Leaders of the three main streams of Judaism in America told a group of visiting Israeli Knesset members last week that denominational divisions are less important to them than their common commitment to educate and inspire American Jews.
“Bring back to the Knesset the message that we are a strong community because of our diversity,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Reform movement, told the six members of Knesset — five of them serving their first term.
He and his fellow panelists — Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University and Shuli Rubin Schwartz, dean of graduate and undergraduate studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary — asserted that they are more interested in engaging Jews here, many of whom are uninformed about Judaism, than adding to the ranks of their Orthodox, Conservative or Reform movements, respectively.
The Knesset members wanted to know how Israel’s political system, which does not separate church and state, affected American Jews, and what they could do to keep liberal Jews here from feeling alienated from a Jewish state that does not allow non-Orthodox marriages and divorces.
The occasion was a frank two-hour discussion last Friday sponsored by the Ruderman Family Foundation, based in both Boston and Israel. It is perhaps best known for its efforts on behalf of the disabled, but also works to deepen understanding and strengthen relations between Israeli and American Jews.
In recent years the foundation has sponsored two different U.S. trips — one for Israeli journalists and one for a group of Knesset members — to expose them to a variety of leaders and points of view to better understand the American Jewish community.
Friday’s session took place at the end of a five-day visit of the Knesset members to Boston and New York, which included meetings with a member of Congress, a New York Times editor, national Jewish organizational leaders, sociologists and philanthropists.
The program with the three religious leaders was entitled “The Organized Jewish Religious Community: Are We Losing Steam?” and the answer from the panelists was a qualified “No.” (I served as moderator of the discussion.)
Rubin Schwartz acknowledged that the Conservative movement “needs to reframe itself most urgently” at a time when surveys show Jews moving from the middle — represented most by the Conservative movement — towards either the right or the left in religious terms.
The Jewish community needs a strong center, she said, adding that the organizations have to be “more nimble” in meeting the interests of American Jews who, in an age of individualism, no longer feel compelled to join synagogues and organizations.
The recent Pew Research Center study on American Jewish identity found the most growth coming from within the Orthodox movement, particularly in the haredi, or fundamentalist, community, as well as at the other end of the spectrum, where 22 percent, many of them young people, defined themselves as having “no religion.”
These patterns, Rubin Schwartz noted, are consistent with the religious practices of Americans in general, who are moving away from the center. She said the Jewish community is “fluid,” with a good deal of movement from denomination to denomination.
At the same time, the panelists seemed to agree that denominational labels are losing their importance in defining where Jews are today in their religious or spiritual identities.
YU’s Joel said Modern Orthodoxy — he prefers “Contemporary Orthodox” — “is not losing steam,” noting that his university and Orthodox day schools have never had as many students as now, and that “Jewish learning” is at an all-time high. He worries, though, that “the community at large is profoundly ignorant” in terms of Judaism, as well as “under-educated and under-celebrated.” It’s not that they reject the denominations but that “they never encountered them,” he said, calling for an emphasis on “education, community and passion” to reach the masses.
He also warned the Orthodox to remember their mission to be a light unto the nations and not to give in to complacency.
“We need more ways to share our values with other Jews,” he said, and not focus on denominations and their differences.
Rabbi Jacobs, too, said it was more important to consider the “core commitments shared” by the denominations than what separates them, and he offered a positive spin on the fact that more Americans Jews say they practice no religion. He said that response reflects a younger audience which sees “an institutional Jewish world with a lot of posturing” while they are looking for “depth and meaning in their lives.”
Asserting that he does not care if Reform Judaism remains the largest of the movements — “numbers are deceptive” — he said that “denominations should continue if they bring something powerful” to people who are searching for value and purpose. Young people want “an inclusive Jewish community” in terms of equality for women, gays and the disabled, he said, and a Judaism that is not “frozen,” one that is not just about rituals but also about “a commitment to tikkun olam” in repairing the world.
In the give-and-take discussion, Knesset member Shimon Ohayon (Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu) told Rabbi Jacobs he was deeply concerned about the high rate of intermarriage among Reform Jews. And he urged patience in demanding legislation that would liberalize the approach to religion in Israel, like calls for civil marriage, noting that most Israelis have had little exposure to the non-Orthodox movements.
Rabbi Jacobs said there is an urgency to his message because “so many young people and their parents feel distant from Israel.” And criticism from some Israeli rabbis and politicians describing Reform Jews as not really Jewish “is belittling and demeaning and not helping our people.”
He said that despite intermarriage, some communities, notably Boston, have shown that intense outreach efforts can translate into the majority of children of interfaith parents being raised as Jews.
“We want a Jewish state that reflects what we’re all about,” Rabbi Jacobs said, with a concern about social justice high on the list.
Others in the Israeli delegation expressed frustration with the Chief Rabbinate for adhering to strict interpretations on marriage, divorce and conversion, and urged the Orthodox leadership here to convey a message calling for greater inclusion.
While the debates will go on between and among the denominations in this country and between Israeli and American Jewish leaders, there was unanimity at the meeting that this kind of dialogue is helpful, vitally important and all too rare.
“We Jews are better at division than multiplication,” said Joel, who cited Richard Nixon’s observation that “we can’t listen to each other until we stop shouting at each other.”
The Knesset members said they will return to Israel with a better understanding of some of the tensions in the Jewish community here, and impressed at the degree of dialogue and cooperation, at least among the leaders of the American Jewish denominations.
(Note for future missions: It would be instructive to have the Sephardic community represented, especially since it has managed to survive for centuries without the divisions of the Ashkenazim into denominations.)
One takeaway from the session was that a new vocabulary is required, and emerging, in discussing American Judaism in an increasingly post-denominational age. Where our community once divided itself in terms of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, etc., it’s now about Just Jewish, Millennials, Gen-Xers, Boomers, Three-Day-A-Year Jews and “Nones” (those who identify as No Religion). We are an ever-evolving people and that is both a sign of life and, in this case, concern; secularism is on the rise and more Jews identify themselves in terms of culture and heritage than religious practice.
Our cousins in the Jewish state can appreciate that fact since many tend to respond to questions about their Jewish practices by saying simply, “I’m an Israeli.”
At the end of last Friday’s session, Rubin Schwartz advised the Israeli visitors to learn from American Jewry, in all its messy but dynamic diversity. “Create from our best,” she said, “and build an open Judaism in Israel.”
From her mouth to God’s ears.