What keeps thoughtful Jews up at night worrying?
That wasn’t the title of a conference I participated in last week, but it could have been.
Many in the mix of 45 New Yorkers — Jewishly active in one way or another — who engaged in 48 hours of almost nonstop conversation challenged the very pillars of Jewish communal life and how we think about them. Whether that’s a good or bad sign depends on your own point of view and vision for the future.
At the top of the list of flash points were the distancing of Israel as a core component of Jewish identity, particularly among young people; a belief that liberal forms of Judaism are becoming extinct; a questioning of the viability of synagogues and establishment organizations; and the growing gap between insiders and outsiders in Jewish life.
The setting for all of this talk and disagreement, at times heated but always respectful, was a bucolic farm about a half hour north of Baltimore where the New Yorkers — a cross section of lay and professionals of various ages, interests and backgrounds — gathered for the first NYConversation, convened by The Jewish Week and sponsored by UJA-Federation of New York.
The retreat was the outgrowth of The Conversation, an annual Jewish Week project begun in 2005 that has brought together close to 400 people from across North America for similar dialogue. The unique aspect of these discussions is that the participants choose their own topics on the spot, related to sustaining and strengthening Jewish life — in this case with an emphasis on New York. (There are no planned outcomes, and no panels, plenaries or guest speakers; one of the ground rules in seeking to create a safe space for open conversation is that no one is quoted directly.)
Recognizing the potential for building bridges through a frank exchange of ideas among New York Jewry’s diverse ethnic, geographic, religious and social divides, leaders of UJA-Federation approached The Jewish Week last year about convening a Conversation just for New Yorkers.
The resulting discussions, which took place at the Pearlstone Conference Center near Baltimore June 12-14, left more than a few participants describing themselves as distressed, even shaken, at what they heard and observed about identity, affiliation and continuity.
But the consensus was that open conversation among Jews of different generations and outlooks was a healthy way to confront these issues, with a hope of continuing the dialogue in groups small or large.
wThough most of the participants had not known each other before, by the closing discussion they were inviting the others to come for Shabbat dinner and calling for monthly salons to continue their deliberations and debates.
That was precisely what the conveners of the NYConversation were hoping for, recognizing that the first step to lowering communal barriers was having people see each other beyond the stereotypes of Israeli or Russian Jew from Brooklyn, rabbi of large urban Conservative congregation, Iranian Jew from Great Neck, interfaith partner; federation professional; etc.
Along the way, though, there were plenty of discussions fraught with tension. One session I sat in on was about the impact of creating a sense of entitlement among young Jews, providing them with everything from free trips to Israel to stipends for engaging in Jewish campus activities.
When a middle-aged man said he worried how existing institutions can be sustained, one young man noted ruefully that, given the economic climate, his generation expects to make far less money than their parents and can’t afford to be as charitable. A young woman said she had no intention of paying for synagogue membership, though she would volunteer her time. There was agreement that values of responsibility and tzedakah should be instilled in the home. But the question of maintaining bricks-and-mortar institutions down the road was left open.
As our talks continued and deepened, there was an awareness among us that problems within the Jewish community are becoming sharper and more complex, despite common concerns.
Perhaps most shocking was the divide over Israel’s place in our hearts. Some spoke of Zion as the center of their identity, but more than a few others suggested that Israel today has become a distraction, if not an embarrassment, to American Jewry.
Yet there were moments that buoyed my spirits. When the entire group gathered on a sunny porch the second afternoon to find a theme that connected us, we settled on what it means, personally to be a Jew today, but only after sharing, and trying to analyze, our favorite Jewish jokes — a sublime icebreaker.
And then there was the coming together of the participants in both the egalitarian and mechitza prayer services, if only for a few moments, to allow a recent mourner to recite Kaddish for her father with a traditional minyan.
In the end, the gaps and divisions remain, but as several participants noted, we not only were talking to each other but listening to each other as well.