Looking toward a unified Jewish future
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Looking toward a unified Jewish future

A rabbi’s firsthand look at the Tikvah Fund’s work with high school students who may be the community’s next leaders

Elchanan Weinbach is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Montebello. He has been a pulpit rabbi for 13 years, a school head for 15 years, and a consultant, presenter, or scholar in residence in New York, Kansas City, and Florida, and at LimmudLA.

Students sit around a seminar table at the Maimonides and Tikvah Scholars retreat.
Students sit around a seminar table at the Maimonides and Tikvah Scholars retreat.

I am on a mission from God.

Seriously. I am on a mission of hope to discover a unified Jewish future by exploring all of the Jewish good happening outside of exclusively Orthodox parameters.

In June, in a Jewish Standard story called “Losing — and gaining — the future,” I wrote about Jewish start-up organizations and the innovative ways they are approaching difficult Jewish problems with the help of UpStart, whose mission is to partner with the Jewish community’s boldest leaders to expand the picture of how Jews find meaning and how we come together.

Subsequently I attended the Siyyum/graduation of Jewish social justice fellows who were trained by Join For Justice and now work in social service agencies and programs throughout the Boston area’s diverse economic, religious, and racial communities.

My most recent inspiring experience was visiting the joint Maimonides Scholars and Tikvah Scholars retreat that the Tikvah Fund hosted at Yale University. At the invitation of Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, who is the Tikvah Fund’s senior director and the founding dean of the Tikvah Institute for High School Students.

According to its website, the Tikvah Fund is “a philanthropic foundation and an ideas institution committed to supporting the intellectual religious and political leaders of the Jewish people.” The mission of the Tikvah Institute in particular is “to advance Jewish excellence in the modern age by exposing some of the best Jewish students to the most important foundational questions in politics, economics, Zionist thought and statesmanship, and Judaism, guided by some of the best teachers, scholars and practitioners in America.”

The heart of the Tikvah experience is the seminar table-in rich, probing and spirited discussions between students and teachers and among the students themselves.

The cohort of Maimonides scholars is selected from high school juniors and seniors, generally students from public and private school communities, who want to engage deeply with the Jewish and western philosophical traditions. Students who attend yeshiva high schools, community day schools, or other full-time Jewish educational programs apply to become Tikvah scholars.

Although the seminar offerings are tailored to the program’s different student populations, I found the intellectual rigor in both programs to be equivalent, and in both cases at the university level. Significantly, at both the July and August sessions that I witnessed there seemed to be no social or intellectual divisions among the students themselves. For me, this display of communal unity around the study of Torah and intellectual pursuits is inspiring.

I first visited a session from the Maimonides program exploring the rabbinic dictum that it is better to fulfill a commandment when obligated than to do so voluntarily. There was discussion about practice as a basis for community and whether Judaism can be sustained if it is completely voluntary. Other Maimonides sessions I visited included a dynamic, open discussion of Jewish sexuality, and a discussion surrounding the text in Exodus about the golden calf, challenging God, and when the stakes are high what are reasonable standards of behavior for leaders and reasonable expectations from God.

In a parallel session for Tikvah scholars, students explored the civil legal basis for challenging a hypothetical U.S. law against the practice of circumcision and how such a law might be challenged, while differentiating circumcision from the practice of female genital mutilation. It was impressive to watch high school students grapple with issues in a session with an intellectually recognized legal scholar, examining hypothetical questions in American civil law and how it affects the Jewish community.

Throughout my visits I was reminded that one of the central goals of a high school education is to dramatically raise the intellectual and religious trajectory of the next generation. Through these seminars, you can see the future of the Jewish people changing before your eyes.

Students in both programs self-identified from a full range of movements, yet the discussions were as respectful as they were probing. This is perhaps reflective of how the Tikvah Foundation describes itself as being committed to supporting the intellectual, religious, and political leaders of the Jewish people. As these young women and men take their place as future leaders in the Jewish community, they already have experienced an ideal level of respectful dialogue between Jews with widely divergent opinions and practices.

Our shared Jewish community faces many challenges as we move forward. That includes our need to find the common ground upon which the full diversity of the modern Jewish community can address problems of mutual concern. Our problems are complex, and there are moments where we must wonder whether we will be able to move forward together at all. Through this outstanding program, cohort after cohort of young men and women are moving forward together into their college and graduate years — and ultimately to positions of Jewish leadership — having experienced what a unified Jewish future might look like.

Through the fog of despair, we can continue to look at all the good being done by our Jewish communities. We can look toward a future when mutual concern, respect, and dialogue guide us to better days ahead.

Elchanan Weinbach is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Montebello. He has been a pulpit rabbi for 13 years, a school head for 15 years, and a consultant, presenter, or scholar in residence in New York, Kansas City, and Florida, and at LimmudLA.

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