Rabbinical Council of America conversion panel issues recommendations


A committee established by the Rabbinical Council of America to review its conversion processes has submitted its report featuring recommendations in nine areas of the process.

The review was put in place nine months ago after one of the RCA’s leading conversion rabbis, Barry Freundel, was arrested on voyeurism charges. Freundel was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for videotaping dozens of nude women at his former congregation’s ritual bath in Washington, D.C.

The recommendations focused on support for conversion candidates during and after their conversions, professionalism, transparency of expectations, sensitivity to candidates, educational experiences, the responsibilities and support for rabbis and rabbinic judges, and oversight, supervision, and grievance processing.

“I am hopeful that this report will make it better for American conversion candidates going forward,” committee member Bethany Mandel said last week when presenting the report to the national convention of the RCA, the country’s main modern Orthodox rabbinic association. “The framework we’ve laid out here … is a great start, but it’s up to many of you in this room today to make sure that the spirit of these recommendations is carried out.”

Some 439 conversion participants from a pool of 835, along with 107 sponsoring rabbis in a pool of 216, responded to an anonymous survey. Five focus groups also were conducted in New York, Montreal and Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the committee’s chair, called the review process a “historic moment.”

“Recognizing the critical importance of their perspective, we involved converts, our stakeholders, throughout the committee’s lengthy deliberations,” he said. “In addition, we encouraged them to publicly present their feelings, positive and negative, to our entire convention last week. The result was deeply moving and potentially transformative for our members.

“The review process helped us better understand the conversion process generally and will help us fulfill our religious mandates with greater sensitivity and responsibility.”

The review committee was comprised of six men and five women, including two female converts to Judaism.

Among the committee members were Abby Lerner, the admissions director and a teacher at Yeshiva University’s high school for girls in New York; Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York’s Kehilath Jeshurun and Ramaz school; Bracha Rutner, a female adviser of Jewish law; various rabbis and a psychotherapist.

The two converts on the panel were Mandel, a recent convert of Freundel’s who penned a proposed Bill of Rights for converts after the Freundel scandal broke, and Evelyn Fruchter, an attorney.

Rabbinical marriage counseling works — up to a point


Rabbi Karen Fox remembers the moment when she decided she needed to pursue a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
 
In the late 1980s, Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, decided to create a support group for several couples who had privately sought her out to discuss their fertility problems and the resulting strain on their marriages. By bringing those temple members together, Fox did what scores of rabbis across the country do daily: She tried to improve congregants’ relationships and lives by offering free counseling.
 
Problem was, Fox now admits, she didn’t really know what she was doing. Having received only the most basic training in marital and other counseling during her rabbinic studies, she lacked such vital tools as empathetic listening and a deep understanding of the form and function of families. Much to her chagrin, Fox could do little more than offer sympathetic words of encouragement.
 
“Just as doctors specialize, I think it’s important that rabbis interested in counseling study it and train for it,” said Fox, who earned her master’s in 1991 and later became a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Otherwise, they might not have a broad enough vision and a wide enough ear to understand what’s going on with a couple.”
 
Like other clergy, rabbis have dispensed marital and other advice to congregants for generations. With a deep knowledge of Jewish texts and values, they have long played an important role in helping couples headed to the chuppah learn how to incorporate God and Judaism into their lives. Those premarital interventions, spiritual and otherwise, often increase the odds for marital success by teaching Jewish couples how to make their union sacred and loving, rabbis and their supporters say. Overall, rabbis earn generally high marks for premarital counseling, which focuses on the rudiments of good communication.
 
However, critics say rabbis are less suited for long-term marital counseling, even though desperate couples with crumbling marriages often turn to them for salvation. Although rabbis can play a positive role in brokering a reconciliation in couples with relatively minor problems, they are generally ill-equipped, both educationally and often temperamentally, to grapple with spousal abuse, depression, bullying and other serious issues that can destroy marriages and souls. Untrained in these areas, rabbis can do congregants a great disservice when they fail to refer them to professionals for help, experts say.
 
“The rabbinate encourages pronouncements and directives, but counseling is about listening and hearing subconscious messages,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. “So, if as an authority figure you tell someone what to do, you might curtail the process of emotional expression that is essential for a couple’s growth.”
 
Judaism considers marriage to be a holy union with partners entering into a sacred relationship with one another and God. Several texts enshrine institution’s centrality in Jewish life. Genesis 2:18, states: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b, says: “Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness.” Midrash, Yalqut Shimoni, Ruth 606: “He who marries a good woman is as if he fulfilled the whole Torah from beginning to end.”
 
Given Judaism’s emphasis on marriage, it is hardly surprising that many rabbis offering premarital counseling infuse their sessions with religiosity. Rabbi Michael Menitoff, an instructor in the psychology departments at the University of Judaism and the Academy for Jewish Religion, said that when he worked as a congregational rabbi he would encourage couples to make their future home sacred by observing Shabbat and keeping kosher.
 
Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe said he also emphasizes the importance of Shabbat, which he calls “an opportunity to not be tyrannized by the modern world and to create a space in which personal interactions can exist away from the constant [inundation] of information and opinion and all the things with which we are bombarded day-to-day.”
 
In his nearly two decades as a congregational rabbi, Rabbi Mark Diamond would discuss the meaning and importance of Jewish wedding rituals before the big day. For instance, Diamond, now the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, would explain that the sixth blessing recited under the chuppah teaches that newlyweds begin married life with a clean slate and rejoice together. But the seventh blessing, Diamond says, suggests that Judaism also calls on partners to celebrate their individuality and give one another space to grow. Diamond’s point: Understanding the meaning behind Jewish marital customs gives couples a roadmap to better navigate their futures together.
 
In the bad old days, rabbis received scant counseling training of any type in the seminary. That meant they relied on little more than gut instinct when advising couples on how to grapple with issues such as alcoholism and infidelity. In recent years, observers say, rabbis and rabbis-in-training have received better pastoral counseling education. The Academy for Jewish Religion, for instance, now requires rabbinical students to take two counseling courses, which, among other subjects, address such topics as the power of active listening, the therapeutic process and crisis management. In recent years, the Board of Rabbis sponsored a series called, “The Rabbi as Counselor: Issues & Challenges,” which dealt with issues ranging from marital counseling to infertility to mental illness and depression.
 
The improvements notwithstanding, congregants coming to rabbis with serious marital and other problems have often come away disappointed, said Rabbi Abner Weiss, former rabbi at the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.
In a 1999 survey of more than 200 Jews at Beth Jacob, University Synagogue and Valley Beth Shalom, Weiss found that the majority of temple members who had gone to rabbis and licensed professionals for advice found the marriage counselors, psychologists and social workers to be more helpful, although the majority of Orthodox congregants preferred going to a rabbi.
 
Despite rabbis’ good intentions, some temple members complained that clergymen had betrayed them by using their personal dramas as the basis for sermons, Weiss said. Others said that even if rabbis respected their privacy, too many temple members saw them going in and out of his/her offices for counseling and gossiped. Finally, many groused that rabbis knew far less than the trained professionals.
 
“When there’s a real problem, what’s really required is a good referral,” said Weiss, himself a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Rabbis often can’t recognize what’s really going on in a relationship and should be honest enough to say so.”
 

Acts of Faith


Rabbinical School Moves to UCLA Hillel

The Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR CA) has moved to its new home at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center For Jewish Life at UCLA. Just five years since its establishment, the non-denominational graduate school for rabbinic, cantorial and chaplaincy studies outgrew its first location at Temple Beth Torah in West Los Angeles. Although Hillel is a center for Jewish students on UCLA campus and the Academy is a graduate program, both institutions are devoted to pluralism and diversity in Jewish life.

The Academy also attracted a number of respected congregational clergy from synagogues throughout the L.A. area. These include Temple Adat Shalom, Temple Beth Am, Beth Jacob Congregation, B’nai Horin-Children of Freedom, Congregation Mogen David, Kahal Joseph, Kehillat Israel, N’vay Shalom, Ohr HaTorah Congregation, Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, Shomrei Torah Synagogue, Sinai Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

With a current student body of 65 students, AJR leaders hope the move will increase applicants, faculty and supporters for AJR CA.

“It’s a huge move for this young school,” said Stan Levy, founding chair of AJR CA’s board of governors.

“It gives us tremendous credibility and visibility in the community that these two institutions with philosophies of making Judaism inclusive to all branches and denominations of Judaism have come together,” he said.

A Tendler Resignation

After 22 years as head rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village, Rabbi Aron Tendler resigned last weekend.

“It is with mixed emotions that I write you today to let you know of my decision that, after 22 wonderful years, I have decided to step down as rabbi of Shaarey Zedek,” Tendler wrote in a letter to the 400 member families of the Orthodox synagogue.

“This has been a decision I have contemplated for some time, and after great soul searching and deliberation and with the full support of Esther and the family, I decided that it was time to explore other opportunities and embark on a new aspect of my personal and professional life.”

Tendler wrote that he intends to stay in the community but wants to spend more time with his family and pursuing writing, teaching and other projects.

“On occasion, I would like to sleep for more than four hours. Selfishly put, I want more time, and if not now, when?” he wrote.

Tendler will stay on through the High Holidays and help the search committee in its quest to find a new rabbi.

“Rabbi Tendler turned innumerable lives around, and it will be a great loss for us,” Brad Turell, Shaarey Zedek’s communications director, told The Journal. “He’s very talented and we wish him the best.”

A Singing Sabbath

Temple Beth El of San Pedro will hold its first musician-in-residence weekend Feb. 10-12, featuring jazz artist Mark Bloom. Bloom, a pianist, stage and musical director, producer, composer and performing artist, combines jazz music and Jewish services and prayer. In addition to producing hundreds of scores for stage and screen, he has also composed, arranged and accompanied such Jewish performers as Rabbi Joe Black, Doug Cotler, Ron Eliran, Danny Maseng, Peri Smilow and Bat-ella.

During the Temple Beth El weekend of Shabbat Shira (the Sabbath of Song), Bloom will lead his Jazz Shabbat Service, which has been performed in more than 50 congregations nationwide. He will also teach a workshop on “Nefesh” Shabbat (The soul of Shabbat) and perform a jazz concert on Saturday night. He’ll present aspecial children’s concerts on Sunday morning, during Torah school.

This musician-in-residence weekend will culminate a year of celebration honoring Cantor Ilan Davidson’s 10th anniversary with Temple Beth El.

Cantor Davidson said that both jazz and prayer are fixed forms, “each take on their similarities, thereby making it an individual expression for each participant.”

“Prayer,” Rabbi Charles Briskin said, “is a combination of keva, the written word, and kavanah, the spiritual dimension of each individual. Mark’s Jazz Shaabbat Service combines aspects of the service with the music that melds with prayer.”

For more information about concert tickets (services are free), contact (310) 833-2467.

 

Community Briefs


Rally for Freedom

“Avadim hayenu, ata bnei horin.” We were slaves, but now we are free. Pesach’s refrain is not true for many. For years, Charles Jacobs, along with many others, fulminated in print and in person against slavery, and particularly against those states, most notably Sudan, where slavery, slave raids and outright genocide, are major tools of a generations-old civil war pitting southern Sudanese tribal peoples against an Islamicized-Arabized central government in Khartoum. With the attack on the United States, Jacob’s call gains added poignancy: many of the organizations and states that profit from Sudan’s slavery have ties, direct and otherwise, with Islamo-fascism’s shadowy international movement. The American Anti-Slavery Group and iAbolish.com, in cooperation with the Museum of Tolerance and Standwithus.com, presented both Charles Jacobs and Francis Bok on March 14 speaking about slavery in Sudan and many international efforts to redeem Sudanese slaves from captivity. The story of Bok’s travails — abduction as a child, years of slavery and subsequent escape — give this great tragedy a personal face. Other events include: Saturday, March 16, 10:30 am, Beth Am (1055 S. La Cienega Blvd.); Saturday, March 16, 4:30 pm, B’nai David-Judea Congregation at Pico and Livonia. Rally for Freedom on Sunday, March 17, 4:00 pm, at the First AME Church at Adams and La Salle. — Dennis Gura, Contributing Writer

L.A. Armenians Protest

An Armenian rally was held in front of the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard to protest what they allege is Israel’s refusal to recognize the Ottoman massacres as a “genocide” and a cultural tragedy akin to the Jewish Holocaust. About 70 people protested peacefully for two hours on March 7. According to Yuval Rotem, Israel consul general in Los Angeles, the anger is based on a misinterpretation of some comments Rifka Cohen, the Israeli ambassador to Armenia, made earlier this year. The rally left officials at the Israeli Consulate baffled. They believe that the anger is misplaced. “Some elements want to use it as a vehicle against Israel,” Rotem said, “which is unfortunate.”

“I understand it’s a very sensitive issue for them. It’s a horrifying thing that happened,” said Zvi Vapni, deputy consul general in Los Angeles. “But generally, Israelis have a close relationship with the Armenian people.” Vapni noted that one of the oldest quarters in Jerusalem is an Armenian community. Rotem added that after a major earthquake hit Turkey several years ago, “we were the first to go and assist them.” Vapni added, “We are not historians. We do not deny anything. They must understand that the Consulate are not the ones that make any decisions or comments on this matter.” — Staff Report

Holocaust Scholars Hold Roundtable

The Directors Roundtable is holding the Los Angeles leg of its worldwide conference at UCLA on March 20. The conference topic: “What Remembrance of the Holocaust Is Doing For Mankind.”

The Roundtable will hold parallel events in London, Paris,
Berlin, Rome, Moscow, Buenos Aires, New York, Washington D.C., Florida, and
Israel. Speakers at the conference will include a who’s who of the Holocaust
scholarship community, including Darlene Basch, Dr. Michael Berenbaum, professor
Mark Jonathan Harris, Gregory Laemmle, Curt Lowens, Dr. Gary Schiller, professor
Cornelius Schnauber, Dr. M. Mitchell Serels, the Rev. Alexei Smith (retired) and
Nick Strimple. To register, call (323) 655-7001 or e-mail your reservation to mlakediroundtbl@aol.com . — Staff Report

An ‘Open Orthodox’ Rabbinical School

Rabbi Avi Weiss visited Los Angeles last week to promote his new “open Orthodox” rabbinical school, “Yeshivat Chovivei Torah,” now in its second year in Manhattan. Weiss spoke at Temple B’nai David-Judea, the shul of his former assistant rabbi, Yosef Kanefsky. The rabbinical school offers a four-year program for men who only plan to serve as pulpit rabbis, and each student must commit to three years of community service work. (One rabbinical student might intern in Los Angeles next year.)

“Openness in Orthodoxy means the preparedness to discuss openly some of the critical issues related to the role of women, a dignified and respectful dialogue with the Conservative and Reform,” Weiss said. “We believe we can transform the Modern Orthodox community if there are rabbis open to dialogue with Jews of all backgrounds — this could be phenomenally impactful. Weiss, a longtime activist on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Israel, called this project “the highlight of my life.” — Staff Report

Culver City Peace Debate

More than 100 people attended a lecture “Is an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Treaty Possible?” at Culver City’s Temple Akiba on March 10. A spirited debate took place between David Pine, western regional director of Americans for Peace Now, and Jerry Blume, spokesperson for Americans for a Safe Israel.

The audience at the Reform temple, most over the age of 50, expressed anger over suicide bombings, and disappointment with both Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. While both advocates strongly support Israel, they presented different solutions to the current crisis.

“Jews argue,” concluded Rabbi Allen S. Maller, who moderated the debate. “That’s what we do best.” — Eric H. Roth, Contributing Writer

Is It Safe?


In light of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, synagogues and other Jewish organizations scrambled to evaluate security precautions.

A week before Rosh Hashana, and with ongoing violence in Israel, the timing of the attacks raised serious concerns for many about the safety of high-profile Jewish events. Yet, though many organizations were reluctant to publicly discuss security measures, most Jewish representatives insisted that their congregations were adequately prepared.

“For the High Holy Days, we probably won’t do anything more than usual,” said Rabbi Eli Hecht of Chabad of South Bay and vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. “Chabad of South Bay feels that the American population is as safe as they can be, and the Jewish population should feel equally safe,” Hecht said.

Rabbi Steven Carr-Reuben of Kehillat Israel echoed this confidence. “We’ve checked with local police, and we don’t feel personally threatened,” he said.

Should Jews feel safe to attend High Holy Day services? “Definitely so,” said Rabbi Baruch Shlomo Cunin of Chabad Lubavitch West Coast. “What, are we going to become hostage to fear?” he asked. Like most organizations, Cunin said he couldn’t make public any specifics about security measures, but, “we’ve always been conscious of the welfare of those who come to pray with us. I’m confident that we shall overcome this — light always overcomes darkness,” he told The Journal.

At Kol Tikva in Woodland Hills — as at other synagogues across the nation — Rabbi Steven Jacobs organized a healing service Tuesday night for congregants “to come and to grieve,” Jacobs said. Dr. Nazir Khaja, head of the Islamic Information Center, spoke at the Kol Tikva service to denounce the attacks and emphasize that they were perpetrated by a small number of lunatics who do not represent America’s Arab or Islamic population. “While we’ve brought on some extra security … you can’t throw up your hands. Jews can’t become neurotic that they’re after us,” Jacobs said.

The Jewish Federation’s Goldsmith Center shut down Tuesday after leadership consulted with police and firefighters. Federation executives and leaders of its various agencies met and conferred throughout the day, “putting a crisis plan in place,” said The Federation’s PR Director, Michelle Kleinert. For concerned synagogues, The Federation will “serve as an information resource on security,” she said.

A meeting of The Jewish Federation’s agency leaders and Jewish educators was hastily assembled to address new concerns raised by the terrorist attacks. Sheriff Lee Baca, Police Chief Bernard Parks, Fifth District city councilmember Jack Weiss, Federation president John Fishel and a panel of police officers and sheriff’s deputies spoke to the group Wednesday afternoon. After describing law enforcement officials’ coordinated response to Tuesday’s fears in Los Angeles, Parks assured the audience that the LAPD is “very sensitive to the holiday season,” with security plans in place for synagogues throughout the city.

Los Angeles police have their own concerns for the Jewish community. “Basically, we have no information about specific threats,” said LAPD Deputy Chief David Kalish, “but we’ve reviewed and expanded our list of potential political and religious targets.”

Kalish added that while the terrorist attacks have created a heightened sense of danger, the LAPD reviews its protection plans for Jewish organizations every year before the High Holy Days. One such review session took place Wed. afternoon at the Federation building.

Without giving any specific information on LAPD operations, Kalish said that additional police protection would take the forms of extra patrols, assignment of police personnel to Jewish-affiliated organizations, and collaboration with private security forces.

At Chabad of Agoura, Rabbi Moshe Bryski told The Journal that the Sheriff’s department had already contacted the institution, letting him know that it will be affording heightened security for the High Holy Days.

The security concerns affected not only synagogues, but Jewish schools and community centers as well. At Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, a recorded message told concerned community members: “Due to the current crisis, the school is now closed.”

North Valley JCC, the site of a white Supremicist attack two years ago where five people, including three children, were injured, was closed Tuesday and officials were not available for comment.

The University of Judaism, where many students live on campus, remained open, with students helping to address safety concerns. In particular, U.J. President Dr. Robert Wexler referred to “a significant number of Israeli students who’ve had specialized military training.” But like other Jewish community leaders, Wexler emphasized that no specific threats had been directed at the school. “Primarily we’re doing this for the emotional well-being of the students and the community,” he said.

The terrorist attacks will affect Jewish concerns both at home and abroad. Ian Lesser, an advisor on international security to the Clinton administration, believes the attacks on America would probably translate into greater sympathy in Washington for Israel’s tactics in targeting Palestinian terrorist leaders.

Lesser, now a senior analyst with the RAND Corp., until recently in Santa Monica and now in Washington D.C., also commented on American Jews’ perceptions of their own safety.

“There might be a concern by some whether to congregate in synagogues during the High Holy Days, and, of course, everyone is entitled to his or her personal choice.

“However, we should remember that when we alter our daily behavior, we give in to the aims of terrorism,” Lesser said. “Some caution may be required, but the illusion that we’re safe in America is now gone. No one is really safe anywhere.”

Tom Tugend and Sheldon Teitelbaum contributed to this report.

Bringing Liberal and Orthodox Jews Together


“We All Stood at Sinai” Above, an aerial view of the area believed to be Mount Sinai. From”The Synagogue,” Phaidon, 1995.

A few weeks ago, the heads of the three major rabbinical organizations in North America met for conversation at Congregation Mogen David in West Los Angeles. For Jews to talk to each other — how natural! For Jews who disagree substantially with each other to talk — how increasingly unusual!

My two colleagues were Dr. David Lieber, president of the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative), and Rabbi Rafael Grossman, immediate past president of the Rabbinical Council of America (Orthodox). Rabbi Lieber and I had been moved by the statement that Rabbi Grossman’s organization, along with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, issued earlier this year after the Union of Orthodox Rabbis declared that the movements Rabbi Lieber and I represented were not Judaism. Rabbi Grossman’s statement urged that we all show respect for each other and refrain from attacks on each other. It sounded like an invitation to further conversation, and, so, when Rabbi Yisroel Kelemer of Mogen David asked us to meet with Rabbi Grossman on his visit from Memphis, we were enthusiastic.

Relations between liberal and Orthodox Jews have seldom been worse than in the past few months. The Knesset bill (now on hold) that would bar Reform and Conservative conversions in Israel, the declaration by the Union of Orthodox Rabbis, and the demonstration against Reform and Conservative Jews praying on Shavuot in the public non-“synagogue” space before the Wall all have turned up the temperatures of liberal Jews and have made many Orthodox Jews increasingly defensive. There are some in the Jewish community who enjoy the spectacle of these fights, while others believe that nothing breeds in-group solidarity better than attacking another group. I am not one of those people, nor, I think, are most other Jews.

Some people even contend that these public arguments discourage Jews from being Jewish. “What’s the point,” they ask, “if all Jewish life leads to is conflict?” When I urged at the recent Central Conference of American Rabbis convention that we try to break down some of the barriers between us and the Orthodox, hearty applause followed. What will it take for all of us to respect each other and to refrain from attacks?

I suggest six steps:

Learning Together

Liberal and Orthodox rabbis, and their followers, should consider on what levels we can feel and show respect for each other. One (which most of us do already) is to address each other’s rabbis by the title of rabbi. A higher rung would be to study together, and still higher would be to invite Jews of different congregations to study with rabbis of different movements — perhaps with more than one so that students might hear unfamiliar opinions, and correctives to them, at the same time, and judge the truth for themselves. An even higher rung would be to rotate these sessions among different synagogues, making it clear to participants that merely setting foot in the synagogue of a different movement does not constitute an endorsement of that movement.

We All Stood at Sinai

Another ground for respect is remembering the traditional dictum that all Jews stood at Sinai and together heard God give us the Torah. We all heard it differently, as the many controversies throughout rabbinic literature reflect. By learning and conversing together, we can perhaps help each other hear what some of us may have missed, or hear different perspectives on what we all heard in common.

Understanding Motives

We also need to talk about the issues that divide us — not to force agreement but to better understand the serious motives from which such disagreements flow. If we could respect each other’s motives — even when they lead to actions we abhor — a great deal of progress might be made. The Reform movement does not necessarily expect other movements to accept its affirmation of patrilineal descent, but respect might come easier if other movements could appreciate that it is part of Reform’s historic attempt to reach out to Jews on the margin and to try to bring them more fully into Jewish life and practice. Similarly, when I have had conversations with Orthodox Hillel colleagues about the motives of Orthodox rabbis who refuse to speak from liberal pulpits, I have been aware of the pain in their voice — pain felt not because they recognized the truth of our movements but because they recognized the serious religiosity of their non-Orthodox colleagues and mourned the gulf that history has put between us. Sharing the pain of these divisions is also showing respect.

Sharing Regrets

When people — rabbis or laypeople or both — talk to each other in small groups, without the press or large audiences, they often feel freer to speak about the things we regret in our own movements, as well as the things we like. There are a couple of stands I wish the Reform movement had not taken, though I appreciate the reasons they were taken; friends of mine who are Orthodox rabbis regret some of the attitudes of their colleagues as well. In the absence of the Messiah, to acknowledge our mutual shortcomings can also increase respect.

Media Cooperation

The Jewish press can also play a role in bringing together opposing parts of the Jewish people by printing fewer provocative articles by people who want only to attack others, and by highlighting national and local efforts to heal wounds.

Advocacy in Israel

Finally, we need to recognize that we will probably view our life together in North America differently from our life in Israel. On this continent, the liberal movements are in the majority, but we do not have power over the Orthodox. In Israel, Orthodox Jews do have power, and it is sometimes used to restrict the ability of our liberal colleagues to work with Israelis who would like to learn more about our interpretations of Judaism. For any of us to refuse to work to better relations in the Diaspora because of the intrareligious struggle in Israel would be as wrong as if we felt we needed to forget about our differences in Israel in order to have better relations here. Liberal congregations are under siege in Israel, and we need to support them. But they are seldom under siege from the Orthodox colleagues and laypeople on this continent, with whom we seek greater understanding. It may even be that as we improve our relationships here, we may figure out some ways to work together to further the interests of all the diverse religious interests in Israel. A naïve hope? How do we know if we don’t try?

When Rabbi Grossman met with Rabbi Lieber and me, he told us of his commitment to create a group called the International Center for Jewish Peoplehood. This center would further the kinds of dialogue all three of us desire. Until that center becomes a reality and makes its presence felt in Los Angeles, there are things we can do here.

The Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles and the Southern California Board of Rabbis could create an inter-movement task force to implement opportunities for rabbinic and lay dialogue, as well as other projects; some individual rabbis have begun to put these together themselves. Congregational leaders can reach out to congregations of other movements to create such conversations. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom is urging schools and youth groups to do the same.

And when someone writes an inflammatory piece in the Jewish press, rather than firing off yet another furious letter, we can call the writer or send a personal letter in care of the newspaper, urging that person to help make peace rather than fan the flames.

Making peace between caring Jews is not only a mitzvah; it may well help to preserve the people and the faith that are so vital to us all.


Rabbi Richard N. Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, is the newly elected president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the international association of Reform rabbis.