November 12, 2019

Divided We Stand

One Friday night, I was at a local rabbi’s house for Shabbat dinner, and he said to me: “The Jewish Journal should be a newspaper that unites the different denominations of our community.”

“Rabbi,” I responded, “during this last hour alone I have heard two mentions of excommunication — and that’s within the Orthodox community. In addition, I’m not even certain that the two frum sides of town [Hancock Park and Pico-Robertson] actually get along with each other. So how do you expect one newspaper to bridge the gap between Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist and Orthodox when there’s so much dissension among those who are alike?”

The rabbi and I left the discussion for another time, but the question lingered with me.

It’s about more than one Jewish newspaper. It’s about our town.

I ran through many parts of it on Sunday while competing in the Los Angeles Marathon. We ran through Pico-Robertson and Fairfax, skimming by Hancock Park. We also ran through different non-Jewish neighborhoods, where kids of all colors slapped our hands, fed us Gatorade and sprayed welcome hoses on us in the shimmering heat. Religious women had a water table out in front of the Anshe Emes Synagogue on Robertson, and a band of Sikhs in white also cheered us on. It got me to thinking — and I had a lot of time to think during the five hours of the marathon — about this new city of mine, Los Angeles. How different it is from New York and Jerusalem, my other hometowns.

Like New York, there is much diversity, but also, between denominations, a muted animosity — or perhaps a distance that would sooner group Orthodox Jews with Orthodox Christians and Reform Jews with human rights activists than with each other.

This week, as we devote a special section to Orthodox Life, Jonathan Rosenblum asks, “What ever happened to Jewish unity?” from a religious perspective (page 32). But the fault lies on all sides. Certain groups do “outreach” to Muslims, to Christians, to everyone but our own community. Others can only identify with those who are like themselves.

It scares me, I guess, having lived for so long in Jerusalem and having seen the terrible rift between the secular and the religious, which left me — a traditionalist — stranded somewhere in the middle. To close that divide, it’s less like building a bridge and more like moving the prehistoric land masses back together after they are already on other sides of the world.

Israel’s religious conflict has made Jews strangers — or enemies — to one another. There are a few organizations that work toward introducing ultra-Orthodox people to secular people to show them that once you know a person as an individual, he or she ceases to become a number.

How many of us can talk of that kind of intermingling in Los Angeles?

Some people say that the Jews living in the Diaspora can teach Israelis how to get along, the way two Jews would here. But I fear that we are coming closer to their divisiveness.

How can the Orthodox accept Reform Jews if the latter are an anathema to the former’s religious practice? And how can a Reconstructionist Jew tolerate an ultra-Orthodox Jew when one has selected to lead a less fundamental lifestyle?

How can one newspaper offer divrei Torah without alienating the young secular Jew and run an Arts story without offending a religious Jew? (Don’t answer that.)

But really, how can we all get along, if by the choices we’ve made to be Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist we are by definition rejecting the other options?

I recently went back to this rabbi’s house for Purim. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, they were all there. Perhaps it was the Nahafoch-hu, the world turned upside down as it is in the megillah. “Purim is the holiday where all the differences can be put aside,” the rabbi said at the holiday meal. “We can all share words of the Torah, enjoy the seudah and come together.”

Dialogue, tolerance, diversity — all overused buzzwords in today’s world. But in this community — a patchwork of thousands of individuals, affiliated and unaffiliated — is perhaps something worth looking into before it’s too late.