Over the strong objections of the nation’s major rabbinic organizations, New York Board of Rabbis President Marc Schneier this week launched a new national rabbinic group that includes 30 members from Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism.
The creation of the North American Boards of Rabbis in Washington, D.C., Monday marks the first time an interdenominational rabbinic group has formed since the Synagogue Council of America disbanded under a cloud in 1995, partly for financial reasons and the growing isolationist philosophy of some Orthodox groups.
Rabbi Schneier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, assembled representatives from 25 boards of rabbis across the country to serve as a clearinghouse to share views and common goals and “to create a model for rabbinic unity,” he said.
“We believe that by creating this umbrella we can sensitize our colleagues to the number of Orthodox rabbis who have made a commitment to being involved in this kind of activity,” Rabbi Schneier said.
And NABOR has some high-powered financial help: Prominent businessmen Michael Steinhardt, Charles Bronfman of Seagrams and S. Daniel Abraham of Slim Fast have pledged $100,000 for each of two years, said Rabbi Schneier, who was elected first president of the organization. The group will also be heavily dominated by New Yorkers, as Rabbi Ronald Brown of Long Island was elected vice president and Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, also of Long Island, was hired as paid executive vice president.
Rabbi Schneier said the group’s first steps will be to plan an annual conference, produce a quarterly newsletter to exchange ideas, produce a report documenting examples of interdenominational cooperation tied to the Jewish New Year, and promote interreligious relations by linking local boards of rabbis with other non-Jewish clergy.
He also plans missions to Berlin and the Czech Republic, whose leaders have invited the nascent group to demonstrate how rabbis of different denominations can work together.
But here in the United States, the rabbinic arms of the major movements oppose the creation of NABOR.
In a column in the January issue of the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly’s newsletter, RA executive director Rabbi Joel Meyers criticized NABOR as unnecessary and even contrary to the aims of the individual movements’ rabbinical arms.
He said he feared NABOR would be viewed as the spokesman for all rabbis in the U.S. and that the source of funding would cause NABOR to advocate positions which may clash with the individual movements.
“What was initially described to us and what has evolved has caused us to take a negative view,” wrote Rabbi Meyers.
Critics of NABOR also include Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive director of the Reform movement’s rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis; and Rabbi Steven Dworken, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox movement’s rabbinic arm.
Rabbi Schneier derided the criticism as baseless and the function of a turf battle.
“Their concerns are based on assumptions and not facts,” said Rabbi Schneier, spiritual leader of The Hampton Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation in Westhampton Beach, L.I.
“They assumed that NABOR was going to be involved in issues that are very much within the purview of the national rabbinic bodies. We are not here to compete but to enhance.”
“I would say that the greatest danger to the Jewish community no longer comes from the outside but from within, and the most divisive is the confrontation among the religious branches.”
The squabble has caused some original members of NABOR, who attended a meeting in New York last spring paid for by Charles Bronfman, to drop out of the group. Nearly a dozen of the 30 who came to New York did not return for this week’s meeting.
“Some stayed away because of the official criticism,” said Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of New Jersey. “But I talked to my Conservative colleagues and we concluded that it’s not mutually exclusive to belong to both the RA and NABOR.”
This week’s meeting drew rabbis from Dallas; Atlanta; Seattle; Tampa, Fla.; Detroit; as well as Winnipeg and Montreal, Canada.