A Matter of Opinion

Rabbis to your corners. We want a clean fight, a fair fight, and no hitting below the beard. It’s not the WWF Wrestling Smackdown — it’s the JSI rabbinical smackdown, brought to you live by the Jewish Studies Institute (JSI) Talkback Series.

The series, held at the Museum of Tolerance, invites panelists from clashing Jewish camps to debate controversial topics in a TV-talk-show format. Rabbi Ari Hier, JSI director, plays a Jewish Jerry Springer, and moderates the intense discussions. He comes with a prepared set of questions, but as with every good talk show, members interject their opinions, and ask some questions of their own.

The series evolved from Hier’s desire to create a more interactive learning experience. "When a person hears a rabbi’s lecture or listens to a sermon, they don’t play much of a role," Hier said. "This series allows the audience to get involved with the discussion," he said.

Hier encourages seminar audiences to question panelists during each program, and the crowds delight in this opportunity to engage in debate.

Joel Levy of Beverlywood, a regular Talkback attendee, found a home in the series. "I really started exposing myself to Judaism 14 months ago. I’ve been to all different synagogues, but somehow felt left out. It’s these nights, these topics, that really hit home to me," Levy said.

The deliberated topics have included "Almost Famous: A Jewish perspective on ethics in rock ‘n’ roll Culture," "Spiritual Center or Social Club: Why do we go to synagogue?" and "The Art of Religious Enticement: The highly competitive means used to bring Jews closer to Judaism."

Ironically, the Orthodox Hier, who expressed disapproval of religious enticements during the last panel, employs those very means to lure Jews into learning. "I really want to bring Jews into textual, Talmudic study. I think it’s what Jewish adults really crave, deep down. But I created the Talkback programs to get people in the door," Hier said. "People talk about these issues behind closed doors, and now we have a format to discuss them in public," he said.

The format has been well-received. On a drizzling February night, over 50 attendees, ranging from their 20s to their 60s, fill the museum hall. And while many Talkback fans attend multiple programs, JSI program director Emma Barron says the audience shifts with each new topic. "We had tons of parents and educators at the session about the high stress level of Jewish day schools, and lots of kabbalahists and Speed Daters at the religious enticement program," Barron said. "So we’re really reaching a broad range of people," she added.

Talkback is as popular with its panelists as it is with its audience. Past panelists invited to dispute the heated issues hailed from Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist congregations. Organizations such as Jews for Judaism, The Chai Center and even Rolling Stone magazine have also sent representatives.

Daniel Greyber, rabbinic intern at the Conservative Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, found his participation in the Religious Enticement panel beneficial.

"There’s great value to this format, to people having a sincere discussion, and agreeing to disagree on topics that affect all Jewish people," Greyber said.

For Greyber, the Talkback format seemed particularly useful in flushing out distinctions between various Judaic schools of thought. "There are substantial differences between the movements that have real consequences for kol Yisrael. This is an important forum, because people can ask questions and learn where different organizations stand on these issues," Greyber said.

Audience member Levy echoed Greyber’s opinion. "The most enticing and informative format is this — an actual learning exchange."

The next Talkback series, "The L.A. Jewish Singles Scene: Can you ever meet Mr. or Ms. Right?" will be held Wednesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. at The Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Admission is $4 (members) and $5 (nonmembers). Dessert reception follows. For more information call (310) 552-4595 ext. 21.