The full-bearded rabbi of a charedi community wanted to know how to sensitize his congregants to the concerns of LGBTQ Jews.
The lay leader of a major Jewish organization confessed he feels like an outsider in synagogue because he’s not Hebrew-literate.
An educator with a national Jewish organization acknowledged that while passionate about Jews and Judaism, he is opposed to today’s Zionism.
A national media figure whose mother is not Jewish spoke movingly of his struggle to strengthen his spiritual relationship with God through Judaism.
And a social activist’s bold assertion that Orthodox Jews should be banned from the communal tent because of their alleged “subjugation of women” almost hijacked a lively discussion on building consensus around the concept of Jewish Peoplehood.
So much for assumptions, and welcome to the 2017 edition of The Conversation. The annual 48-hour retreat sponsored by The Jewish Week brings together an invited group — different each year — of thoughtful, accomplished and creative Jewish men and women from around the country with a wide range of ages, backgrounds and viewpoints.
Launched in 2005, the program now has more than 700 alumni, and each year’s content and flavor is unique. For me, the underlying theme of this most recent Conversation, held this past week, was shattered stereotypes — a reminder not to judge people by their looks, professional titles or religious affiliation. I met a rabbi who spoke of moments of doubt, and young progressives who differentiated between their deep connections to Jewish identity and sharp criticism of Israeli policies. Speaking to one of the progressives after The Conversation, he recalled a topic posted for discussion on “How can we do a better job of getting young people to support Israel?”
“There are so many assumptions built into that question that I don’t know where to begin,” he said, noting that it’s not clear who “we” are or how best to “support Israel.”
Reflecting the contradictions and ever-growing divides within American Jewry today, there were discussions at the gathering that included heated debate and friction, primarily over Israel, as well as moments of joyful bonding — like when dozens joined hands spontaneously, formed a circle and danced to a spirited Jewish melody at the Beit Café on Monday night. Among the 54 participants, lay and professional, most had never met until 24 hours earlier.
I sensed a pull within the group toward finding consensus on diaspora relations with Israel, Jewish unity and religious issues, as well as a strong current of pushback from those who feel alienated from establishment views.
“As a community, we seem to be doing a good job at being welcoming to people on an individual level,” one woman said, noting the variety of ways participants spoke of expressing their Judaism through prayer, text study, social action or meditation. “But so many feel excluded by our institutions,” she said, harboring resentment over the perceived elitism and expense involved in connecting with federations, large synagogues, day schools, etc.
The setting for these discussions was the Pearlstone Conference Center, on 160 acres of bucolic farmland north of Baltimore, where The Conversation seeks to provide an all-too-rare safe space for a wide variety of Jews to meet, network and struggle together with issues they feel are most important to 21st-century Jewish life in America.
As a counterpoint to typically over-programmed Jewish conferences, this one has no program. No political or religious agenda, no speakers, panels or plenaries, no planned outcome. Just candid discussions about whatever is on the participants’ minds by their posting topics on a wall and having others join them. And it’s all off-the-record (with an agreement not to quote participants by name so they can speak freely).
‘Reflecting the contradictions within American Jewry today, there were discussions at The Conversation that included heated debate, primarily over Israel, as well as moments of joyful bonding.’
This year there was much talk about the perceived dangers of Trumpism to America and, indirectly, Israel, and what can be done about it. A number of the 48 distinct sessions over the two days — some with two or three participants, some with more than two dozen — were framed around Orthodox vs. liberal positions on various issues, and whether and where the two sides could find common ground. Several tense sessions dealt with concerns about the growing divide between the Israeli government and diaspora communities on issues connected to Palestinians, egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, conversion standards, and the overall sense that the Netanyahu coalition continues to shift rightward.
A heated debate over the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement against Israel underscored the gap between supporters and critics of the Jerusalem government and went beyond differences on borders and settlements. It was more about fundamental worldviews, with some participants defending those who call for a partial boycott — of settlement products (as opposed to all Israeli products) — and others insisting that any form of boycott of Israel is wrong.
“Some pro-BDS activists, including Jews, are doing this because they want to end the occupation,” one participant told me later, “and others want to end the State of Israel.” He noted that questioning people’s motives is dicey, and that “the mainstream Jewish community responds to both of these BDS positions in the same overly blunt, negative terms. There needs to be more nuance.”
He offered the metaphor of a good marriage, where conflict is inevitable but disagreements can be resolved through a dialogue founded on love and respect. “If we can learn to fight well, based on making the world a better place, we will succeed,” he said. “We need to double down on promoting machloket l’shaym shamyim [disagreements, like those among the rabbis of the Talmud, engaged for the sake of heaven].”
Many of the differences aired at The Conversation were in the spirit of “the sake of heaven,” and more than a few potential discussion topics posted by participants on a large wall — a smorgasbord of Jewish anxieties — were focused on how to build communal coalitions and promote civil discourse.
There was an urgency to many of the discussions that focused on current events. But a chavruta-style text study of a passage from Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, underscored the timelessness of issues like insiders vs. outsiders and whether to value more the wisdom of young people or their elders. The text was from Chapter 4:20 and includes Rabbi Meir’s advice: “Do not look at the flask but what is in it; there may be a new flask that is full of old wine and an old flask that does not even have new wine in it.”
In the two days of meetings and discussions, I learned, once again, that for all of our differences, we are family — connected by our history and heritage. And, hopefully, our future. But it is our ability to respect, listen to and learn from each other that will go a long way toward determining whether we will, indeed, be blessed to remain a family.