When the Synagogue Council of America — the only national rabbinic group representing Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewry — broke up in 1994 after 68 years, observers said it underscored the growing rift between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews.
“Maybe it has outlived its usefulness,” mused member Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills at that time.
Rabbi Mordechai Waxman, of Temple Israel, a Conservative shul in Great Neck, L.I., called the death of the SCA “disastrous for American Jewish life,” noting its function as the voice of religious Jewry to non-Jewish national religious bodies like the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Since then, the relationship between Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis has grown nastier, over the peace process and the “who can be a Jew” conversion issue.
But this week, Rabbi Marc Schneier, the new president of the New York Board of Rabbis, said it’s time to try again.
Rabbi Schneier, at 39 the youngest president of the 800-member, 116-year-old rabbinic board that includes members of all four streams of Judaism (including Reconstructionist), proposed this week a North American board of rabbis, with an Israeli affiliate, to fill the gap left by the death of the Synagogue Council.
Speaking at his installation at the Pierre Hotel Monday night, which was attended by some of New York’s top religious and political figures including New York’s Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor and Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Rabbi Schneier outlined his ambitious plan to unite a diverse population of rabbis from different streams under one national banner.
Next month he plans to hold meetings to discuss the concept with the heads of boards of rabbis from several cities across the U.S. and Canada. A possible name for the new group is the North American Board of Rabbis.
“Since the demise of the Synagogue Council of America, the American Jewish community is crying out for a religious cohesive voice … a voice of communication and trust,” he stated.
Rabbi Schneier said the proposed group would conduct a survey to determine how extensive intradenominational rabbinical cooperation is in the U.S. He also sees it becoming the primary voice in the national interfaith dialogue. He doesn’t foresee a turf battle with the established interfaith Jewish reps from secular groups such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League. “I see it complimenting what they are doing.”
Rabbi Schneier said he believes there is enough interest from individual mainstream Orthodox rabbis to make the project viable. He conceded that right-wing and ultra-Orthodox rabbinic groups would not participate.
A spokesman for Agudath Israel of America confirmed this. “We have a longstanding policy of not participating in or giving sanction to multidenominational Jewish religious bodies,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran. He said it is “downright dangerous” to pretend there is an “essential communality” between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewry. “It doesn’t exist.”
But the proposal was also met with a cold reception from mainstream Orthodox groups, as well as some Conservative rabbinic leaders.
“I would rather suggest that … resources be directed toward existing organizations that already represent denominational interests,” said Rabbi Stephen Dworkin, executive director of the Rabbinical Council of America, the national Orthodox group.
“We are not supportive,” stated Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Union of Orthodox Congregations (OU). “We believe that experience shows that these groups lead to theologic discussions,” which he says is forbidden by the late father of Modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Joseph B. Soleveitchik. “That’s something we cannot agree to.”
Ganchrow said the OU’s sending representative Betty Eherenberg to an international meeting with the Vatican in Rome last week did not come under this prohibition.
Ganchrow also denounced the idea of starting an Israeli affiliate saying it would undermine Israel’s chief rabbinate. He said that the overwhelming majority of Modern Orthodox groups “are not going to be joining.”
One Orthodox official explained there is no need for the group because rabbis who wish to work with other movements do so behind the scenes. “The minute you start shining a spotlight, you start causing problems,” he said on condition of anonymity. He added that Rabbi Schneier is not seen as a substantial figure in Orthodox circles, and would not receive much cooperation from established groups.
A leader of the Conservative movement also believed the group would not succeed. “It’s got no chance,” said the rabbi who asked not to be named. He noted the organizational problem of harmonizing the membership standards of various local rabbinic groups across the country into one.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement expressed reservations but added: “If it enhances the ability of rabbis to get together to talk about issues we face in common, I think it’s worthwhile.” But Rabbi Ron Brown, a New York Board of Rabbis official who is helping coordinate the project, said he is not concerned with such negative talk.
He said he’s received “very enthusiastic receptions” from boards of rabbis officials throughout the nation.
They’ve given every indication they want to be part of it,” said Rabbi Brown of the Reform Temple Beth Am in Merrick, L.I. “I think it would be to everybody’s benefit to have a success come from this.”