One of the blessings of retirement, after 40 years of leading worship, has been the opportunity to worship, study, and participate in communal activities in many different communities across Judaism’s streams, both in America and in Israel.
One of the lessons I learned through my rabbinate and confirmed this year is that unity does not demand unanimity. Rather, we need to both tolerate and respect the differences in observance and opinion that exist within our Jewish community.
This year, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of Operation Exodus, through which 1.8 million Jews were able to emigrate from the Soviet Union. And we continue to celebrate the rebirth of Jewish communal life that has taken place for the more than one million Jews who chose to remain in Ukraine, in Russia, or in other states created from the former Soviet Union. This miracle took place only because American Jewry and the Jews of the State of Israel worked together in harmony, ignoring party lines and religious differences.
Tragically, over the last quarter century, religious conflict and partisan politics within our Jewish community has made it harder for Jews with differing opinions to talk to rather than at each other. While the same can be said for American society as a whole, and for the global community of nations as well, the lack of civility and the fratricidal conflicts within the Jewish community are things we American Jews can ill afford, as the Pew Study of American Jewish life points out.
Locally, our northern New Jersey Jewish community is rich in diversity. We have a healthy mix of Jews rooted in the former Soviet Union, Israeli-born Jews, and Jews whose American roots go back one and even two centuries. We have a multiplicity of synagogues across the streams, and a structure of communal institutions that are the envy of our neighbors of other ethnic backgrounds and different faith communities, despite the myriad problems facing them. The troubling view, as I see it from my seat in the pew, is that our growing inability to work together on projects not only threatens the long-term viability of our communal institutions, it also threatens our viability as a community, and weakens our communal voice in support of Israel and Jews around the world.
On the national level, I firmly believe that the decision to reject J Street’s application for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was a grievous mistake. The conference loses credibility with the American government and with other groups to whom it claims to speak in the name of the American Jewish community when an organization the size of J Street, with 180,000 followers, is excluded. When we demand unanimity in the name of unity, we weaken ourselves and alienate members of our extended Jewish family.
One of the most challenging results of the Pew study of American Jewry was that we have to find more diverse ways to reach new generations of American Jews. I hope, as I wrote in a recent letter that appeared in the Standard, that the President’s Conference reconsiders its decision.
Locally, I am gladdened by the increased participation of Jews across the religious streams in many of our Jewish federation activities, including programs that have been co-sponsored this past year by the Berrie Fellows and the Jewish Community Relations Council. However, I am concerned about the future of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Education, which has been sponsored by our federation for many years. The federation has decided to end its sponsorship of Melton in June.
This intensive Jewish learning program has provided a unique opportunity for teachers from across the Jewish political and religious spectrum to teach Jews from a variety of backgrounds in an intensive 30-week per year two-year program over the past two decades. Many of the Melton graduates have gone on to become lay teachers and lay leaders in their congregations and our communal Jewish agencies. Moreover, Melton students from different backgrounds have often kept in contact with each other and have served as a bridge across the religious divide that too often their own rabbis were unable or unwilling to cross. I hope that everyone reading this column will encourage their synagogue or JCC to join in a new partnership being initiated by members of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis to restructure and retain the Melton program for our community as well as to support the federation’s new education initiative.
There is a connection between American and Israeli Jewry’s ability to act in concert and unity, although not unanimity, in the “miracle” of the Soviet Jewry movement, and the divide in American Jewry that is so evident right here in our own local community. On the one hand, we are confronted by the dangers of assimilation detailed in the Pew study. On the other hand, we are confronted by the dangers of continuing anti-Semitism, as expressed overtly in a detailed new ADL survey, and covertly through the BDS (Boycott Disinvestment and Sanction) movement. To overcome both dangers, we must keep open the current pathways of intergroup engagement of the kind the Melton study program provides. We must encourage dialogue on issues of Jewish concern across both partisan political divides and the religious streams.
During the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, we are directed by tradition to study Tractate Avot of the Mishna, better known as Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers. There we find a teaching from a rabbi named Tarfon, who taught: “The time is short and the task of redeeming the world is great! Even if we do not live to see its completion, we are nonetheless required to work toward it.”
This Shabbat, we begin the study of the fourth Book of Torah, called Numbers in English and Bemidbar – In the Wilderness – in Hebrew. As we count the numbers of Israelites in the wilderness sojourn, we must begin to count ourselves among those numbers who are willing to respect the tribal differences that today we call Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Israeli, American, Russian, and so forth. And we must also answer the question first posed by Cain with an affirmative “YES. I am my brother’s keeper-and my sister’s, as well.