewish Standard. I’m not a great eavesdropper, but I heard one man say to another man, ‘Did you hear about the program at Ahavath Torah? It was candid. My rabbi was there. It was enjoyable, and he said it was fun.'”

He, too, was thinking about what would follow. “Ian and I and our core group will meet about Passover and strategize,” he said. “I hope that the three rabbis will reach out and make a genuine attempt to foster a relationship.”

Linda Scherzer, the moderator, had suggested an interdenominational trip to Israel. “I really liked that idea,” Lasher said. “There are so many ways of doing this. We have to plan and organize.”

The rabbis, too, were pleased with the evening.

Emert is struck by the differences between the Orthodox and the liberal Jewish outlooks; he sees the differences between the various parts of the non-Orthodox world to be far less substantial than their similarities, but the split between those two worlds can resemble a chasm.

“Someone from an Orthodox shul – not Rabbi Goldin’s – said that he’d love to have a social action committee together with my shul, but his rabbi wouldn’t permit it.” That’s because on a deep level “there is an issue of legitimacy,” he said. “There are some rabbis in the Orthodox community who believe that if they sit with non-Orthodox rabbis, they will be granting them legitimacy.”

He cited Rabbi Harold Shulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino, Calif., who said that the issue at base is about apartheid. “As Jews, we want our kids to marry each other, we want them to carry on the Jewish community – but we can’t sit together, study together, have fun together. We are a separate people.

“We are the other to them.

“Many in the Orthodox community call us goyim, and we call them ch’nyuks. It’s because we really don’t know each other. There has to be respect. We have to form relationships with each other.

“The Orthodox don’t differentiate between the rest of us, and the Conservative continue to look over their shoulders as if they think they’re going to get approval from the Orthodox. They’re not going to.”

Emert feels that the split in the community is more pronounced in northern New Jersey than in other places. Here, there are two rabbinic associations – the Rabbinic Council of Bergen County for the Orthodox, the North Jersey Board of Rabbis for everyone else. “If for more than 120 years the New York Board of Rabbis has had rabbis from every denomination, why can’t we?” he said.

Still, he said, there is common ground. The challenges are similar. “Each of us struggles with Jewish education,” he said. “The struggle is how to make our synagogues relevant for the next generation.”

He was pleased with the program. “It was a first step,” he said. “Now let’s be concrete.”

Kirshner thought that evening was fine, as far as it went, but “it was planting a seed. Now we have to water, culture, and nurture the seedling.

“We can look back in five years, and if we have a new organization of rabbis that is interdenominational, including the Orthodox; if we can collaborate on resources, teacher development, special education, and security in our synagogues and day schools, if we are united as a community when tragedy hits the world or hits Israel, then the seed we planted will have borne fruit.

“But it is up to every single one of us to nurture this seed.”

He stressed how important it is to begin work on something likely to succeed. “None of the things I have just mentioned” – the areas where all the streams can work together – “is prayer or study. We pray differently and we study differently. So let’s not begin somewhere where we can’t make progress. Let’s find somewhere we can make progress – and let’s begin.”

Goldin, too, thought that the evening was a good start. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted from it other than a chance to have us all sit together and talk,” he said. You never know where that will go.

“My desire is that we have a frank discussion, and that we recognize that there are substantive differences between us, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t sit with each other and come to know each other and respect each other. I think the mistake we make is when we think that we have to agree about everything, or we can’t sit down and talk.

“I had hoped that we wouldn’t paper over these differences. We aren’t all on the same page at the same time.”

Still, with all the talk of differences, it is important to remember that “we are all family. Period. There is something very powerful about that that we must recognize.”

Sitting down with rabbis of other streams is not the same as sitting with priests, ministers, or imams. “We have to respect people outside our faith – but it is not the same.

“We all stood at Mount Sinai together, at some level, in some way. It’s like sitting down at a family table, as the family grows and develops. We are not all going to agree – but we are going to talk to each other as family.”

read more: