We Americans find ourselves talking a lot about walls just now.
Sometimes it seems as if walls separate divisions that used to be more fluid. In the Jewish world, you can be charedi, modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, or secular, and of course each of those worlds are subdivided too. You remain in your own world and look over the walls to your right and your left with discomfort, if not actual disdain.
It doesn’t have to be that way; there are both theoretical and practical reasons to try to tear down those walls.
Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge and Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood are dismantling the wall between them, at least once a year. Rabbi Selig Salkowitz, the rabbi emeritus at Avodat Shalom, which is Reform, has established a speaker-in-residence series that unites his old shul with Temple Israel, a Conservative shul that also houses Congregation Beth Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation that moved there from Maywood a few years ago.
This year, at the second annual Selig Salkowitz Distinguished Speaker Series, the two communities will spend Shabbat together. In a kind of minuet, they will meet first for Kabbalat Shabbat services at Avodat Shalom, where Temple Israel’s Rabbi David Fine will speak; the next morning they will daven together at Temple Israel, and listen to a sermon by Avodat Shalom’s Rabbi Paul Jacobson. After havdalah, beginning at about 8:30 p.m., and helped along by dessert, the combined congregations will listen to a talk by Gordon Tucker, a prominent and influential Conservative rabbi who heads Temple Israel Center in White Plains, across the Hudson in New York’s Westchester County.
Rabbi Tucker, who plans to retire next summer, looks back on a career that has given him both academic and practical insight into American Jewish life. For 18 years, beginning in 1976, he worked at the Jewish Theological Seminary; for eight of those years he was dean of its rabbinical school. In 1994, he moved to Temple Israel Center, a huge synagogue — it has more than 800 member units — and he’s been there ever since. (He also earned his undergraduate degree at Harvard and his doctorate, in philosophy, at Princeton, so his understanding of academia is not confined to its Jewish divisions.) For 25 years, until 2007, he was a member of the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
He plans to talk about liberal Judaism; his views on it come filtered through the lens of his long and varied experience.
Rabbi Tucker’s move from academia to congregational life, although not unprecedented, was unusual; generally, rabbis move in the other direction, from the pulpit to less all-consuming, more theoretical work in academics, other institutions, or not infrequently as family therapists. “For me, although being at the seminary really was very fulfilling, and I did have a congregation there, of rabbinical students, still I wasn’t doing any longitudinal work with families. Students were there for five years, and then for the most part they were gone, even if we kept in touch.
“I had a strong intuition that there would be something more real in my life if I were to build a community of my own, rather than just training other people to do it. That’s something that affects teachers in other professional schools too, not just rabbinical schools. If they haven’t been practitioners themselves, somehow some of it seems unreal.
“I wanted to really experience how it feels where all of the theological rubber really hits the road,” he said “So I took that plunge. And I never looked back. I consider it to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.”
Why? “Because I could see that progressivism, in the abstract, is not quite the same as a sense of why things have to progress as seen through the lens of people’s actual lives.”
Take, for example, he said, the question of the status of gay and lesbian Jews. “There was a first go-around on this in the Law Committee in the early 1990s. I remember being involved in those debates at the time, as a member of the committee. We were engaging with texts, engaging with theory, engaging with all kinds of things, but not being intimately engaged with families, and with people’s actual lives.” Of course, he added, the committee’s disengagement with LGBT lives (and of course that rubric had not been created yet) mirrored the disengagement of the outside world.
“Then, 12 years later, it came up again, and this time I was deeply involved,” Rabbi Tucker said. “I already had many years of experience in the congregation, and I knew and understood what families were dealing with. I knew what they were struggling with, the ways they were affected, and the fears they had for their nephew, their good friends’ child, their own child, and about what the social stigmas and Jewish exclusions were doing to them.
“That changed my perspective. And it wasn’t just that I thought it wasn’t right, so let’s go in another direction, but it forced me to think theologically, in ways I hadn’t before. I thought, ‘What do I think God’s will is on this issue?’ I didn’t believe any more that God’s will could be captured entirely by what was in the legal precedents.”
Rabbi Tucker recalled a sermon that he had given in 2006, when he was working on the paper that would call for a radical rethinking of the Conservative movement’s approach to the LGBT community. “I decided it was time to let the congregation in on where my thinking had come on this,” he said. “It was the Shabbat of parasha Acharei Mot” — that’s Leviticus 16:1–18:30, which, among other things, details forbidden sexual acts — “and I laid out in theological terms what I could no longer accept as an image of the God I was willing to worship, and to urge other people to worship and to serve.
“And a really nice thing happened. After you give what you know is a controversial sermon, you take a deep breath. I did. And one of the more traditionalist members of the congregation came up to me at Kiddush and said, ‘Rabbi, about your sermon today…’ At that point you sort of tighten up.
“And then he said, ‘I think you are going to find that you have the congregation behind you.’
“And what that meant to me is that I had dreamed of what I could do as a rabbi was create a community that would really reflect and exemplify what I believed then and still believe that Conservative Judaism is about. This said to me that people come to Conservative synagogues looking for a moderate path. There are people who are willing to be challenged and to think theologically, to understand that progress and progressivism do not mean a rejection of tradition, but instead a desire to fulfill tradition in the real world.”
David Fine, the Conservative rabbi in Ridgewood, and Paul Jacobson, the Reform rabbi in River Edge, may practice Judaism differently, but they say very similar things when they talk about the program.
“This program was the gift of Rabbi Salkowitz, who has provided the resources to make it possible for Conservative and Reform congregations to spend time learning about each other’s Judaism,” Rabbi Fine said. “It’s not only sharing a speaker; what makes it unique is worshipping together as well.
“And it’s not a lowest-common-denominator kind of service,” he added. “The Friday night service will be the standard Reform service, and ours will be standard Conservative worship. It gives the opportunity for members of different communities to come together, not as guests at a bar mitzvah, but the chance to have Kiddush together and to learn about each other.”
The two rabbis have worked at making everything even. Last year’s speaker was Reform; it was Rabbi Gary Zola, executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. This year, each will speak at the other’s shul. “Rabbi Jacobson will speak about obligation in Reform Judaism, and I will speak about choice in Conservative Judaism,” Rabbi Fine said. Each, in other words, is tackling a subject that usually is seen as the province of the other.
“I have felt for many years, working here in Bergen County, that our future is in working closer together and combining our resources,” Rabbi Fine said. “We can do that without losing our distinctive approaches to Judaism.”
“The main person behind this series, and the main vision, is Rabbi Selig Salkowitz,” Rabbi Jacobson said.
“For many years, Rabbi Salkowitz was the rabbi of Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn,” he added. “Then he became a roving interim rabbi, serving a number of communities throughout the United States. When he retired, and Avoda moved over here to River Edge,” becoming Avodat Shalom as it merged with Temple Shalom, “he moved here, to Paramus, and became a member here. Subsequently, he supported the search committee process during the retirement of Rabbi Borovitz.” That search committee found Rabbi Jacobson.
Rabbi Salkowitz’s vision “is the idea that Reform and Conservative congregations could have a strong enough relationship so that members would feel comfortable enough to feel comfortable in a synagogue that is not their typical denomination,” Rabbi Jacobson said. “That they’d be willing to try and to grow for the benefit of the Jewish community, and to hear and experience difference perspectives on Jewish life in a way that would strengthen the larger Jewish community.”
Rabbi Salkowitz now is a member of both synagogues, and both rabbis are honored by that, they said.
“I love both communities,” Rabbi Salkowitz said. “They are warm and welcoming, and they are good solid people.”
On Friday nights, he goes to shul at Avodat Torah. “I like to sing the songs of Friday night, and to be part of the community,” he said. “I also love Hebrew and the traditional service.” That’s why he goes to shul in Ridgewood on Shabbat mornings. “I listen to the Hebrew, I daven in Hebrew, and I am part of that community too. I am glad to be welcomed in both places.”
Although he is rabbi emeritus at Temple Avodat Shalom, his title is not Latin but Hebrew, HaRav NaNichbad. “It means ‘our honored colleague,’” Rabbi Jacobson said.
“The title is wonderful,” Rabbi Salkowitz said.
The fact that he is so welcome in both synagogues, and feels at home in both, not only despite their differences but because of them, gives Rabbi Salkowitz great hope. “We look at things similarly but differently,” he said. “That’s the theme of the weekend. There are strengths and weaknesses on all sides, and we need to share them, look at them, and learn from them.
“This is the message that has to get out to the broader community — that it is possible to have different interpretations of the same community and be part of the same people.”
Who: Rabbi Gordon Tucker
What: Will talk about progressive Judaism (lower-case p) through a Conservative (upper-case C) lens for the Rabbi Selig Salkowitz Distinguished Speaker Series; there also will be havdalah, a dessert reception, and a question and answer session
When: On Saturday, October 28, at 8:30
Where: At Temple Avodat Shalom, 385 Howland Ave., River Edge
Members of Temple Avodat Shalom and Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood — 475 Grove St. — will join for services at River Edge on Friday night at 7:30, when Rabbi David Fine of Ridgewood will speak, and then in Ridgewood for Shabbat morning services at 9:30, when Rabbi Paul Jacobson of River Edge will speak.