Students get lesson at the GA
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Students get lesson at the GA

JERUSALEM ““ Orthodox rabbinical students are not usually among the thousands of delegates at the annual United Jewish Communities General Assembly here. At this year’s GA last week, however, 30 future rabbis and their wives came to get a greater understanding of the issues in the world of diaspora-based Jewish philanthropy.

The men, several of whom are from North Jersey, are studying at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary’s Gruss Institute. The university used the GA as an opportunity for them to familiarize themselves with people from different streams of Judaism.

“As teachers of Torah, we have a responsibility not only to expose our students to the text, but to help them understand the meaning between the lines as well,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander, dean of YU’s Center for the Jewish Future.

Ari Yablok, a Teaneck native , and Yossi Goldin, who grew up in Englewood, said the experience was eye-opening.

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Ayelet and Ari Yablok courtesy of Yeshiva University

“The whole convention was dedicated to strengthening the Jewish community,” said Yablok. “And to see that many people there wanting to do everything they could toward that goal was inspiring.”

Goldin noted that he had never before been exposed to people from non-Orthodox streams who are so passionate about their Jewish values.

At the same time, the two young men spoke of their surprise at the absence of Orthodox voices at conference sessions intended to highlight the federation system’s accomplishments and goals.

“I think the lack of an Orthodox presence at the GA impacted the programming and the discussions that took place,” said Goldin. “I was a little shocked at how far apart we are.” For example, he said, there was a lot of bitterness expressed toward the Chief Rabbinate regarding conversion standards, and he did not feel comfortable enough to contribute his views to the discussion.

A few of the topics on the GA program were “Engaging the Next Generation in Our Work,” “Social Entrepreneurship: Reinvigorating the Jewish People for the 21st Century,” “Leadership in a Diverse, Global Jewish Community,” “Choose a Jewish Job – Put Your Passion to Work,” and “Education in Israel: Restoring the Qualitative Edge.”

“It was disappointing that there were not more than 30 Orthodox Jews out of about 4,000 delegates,” Yablok said, adding that he and his peers “were taken aback that even the panel discussion on education in Israel had no mention of Jewish education.”

According to Yablok, philanthropist Edgar Bronfman told the assemblage that “our task is to show the next generation why they should choose to be Jewish” and that this must be accomplished through education and through family “as hub of Jewish symbolism and pride.”

“He said our enemies are ignorance and apathy, among all types of Jews,” said the student. “That was a great message I got from the GA: An unfortunate side-effect of studying long hours and days in yeshiva is that it places a much heavier emphasis on looking inward than on looking outward, and it’s definitely important to look outward.”

He and his wife also said they gained insight from a conversation with a secular Israeli who told them that although he had grown up in a neighborhood with many religious Jews, he had never interacted with them.

“As a people, we tend to gravitate toward those most similar to us, and exclude everyone else,” said Yablok. “As representatives of the next generation of Jewish leadership, it is our responsibility to promote the continual interaction of Jews across streams. We don’t have to agree with or even like what others have to say, but we have to promote the dialogue for the sake of our shared Jewish future.”

Rabbi Yosef Blau, spiritual guidance counselor at the rabbinical school, said that lectures about the viewpoints of other streams of Judaism could never measure up to “firsthand discussions with those who actually subscribe to these views.” He characterized the GA as “an invaluable learning experience that will help these young rabbis relate to their students and congregations in the future.”

Other North Jersey natives among the participants were Dovi Fischer from Fair Lawn and Adena Kozak Blickstein from Englewood, the wife of rabbinical student Amitai Blickstein. Of the students selected to attend the conference, approximately two-thirds plan on returning to North America after the completion of their rabbinical training, while the rest intend to make Israel their permanent home.

Goldin, the son of Rabbi Shmuel and Barbara Goldin, is among those staying in Israel, yet he felt his GA participation was valuable. “We are part of klal Yisrael [the community of Jews] and we interacted with another part of klal Yisrael. As a Jew wanting to be involved in educating the next generation, it was important to have seen and experienced this,” he said.

“Coming from a point of view as an observant Jew, I saw the amount of work that needs to be done,” said Yablok. “There has to be conversation instead of people working together in their own circles.”

The GA experience has motivated him, he concluded, to “go and do something about it.”

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