NEW YORK — How much, if any, cooperation and collaboration can there be — or should there be — among Reform, Conservative and Orthodox communities, starting with their rabbis?
At times we talk a good game of Jewish peoplehood, Clal Yisrael and Jewish unity; crises still can bring us together, like concern about the fate and security of Israel, threats of anti-Semitism, the need for Jewish education. But when you get down to the practical level, the fact is that there is very little interaction between liberal and Orthodox Jews. We tend to socialize with those in our own congregations and religious communities, and view “the other” as too different for our tastes.
One of the unintended benefits of two programs for high school students sponsored by The New York Jewish Week — “Write On For Israel,” an advocacy and educational project, and “Fresh Ink,” a webzine written by and for Jewish teens — is that they bring together students from public, private and day schools who otherwise would never meet each other, and often they become friends.
That’s just what worries some educators and parents. They’d rather keep the teens apart, concerned they might socialize, date and perhaps marry someone they feel is either too religious, or not observant enough, for their comfort level.
“When our kids get to college they’re intimidated by the Orthodox kids at Hillel,” said Rabbi Kenneth Emert, a Reform rabbi who leads Congregation Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, N.J. “They can’t interact with the Orthodox, they don’t have their Jewish educational background, and they don’t know each other.”
Speaking at an interdenominational dialogue the other night in Englewood, N.J., Rabbi Emert called for more opportunities for both young people and adults to study and socialize across denominational lines.
The program, sponsored by a new group called Unite4Unity to promote such dialogue, was moderated by Linda Scherzer, director of Write On For Israel/NY, and attracted more than 250 people. They witnessed three Bergen County rabbis — in addition to Rabbi Emert they were David-Seth Kirshner of the Conservative Temple Emanu-el of Closter and Shmuel Goldin of the host Orthodox Congregation Ahavath Torah — interact with a rare blend of candor and collegiality about the possibilities and limits of cooperation.
While they each promoted more interaction between the religious streams and called for learning from each other without trying to change each other, they also were open about the challenges, and boundaries posed by their beliefs.
“As Orthodox Jews, as Jews, we have to build walls,” Rabbi Goldin observed, “but if we don’t reach beyond the walls we’re not succeeding.”
Rabbi Kirshner responded that he didn’t want to see walls but rather portals to paths of connection. He noted that after his father passed away, he came to the daily minyan at Rabbi Goldin’s synagogue on days that his own temple did not have services, and he was impressed with the warmth and dedication of the congregants and their rabbi.
He said the experience left him with a “bittersweet” feeling in that he felt close to Rabbi Goldin but regretted that he had no relationship with other Orthodox rabbis in the area. It was a shame, he said, that the Orthodox rabbis have their own rabbinic organization instead of joining the New Jersey Board of Rabbis.
Rabbi Goldin said membership in the Orthodox group did not preclude joining the statewide board, and explained that “90 percent of our discussions [in the Orthodox group] are about kashrut.”
Another sign of communal segregation: just last week a new Jewish weekly newspaper began distribution in Bergen County. Called The Jewish Link, it is geared toward the growing Orthodox population in its local news coverage and choice of columnists. The paper was launched, in part, because some felt The Jewish Standard, which has covered the community since 1931, was either too critical of the Orthodox or did not give them sufficient coverage, or both.
At the Ahavath Torah program, Rabbi Emert said he envied the level of Jewish learning widely found in the Orthodox community and the degree to which congregants care for each other in times of need or in Shabbat meal invitations. But he said that as a liberal Jew he was proud of his synagogue’s levels of inclusion, creativity, autonomy and innovation and would not sacrifice them for the sake of unity.
Looking ahead, he said that while the evening was a success, it must not be a one-time event. “What are we going to do as a community together?” he asked.
Rabbi Goldin, who is president of the Rabbinical Council of America, echoed the call for follow-up but noted that “there are real differences, and first we have to respect” that fact. “I won’t validate everything you believe, but I can value what you do.”
He recalled previous attempts to establish interdenominational dialogue, through the local Jewish federation. Many rabbis came to the first meeting, he said, fewer to the second, and there was no third. “No one prepared issues for discussion,” he said. “It lacked seriousness.”
The three rabbis agreed that a new attempt should be made and that there were opportunities for their congregations to study together without preaching different philosophical views. Other suggestions included exchanging pulpits for presentations, a joint lecture series, programs training children in philanthropy, and a softball league.
Scherzer, the moderator, emphasized the centrality of Israel across the religious movements and the importance of transmitting Jewish identity and Israel support and advocacy to young people.
Lee Lasher and Ian Zimmerman, the two members of the Berrie Fellowship Leaders program who created Unite4Unity, were pleased with the large turnout and stimulating discussion, and pledged future meetings to bridge the religious divide.
Will other Orthodox rabbis share a platform with liberal clergy? Rabbi Goldin is more open and moderate than a number of his colleagues who feel that such cooperation lends legitimacy to the non-Orthodox movements. And there are liberal rabbis who feel resentful toward the Orthodox and would rather keep their distance.
As in this instance, it is the laity who are most apt to take the lead, and the goal is, and should be, not to pray together but to meet, listen to and understand each other. As Rabbi Kirshner noted in his comments, “how can I know you when we’re apart?”
(Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, can be reached at Gary@jewishweek.org. This column previously appeared in the Week.)