On the eve of 5775, more than 50 Jewish thought leaders and communal activists from around the country gathered at a retreat near Baltimore last week for 48 hours to talk about whatever was on their mind. Not surprisingly, their frank discussions covered a wide range of themes and interests. But bottom-line, the common thread was a deep concern about Jewish unity — more precisely, the lack of it — over the policies of the State of Israel, and the denominational divides that underscore the dearth of religious and communal leadership at home.
As one keen observer of American Jewish life noted later in an interview, “It may be an exaggeration but I felt like we should have had a sign that read, ‘It’s still about Israel, stupid.’”
He pointed out that in the wake of a summer of violence in Gaza, the differing views on how Jerusalem should deal with the Palestinians, from waging war with Hamas to making peace with the Palestinian Authority, is “painfully dividing American Jews,” as reflected in the discussions.
While the great majority of U.S. Jews supported Israel’s right to defend itself, he said, those on the left found the high number of civilian casualties among Gazans “hard to stomach,” and those on the right were even more convinced that territorial concessions would only lead to more attacks on the Jewish state.
“And many people like me,” the observer said, “who are neither hard left nor hard right feel doubly conflicted — heartsick and seeing no end in sight.”
It was not surprising, then, that debates over Israeli policy, and how diaspora Jews should make their voices heard, were a key element this year of The Conversation, The Jewish Week-sponsored two-day conference unique in that it offers no panels, plenaries or speakers. Instead, the invited participants, a mix of lay and professional Jews from a wide range of religious, political and socioeconomic backgrounds and ages, choose their own topics on the spot. And it’s all off the record. The result is a remarkably candid and intense affair (with time for schmoozing and levity).
No doubt effected by increasingly chaotic world events — the emergence of ISIS, the brutal Hamas conflict and the blatant anti-Semitic outbursts in Europe — this year’s Conversation had an added air of gravitas, if not despair. Participants dove into macro topics from the outset, tackling the issues of global anti-Semitism, the breakdown of civility, and finding a consensus on Israel. They seemed to bond quickly, sharing their views on everything from what moves them spiritually to what keeps them up at night worrying about the Jewish future.
In all, there were three dozen voluntary discussion topics posted on the wall at the Pearlstone Conference Center in rural Maryland over the two days, some with as few as two participants discussing them and others with as many as 20. At least five discussions were convened on Israel, from countering BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement) and anti-Israel rhetoric on campus and teaching about Israel in high school students to understanding the differences between American and Israeli Jews and engaging young Jewish liberals in ways that respect their values while emphasizing support for Jerusalem. Another big topic, in various forms, was the denominational divide in American Jewish life and the effort to bolster commitment and intensity among non-Orthodox Jews. There were two sessions on the implications of the growth of the charedi community, discussions on whether Jews can survive on Torah without God, and a call to “unpack the liturgy so that education and worship are more melded and Jewish literacy raised.”
I participated in a conversation on what should be the outcomes of Jewish education today, convened by a veteran leader in the field. He noted at the outset that “it is stunning how often educators can’t answer” the question he posed. Our group of about 10 observed that people measure Jewish educational success or failure in different ways, including fluency in Hebrew, membership in a congregation, and/or the choice of a Jewish marriage partner. Honing in on how we would reinvent Jewish education today, most agreed on scrapping afternoon Hebrew school and focusing on creating quality early childhood programs, promoting and bolstering day school education and increasing efforts to engage teens on a personal level. There was an acknowledgment that our Jewish educational system has not kept pace with the rapid changes in a society that values the universal; we felt synagogues and other Jewish institutions need to be more assertive and creative in outreach efforts.
But where do you draw the line between widening the tent and maintaining traditional values? That issue led to a lively, contentious and sometimes painful discussion on whether the liberal denominations (including the liberal Orthodox) could pray as they wish but train clergy together. The pragmatic thesis — saving money on teachers, buildings, etc. — soon gave way to ideological divides and struck a few raw nerves. In a poignant moment a woman rabbi explained her personal pain on feeling invisible in the eyes of some Jews, excluded from being counted in Orthodox services.
One participant said he came away from the discussion realizing that “we can’t reconcile our most fundamental differences, so we have to acknowledge that and keep working on it.”
At the end of the day (actually, two days), no concrete solutions were agreed upon on for any of the challenging topics discussed. There were no silver bullets to deal with assimilation — or even agreement that it should be countered rather than embraced. And there was no clear approach to Israel that all could rally around.
But that wasn’t the goal of The Conversation. Far from it. Rather, in an increasingly divided and contentious American Jewish community, there was a recognition of the deep need for a safe space for serious Jews to meet, get to know, engage and yes, disagree, with each other in a civil and respectful way. And that’s the vacuum The Conversation seeks to fill, as evidenced from the comments of the participants at the closing circle at the end of the conference.
Over and over, in varying ways, they spoke of the retreat as a gift, a unique and sometimes humbling experience. They spoke of appreciating the diversity of the group, of personal growth, opening up, and of the value of being challenged and gaining respect for different points of view.
They realized that conversation is not just about talking. It’s about listening — all too rare these days.
One participant shared that, “My views were not altered here, they were informed.” He added: “We don’t need to achieve a false sense of unity.” Rather, “the challenge is to maintain a feeling of family” while still differing in many ways.
That’s as good a takeaway from The Conversation as any, on the cusp of a new year that finds the Jewish people struggling to maintain unity at a time when we are pulling apart, from within and without.
May our efforts be rewarded and our prayers answered.
Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details.