Are relations among the leaders of Judaism’s branches as bad as they’ve been portrayed?
A recent, well-publicized report on hundreds of examples of rabbinic cooperation nationwide emphasized that the situation may be improving. But even some of the rabbis involved in cooperative efforts questioned the report’s positive spin.
For example, a joint adult education program in Washington was cited by the New York Board of Rabbis report, titled “Unity In Diversity: A Vision Of Rabbinic Cooperation.” The program involved rabbis of Orthodox and Conservative congregations taking turns in leading Talmudic discussions at each other’s synagogues. But the two rabbis cited told The Jewish Week that the true picture is not as rosy as the report suggests.
“Yes, we have done things together, but I would not describe the situation as positive or necessarily improved,” said Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation. “I sometimes feel that we are swimming upstream because most of the forces are arrayed towards pushing things apart.”
Rabbi Freundel said he and one of the area’s Conservative rabbis, Jack Moline of Agudas Achim Congregation, were conducting joint programs because “a lot of the laity would like to see a greater sense of the community — being able to work together on issues that are shared. So we try to stem the tide that is pushing us apart.
“I feel like there are holes in the dike and we are putting our fingers in it. But there are a lot of leaks.”
Asked about the 53-page Board of Rabbis’ report, culled from dozens of articles in the Jewish press, shul bulletins and conversations with rabbis, Rabbi Freundel said: “There will always be some people who try to do things together, but the larger forces in the community are trying to pull us apart. Ideologically, the various movements are heading towards more exclusionary positions.”
Indeed, relations among the denominations have deteriorated in the past few years, largely over the long-simmering issue of conversions in Israel. Other issues that have strained ties include communal funding for the various streams, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in ritual life, the role of women in the synagogue and the Reform movement’s adoption of patrilineal descent.
Those tensions were evident here most recently when Orthodox members of the New York Board of Rabbis protested an interfaith prayer service on the homeless held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
But Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Board of Rabbis, said he believed Rabbi Freundel is “minimizing the level of cooperation that now exists. He may be comparing data of 30 years ago. There is a sense in the rabbinic community that the tide is beginning to turn.”
Rabbi Schneier said the report’s release on the eve of the High Holy Days “killed the sermons of rabbis who were going to speak on Jewish divisiveness and conflict. This report … inspired others to call for greater cooperation to bring the Jewish community together.”
Rabbi Schneier rejected the comments of Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a longtime analyst of Jewish life, who told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that there is today “less cooperation and communal activity” than ever.
“No one should fool himself into thinking that the big picture is truly a good one,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “The atmosphere is one of an almost total breakdown.”
He compared the examples cited in the Board of Rabbis report to the few thousand righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust — an admirable but distinct minority.
Rabbi Schneier acknowledged that there will be those who “say this is a drop in the bucket, but people have not recognized that there is even a drop out there. This report documents that there is a cadre of rabbinic leadership that is making a concerted effort to promote the idea of interdenominational cooperation and that the voices of alliance have emerged within the rabbinic community.”
To Rabbi Moline, however, “the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. We have and have always had a good relationship with almost every congregation in the area here,” he said, referring to the greater Washington area. “That is not to say we don’t have our differences, but for the most part whatever disagreements we have had have been expressed with respect.”
He noted that “we make a mistake when we import to local communities the conflicts that are going on institutionally in the larger Jewish community. The struggles for pluralism in Israel are of a different nature qualitatively because it is a struggle between a government-supported rabbinate and others who are looking for that recognition. That is different from what we face here, where all affiliation is voluntary and our authority comes from the goodwill of our constituency.”
Rabbi Moline hastened to add that all is not “sweetness” among the rabbis in the Washington area because the Orthodox rabbis have “declined to become members of the Washington Board of Rabbis or to open their organization to non-Orthodox rabbis.”
Rabbi Freundel said efforts to create a unified board have failed because the Washington Board of Rabbis “does not have a policy of limiting itself to non-halachic [Jewish law] activities.” And he said he was unable to get every rabbi to sign a newspaper ad a year ago that he considered “sort of apple pie and motherhood.” It said the undersigned would not make denominational issues more important than the safety and security of Israel, and that any interdenominational disagreements would be argued respectfully.
The dozen rabbis who declined to sign said “they wouldn’t sign with rabbis of a different denomination or because they could not accept that denominational issues are secondary to our support for Israel,” Rabbi Freundel recalled.
A third rabbi cited in the report, Moshe Parnes of the Young Israel of Dayton, Ohio, said the report incorrectly said his Orthodox congregation participated in a joint Purim celebration with the community’s Reform, Conservative and traditional congregations. He said his congregation helped the others plan their event but did not participate because it annually holds its own Purim festival.
But Rabbi Parnes added that he regularly conducts educational classes at the traditional synagogue and has been invited to do so at the Conservative synagogue. And he said the rabbis of all the synagogues meet monthly.
Rabbi Parnes said he draws the line, however, at joint projects that in his mind violate Jewish law, such as attending the communitywide Chanukah menorah-lighting ceremony at the Jewish federation and not in a synagogue.
“So I couldn’t join them for the ceremony but I did for the party that followed,” he said.“I try very hard not to blur the distinctions between Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Judaism. Those differences are most apparent at services and if we ran a joint service, it would blur them. I wouldn’t want to do that and my membership feels the same way — as much as we want to be one nation and to reach out to one another.”
Similarly, Rabbi Arthur Lopatin of the Orthodox congregation Anshe Sholom in Chicago pointed that although the New York Board of Rabbis report cited a joint celebration of Sukkot by an Orthodox and Conservative congregation in his community, the shared program was more narrow than suggested. The report said the “congregants began the evening with services and dinner” at the Conservative synagogue, Anshe Emet, but Rabbi Lopatin told The Jewish Week there was no joint service, just a joint dinner followed by a joint all-night study session.
“Currently, I couldn’t do it halachically [according to Jewish law],” he said, referring to a joint service.
But Rabbi Lopatin said there is a desire among congregants to come together, and that joint events have drawn larger numbers than had the individual synagogues gone their own way. He said the younger generation is very interested in seeing rabbis of the different movements get along with each other.
He added that there are certain areas where the Orthodox and Reform “can link up. Everyone believes in Torah from Sinai, and believes in the commandments and tradition. And women are becoming more involved in Orthodox synagogues. So there is a coming-together.”
Simchat Torah is seen as an ideal time for cross-denominational celebrations, and there are a growing number of such events in the metropolitan area, in part because they involve dancing with the Torah, often outside, without including the joint prayer services that are problematic for Orthodox rabbis.
Rabbi Ronald Brown of Temple Beth Am in Merrick, L.I., said his Reform congregants will be celebrating Simchat Torah next week by dancing with the Torah in their parking lot. And they have arranged with congregants from Merrick’s two Orthodox and two Conservative synagogues to join them.
“We have a history in Merrick of [the congregations] working together,” said the rabbi, noting that more than 10 years ago the Hebrew High School of Merrick was created for students of the three major branches of Judaism. He said it was the first of its kind in the state.
“We have Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and laity teaching there, and that has really laid the foundation for mutual respect in the community,” said Rabbi Brown. “We would hope it would be the paradigm for how others work together.”
Asked about the possibility of joint religious services, Rabbi Brown said: “There are ways to pursue that, but you have to lay set the foundation first. … The laity is tired of the squabbling and bickering [between the movements]. They want cooperation.”