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Largest IRF Conference turns out to honor Rabbi Yitz Greenberg

A growing rabbinical organization recently held its largest conference to date in large part to honor a major figure in American Jewish life.
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May 25, 2016

A growing rabbinical organization recently held its largest conference to date in large part to honor a major figure in American Jewish life. Taking place May 22-24 at the Pearlstone Retreat Center in Maryland, the eighth conference of the International Rabbinic Fellowship was attended by upwards of 100 people.  While the conference was a professional conference with sessions devoted to colleagues being able to discuss matter pertaining to the field, the focus of the conference was on particular issues from the thought of Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg (or, more simply, Rav Yitz, as he was commonly referred to throughout the conference).

With the theme of the conference being “Exploring the Teaching and Work of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and Its Meaning for Us Today”, the first of these sessions on Rav Yitz consisted of separate talks that were introduced by Rabbi Dr. Joshua Feigelson, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Rav Yitz' work. The other talks included Rabbi Dr. Eugene Korn speaking on interfaith dialogue, Rabba Yaffa Epstein speaking on women, and Rabbi David Jaffe speaking about mussar.

A separate talk on “Orthodoxy and American Public Life: Critical Reflections on R' Yitz' Legacy” was delivered by guest speaker, Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, who remarked at the outset of his talk that “speaking about R Yitz' legacy in front of R' Yitz is challenging.” In his talk, Dr. Kurtzer focused on Rabbi Greenberg's thought on the interplay of politics, power, Israel, and the Holocaust. Should rabbis speak about political issues without taking a partisan side? Is it possible? Are rabbis simply pundits? Why not have rabbis just speak about what they know – just Judaism and not Israel? He pointed out the huge challenge in how to speak moral truths without getting locked into a particular political position.

However, Dr. Kurtzer noted that people come to shul and need to hear about the issues they care about.  Dr. Kurtzer also pointed out that a critical feature of Modern Orthodoxy has been much more affirmatively Zionist than other denominations, especially in that it was quicker to align with Zionism than the other movements. Dr. Kurtzer also noted that the challenge of speaking with ambivalence towards certain political issues, since “ambivalence sounds like weakness to American Jews.”

These talks culminated in a phenomenal talk given by Rav Yitz, himself. While Rav Yitz stated that he was uncomfortable with being honored, he eventually gave in, identifying his main justification for accepting because it would give the IRF conference an attendance boost, since he believes IRF is critical to American Jewry. “I hope the most important outcome is not to come and hear me, but that you got to meet each other and come together,” Rav Yitz said.  In his talk, Rav Yitz spoke about key orienting events in Jewish history, such as the exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah at Sinai, the destruction of the Temples, the Holocaust, and the founding of the State of Israel. In his talk, he also pointed out that “we need a stronger Modern Orthodoxy.”

Presenting Rav Yitz with an award, B'nai David-Judea's Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, who is also the past president of the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF), noted the profound impact of Rav Yitz' thought and thanked him for his involvement with the organization, especially being involved in enriching the internal conversations amongst the IRF members through his thoughtful contributions on the IRF listserv.

Reflecting on how well the conference went, Rabbi Jason Herman, the executive director of the IRF, said “I think it was the most successful conference we have had.”  “It was truly inspiring to honor Rav Yitz for his rabbinic leadership and mentorship,” said Rabbi Zachary Truboff, an officer in the IRF. “Rav Yitz has committed years to articulating a Jewish perspective on principled pluralism and it was amazing to see how that lives and breathes in the IRF.”

The talks by and about Rav Yitz were recorded and will be going online at Targum Shlishi’s http://RabbiIrvingGreenberg.com. The conference was sponsored by an anonymous donor and by Targum Shlishi, a Raquel and Aryeh Rubin Foundation. LA-area participants were Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Bnei David Judea, Rabbi Raif Melhado of Kahal Joseph, and Morateinu Alissa Thomas-Newborn of B'nai David-Judea from LA, as well as the present author from of SoCal Jewish Student Services and SoCal Jewish Young Adult Enrichment in Long Beach.

Rabbi Drew Kaplan, a member of the International Rabbinic Fellowship, is the Alevy Campus Rabbi for SoCal Jewish Student Services and Jewish Life Engineer for SoCal Jewish Young Adult Enrichment.  He resides in Long Beach with his wife and four children. He is on Twitter at @RabbiDrew.

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