The Synagogue Council of Massachusetts

Unity Mission to NYC

The Synagogue Council's groundbreaking Annual Unity Mission to New York City, now in its fourteenth year, is an intensive two-day program for select Jewish leadership designed to spark personal interaction and increased understanding among Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist participants. The group meets with scholars and denominational leaders from CLAL (the Center for Learning and Leadership), the Jewish Theological Seminary/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Hebrew Union College/Jewish Institute of Religion/Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Yeshiva University, and the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

Call Toby at (617) 244-6506 ext. 17 for details.

Below are the reflections, reactions and musings of three participants in the 1999 Unity Mission . . .

The Synagogue Council's Unity Mission:

A Lesson in Ahavat Yisrael

by Rochelle Bloom, Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, Newton Centre

I was very fortunate to have been invited to participate in the thirteenth annual Unity Mission in New York City sponsored by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts. More than thirty congregational leaders representing synagogues and communities from around the greater Boston area traveled to meet with the heads of the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox seminaries as well as with rabbinical students and leaders of the various movements. The two days that I and my fellow participants spent together were two of the most eye-opening, educational, spiritual and "unifying" days that I have ever spent. Over the course of those two exhausting days we each shared and learned so much about one another and gained mutual respect for each others' religious beliefs and practices. As an Orthodox Jewess, I went into the Mission eager with the anticipation of learning much about the Reform and Conservative movements and somewhat apprehensive about what I was to hear at the Orthodox Yeshiva University. I was not disappointed by any of the presentations; on the contrary, I was most impressed by each and every one of the scholars we were privileged to meet during this two-day extravaganza..

The Mission began with a presentation by Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, founder of CLAL, the Center for Learning and Leadership, and currently the director of Kol Yisrael Chaverim. Rabbi Greenberg provided an overview of the history and ongoing relationships between the major religious movements within Judaism. He spoke of the positive and negative results of the dynamics of triumphalism and freedom for Jews in America; the high comfort level of Jews in the U.S., hence the resurgence of public Jewish pride resulting in the establishment of day schools, camps and serious Jewish learning. Rabbi Greenberg noted that the acceptance of intermarriage in America (currently 52% based on the 1990 Jewish population study) and the welcoming of Jews of patrilineal descent by the Reform movement and officiation of mixed marriages without Jewish conversion have had an enormous impact on Jewish life. The freedoms we enjoy in America have resulted in a high level of confidence on the part of each denomination but also in a polarization of the movements. The liberal movements feel particularly strong in modernity and the more traditional groups can't, or won't compromise. Hence the dynamics of separation have escalated in recent years. How do we find a path towards unity? Rabbi Greenberg cites pluralism as a key, emphasizing our covenantal partnership of history, suffering and responsibility. We must seek common denominators and build on the positives among ourselves through outreach, Jewish learning, and programs such as the Synagogue Council's Unity Mission. Communication on a more respectful level and more self-criticism and less criticsm of others is needed. These steps, he says, will lead to respect and love for all humans and thus for G-d.

Over the two days, Mission participants also heard an explanation of the Conservative movement's halachic (Jewish legal) philosophy from Rabbi Joel Roth, a leading Conservative halachic authority. Rabbi Roth raised some disturbing issues of dissonance between Conservative rabbinic leadership and their lay constituents in matters of halachic observance. Nevertheless, all of us were fascinated to learn of the Conservative movement's Law Committee's close adherence to halacha as well as the binding nature of Jewish law.

Using text study, Rabbi Aaron Panken, Dean of the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion outlined three major premises of Reform Judaism: (1) That the Torah is a document written by humans with Divine inspiration; (2) its halacha and translation is neither binding or immutable; and (3) that modern values can and will uproot older traditions and ideals. Rabbi Panken described the struggle on the part of the Reform leadership in making decisions that have an impact on Klal Yisrael as a whole. The issue of patrilineal descent is extremely complicated. Rabbis do not want to turn away families made up of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers who want to be involved in Jewish life, especially when their children attend Reform religious schools and want to strengthen their Jewish identities through study and by becoming Bar and Bat Mitzvah. Rabbi Panken proudly acknowledged the Reform movement's strengthened commitment to Jewish ritual and Jewish education in recent years.

At Yeshiva University we heard from Rabbi Robert Hirt who gave a detailed view of Modern Orthodox values. Modern Orthodoxy, according to Rabbi Hirt, ascribes to the acceptance of the Torah at Sinai as a pivotal moment for all Jews. We were all present at Sinai. An example of this inclusiveness is the allusion to our father Abraham's tent which was open on all sides to receive visitors. Orthodox values also include maximal Jewish education, with a Day School education as fundamental to Orthodox Judaism for both young men and women. In Orthodoxy, lay people learn the same textual materials on the same level and are as knowledgeable as rabbis. There are, however, many differences between Orthodox factions and these include the balance between Torah and secular knowledge, the attitude toward the establishment of Israel and Religious Zionism, and Jewish inclusiveness and the attitude toward the degree of education of women.

Included in our Mission was a visit to the Rare Book Room at the Jewish Theological Seminary. We were shown an "awesome" collection of fourteenth century illuminated manuscripts of Ketubot, or marriage contracts. JTS has the largest collection of these manuscripts in the world. We were also very excited to see a hand written letter by the Rambam, Maimonides from the 12th century, which was part of Rabbi Solomon Schechter's famous find, the Cairo Genizah. For me as well as many of my co-participants this was a thrilling highlight of the trip and a particularly unifying moment.

During the Mission we also joined in daily worship services at the three schools. Despite obvious theological differences, the experience of praying together contributed greatly to the closeness and cameraderie we all felt toward one another by the end of the trip. Each of us, at our own prayer service, felt very proud and as though we were hosting our guests and allowing them a glimpse into our religious world at its best. And indeed, each service was special in its own way. Davening Mincha in the Women's League Chapel at JTS conjured up thoughts of all of the hundreds of scholars, rabbinical and cantorial students, famous and not, who studied and prayed there throughout the years. The Prayer Service at HUC-JIR with its incredible spirituality, made a few us weep in its devotion and beautiful musical liturgy. And I still remember the incredible feeling of walking through the hallowed halls of the Bais Medresh of Yeshiva University where the great Rav Soloveichik taught generations of Orthodox rabbinical students. For a few of our participants, the laying of Tefillin for the first time since their Bar Mitzvah was a particularly moving and emotional moment. One man wept when opening a Siddur, realizing he could not follow the Hebrew and wanting very much to be able to do so. A fellow participant sitting next to him on the bus ride home told him of the story of Rabbi Akiva who learned to read Hebrew at the age of forty and then proceeded to become one of the greatest scholars in Jewish history!

Those of us ( and the over four hundred alumni) who participated in this Unity Mission learned so much about each other as Jews and as people. We learned that the key to " Ahavat Yisrael", or Jewish Unity, lies in learning and studying together ,side by side, respectfully. As a result of this Mission all of us who participated felt that we contributed to fostering unity between us -- one by one, person by person. This Mission was a very valuable experience and I strongly urge each and every member of our Greater Boston Jewish Community to participate in it in the future.

Rochelle Bloom is a member of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah of Newton and Congregation Beth El Atereth Israel and together with her husband Harry is the proud parent of Gil, Daniel and Aviva -- current, and former, Maimonides School students.

Reflections on the Unity Mission

by Francine Crystal, Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley

Our ten year old son, Joshua, has a question he's been posing for a while now. Do we each have different taste buds and therefore taste things differently, or do we have the same taste buds but prefer different tastes? I believe, physiologically, the answer is both, but what intrigues me about the question is the implicit understanding that we have different reactions to the same stimuli.

In my professional practice, organizational consulting, one of my favorite tools is something called the Ladder of Inference. The Ladder, developed by Chris Argyris and Don Schon, and popularized by Peter Senge, begins with the premise that in all of our interactions we understand each situation based upon our own previous unique experiences, feelings and thoughts. In a fraction of an instance, without being aware of it, we climb the Ladder, jump to conclusions that we consider "facts" because they are based on our life experience. Because of our previous experiences and our reactions to them, we might have diametrically opposing takes on the same exact experience. I speak glowingly of the Rabbi's sermon; you were bored to tears. Same event; different reaction. It is easy for me to conclude that you are "wrong."

When I teach the Ladder of Inference, participants universally see its application. They see how we each run up the Ladder regardless of our good intentions. They see how these differing perspectives make it amazing that we are able to communicate with each other at all.

When I am asked what can be done to bridge the gaps between Ladders, the response I give is "Get back to the data". Determine what experiences, thoughts and feelings lead you to your conclusions and ask similarly of others. It is through sharing the data we use to come to our conclusions that we begin to understand and even appreciate each otherís perspectives.

What does all this have to do with the Unity Mission? Well, the Unity Mission was one big exercise in exploring the Ladders of Inference implied by the three major movements in Judaism. How is it that three groups of people, all calling themselves Jews, can look at the same biblical and historical data and come to such different conclusions? What is it that leads a man I met on the trip who was raised as a secular Israeli to now define himself as a Conservative Jew? What led two bright, attractive, twenty-something women to define themselves as Orthodox Jews? What does it mean to me to be a Reform Jew given I was raised in a Conservative synagogue? And, how can we understand and appreciate each otherís choices as Jews when the other seems so foreign to our own way of thinking?

The 13th Annual Unity Mission, sponsored by the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, brought 32 Jews from the Greater Boston area to NYC for 36 hours. The purpose of these Missions is to just begin to find ways to bridge the gap between the different Jewish movements. (Now, I say ìmovementsî as if the adherents within each movement all share the same views. The truth is that even within each movement there is a range of believes divide its members. As so many jokes illustrate, when have you known a group of Jews to agree on anything!)

I came to this trip considering myself a ìnoviceî, that is a Jew by birth and upbringing, a Reform Jew more by process of elimination than by proactive choice, and relatively ignorant about the key issues and players in the Jewish community. The ìSynagogue Council of Massachusettsî sounded vaguely familiar but I certainly didnít know what they do. With the birth of Joshua and then Adam, Iíve insisted that we be members of a synagogue and that our kids get religious school education, because it was through my Religious School experience that I had a sense of community and belonging as a child. Iím very pleased to be recently getting more engaged in Temple Beth Elohim, but this is a first for me as an adult. As an adult, I have not cultivated the sense of Jewish community that I know, for example, my youngest brother feels today as a member of a Reconstructionist Havurah.

Lately, some of the world has been shifting for me, professionally, personally and spiritually. So I saw the Unity Mission as a well timed exploratory step of sorts and had the feeling that it was more than coincidence that Rabbi Weiss suggested me for this trip at this time.

Given this history and given the brevity of the Mission, I do not claim to have totally completed my understanding of the three movements. In fact, given the difficulty moving from my own complicated Ladder of Inference, Iím pretty confident that Iíve got some of the facts wrong, that is, one or more of the meanings Iíve taken away from the mission were not the intentions of the speakers. As authors write in their disclaimers, any errors or omissions are my own responsibility.

During the Mission, we visited the seminaries of the three major Jewish movements, heard from and spoke with prominent Rabbis as well as Rabbinical students from each school, visited the Rare Books Room at the Jewish Theological Seminary, viewed an art exhibit at Yeshiva University, participated in a variety of worship experiences, spent time as a group discussing our experiences, and, of course, ate well.

Iíd like to share with you a few of the highlights for me from the trip that illustrate for me the range of issues which divide us and which make such a trip necessary.

1) One theme I picked up in a number of conversations was ìmembershipî. For starters, what constitutes a ìcongregationî for the purposes of joining the Synagogue Council? Does a havurah without a building or affiliation to a Synagogue count? More importantly, who is a Jew? I saw the budding of appreciation and respect between two women: one a Jew by Choice who is much more active in her congregation than most temple members; the other an Orthodox Jew who cannot recognize the first woman and her children as Jews. While I cannot imagine questioning someone elseís self-identification as a Jew, I have a greater understanding now for how if I truly accepted Orthodox Judaism, adopted the Orthodox Ladder of Inference, I could not, by definition, accept this Jew by Choice as a Jew. It would not be a question of making a judgement, it would, from my perspective, be a statement of fact.

2) At the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative seminary, we spoke with Rabbi Joel Roth and he, unwittingly, explained to for me one of the great mysteries of my upbringing. I was raised in a Conservative congregation. My parents were founding members, very active in Temple governance and social programs. And my brothers and I went to Sunday school and Hebrew school, we were all bar and bat mitzvah. But we rarely went to services and when we did they were incredibly boring. My friends and I were always looking for excuses to go talk in the hallway, grateful for being assigned to babysit the younger kids. I never had the feeling that the Rabbi, and we went through a number of them, was comfortable. He, and you know they were all men, always seemed to be auditioning, playing to the Board of Directors, not praying to God.

In contrast, the Principal of the Religious School was MY Rabbi, my teacher. Rabbi Schlussel opened my mind and my heart to a Jewish way of thinking and feeling. He was totally comfortable in the role of spiritual leader but always overlooked when it was time to hire a new Rabbi.

What Rabbi Roth suggested was that the Conservative laity has historically been ignorant about what Conservative Judaism really is. He said, ìWhen Conservative Rabbis actually practice Conservative Judaism, they are accused by their congregations of being too Orthodox.î This is what I experienced growing up. That is why Rabbi Schlussel was always overlooked: He was seen as too Orthodox when he was just living and breathing Conservative Judaism.

My parents and their friends were mostly raised in the Orthodox tradition and as modern, assimilated Jews, my inference is that they wanted to make a break from that Orthodoxy, not to look and sound so ìJewishî. So, in a community with no other Jewish congregation, they created a Conservative synagogue without, as far as I was aware, a full understanding of what ìConservativeî Judaism means. According to Rabbi Roth, 90 plus percent of Conservative beliefs and practice match those of the Orthodox. Thatís not what my parents and their generation had in mind. Which made it difficult to find a Conservatively ordained Rabbi who actually felt comfortable within a Conservative Congregation.

3) To me the crucial difference between the movements, particularly between Orthodox and Reform (since as Iíve already confessed I was pretty confused about Conservativism!) has always been their beliefs about the Torah. Even as I child I took Bible stories to be folktales with varying kernels of truth imbedded in them but instructive as life lessons nonetheless. I could not fathom how anyone could take them literally. At Hebrew Union College, the Reform Seminary, Rabbi Aaron Panken used discrepancies in the Bible, such as two different sets of instructions to Noah about how many of which animals to bring on the ark, to demonstrate Reform Judaismís belief that the Torah is a man-made document that evolved over time. Seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Then we visited Yeshiva University and, after some enlightening comments from a friend of Temple Beth Elohim, Rabbi Robert Hirt, we had an opportunity to speak in small groups with other Orthodox Rabbis. I asked about how Orthodoxy reconciles these differences in the Torah. The Rabbi, whose name I unfortunately do not recall, used an example from the story of creation to illustrate his belief that there are no discrepancies. If I have it correctly, in one version, Adam is created in the middle of the week and in the other he is created at the end of the week. The Rabbi explained that in the Orthodox tradition each story is describing a different aspect of Adam, one the physical, the other the spiritual.

I had always assumed, from the comfort of high up my own Ladder of Inference, that the Orthodox took the bible literally, that for them God didnít write in metaphors, that it was believed to be an historically accurate document. This conversation opened up for me a whole new way of understanding Orthodoxy and a willingness on my part to further the conversation.

4) Two images of worship remain with me from the weekend. At Yeshiva University, the Orthodox seminary, we walked past the rooms in which students were davening. Each young man was in his own little world, praying at his own pace, facing the direction that felt most ìeasterlyî to him. Their worship was foreign to me, in fact I would not be allowed to worship with them. Walking past the rooms, I felt like I was peeking behind the curtain at another culture.

At Hebrew Union College, the Reform Seminary, we were warned that the services are student-run and that there was no way of knowing the talents of the rabbinical and cantorial student responsible that day. We entered this modern, bright yet warm sanctuary, just big enough to create a sense of community. The room was filled with the most eclectic looking bunch of Jews Iíve ever seen. Women wearing tailit and tefillan, men with ponytails, people in suits, people in jeans, young and old. Both student leaders were women and, while the rabbinical student did an admirable job, it was the cantorial student who stole the show. She played the guitar throughout the service and, while not seeming particularly aware of an audience she was clearly enjoying herself, enjoying the act of worshipping.

As she began Oseh Shalom, I felt myself drawn into this community, part of something much bigger than myself, and, after 24 hours of questioning my place in my religion, I felt at home. As I fought to hold back the tears, I realized that the woman beside me, someone I had had minimal conversation with so far on the trip, was sobbing. We sang and cried together and later shared the sense of joy, community, and pride that we felt.

When our group debriefed at the end of the second day, one of the Orthodox women stated her surprise at the Reform service. She hadnít expected, she said, so much Hebrew and so much joy.

So what about the secular Israeli who now identifies himself as a Conservative Jew? At the beginning of the trip he said he is a member of a Conservative synagogue because that was his wifeís upbringing and he was accompanying her on the trip. At the end, he disclosed his extreme discomfort with the Reform worship experience we had had and realized the importance to him of a more Conservative interpretation of Judaism. And the two Orthodox twenty-something women? One was born and raised in an Orthodox community and never considered anything else. The other was raised in a strong Conservative tradition but found no support in the Greater Boston Hillel movement for practicing Conservative Judaism as she was accustomed, reminiscent of Rabbi Rothís comments. The support sheís found for her practice has come from the Orthodox community.

How did we get ourselves into this mess? Into a situation in which we are unsure about who is Jewish, in which it is unclear what it really means to be part of a particular Jewish movement, in which we consider each others forms of Jewish practice and worship as foreign?

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, whose presentation actually began the Mission, gave a compelling explanation that I translated into ìbalkanizationî. As we have gained not just financial stability but social acceptance in the modern world, as systematic anti-Semitism has waned, each movement is coming out from under the persecution and spreading its own wings. Without the tyranny of oppression, discrimination to hold us together, to unify us against a common enemy, weíve been freer to explore and express our differences.

So now what? The one conclusion that appeared to be unanimous amongst the Mission participants was that it is joint Torah study that holds the most promise for bridging the gap between us as individuals. Going back down the Ladder of Inference, back to the data from which all our meanings are taken, to explore the messages, the life lessons we see imbedded there.

Just this Monday night, the members of this Mission met again to participate in torah study and discuss the impact the Mission has had on us so far. The torah study, based on this weekís Torah portion, happened to deal with the reconciliation of Joseph with his brothers. What promise does this hold, the Rabbi posed, for our reconciliation with our Jewish brethren? The reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers is hopeful in that Joseph is able to forgive his brothers crimes against him. As he understands it their actions were part of Godís plan to put him in the place where he could ultimately do the most good. But what is of concern to me is that the descendants of Jacobís twelve sons were not able to stay together, the tribes divided into two kingdoms and one of those kingdoms was destroyed. Our challenge is to continue the dialogue in a way that allows our tribes to remain, as Rabbi Hirt put it, ìwithin the tent of Abrahamî.

And for me, what did I, personally, take away from the Mission? First of all, more comfort with what had previously been an implicit decision to identify as a Reform Jew. It is clear to me that the beliefs and practices of Reform Judaism speak to me, to my sense of self as a Jew and as a human being. Secondly, I have a greater appreciation for and willingness to understand those who practice Judaism differently. And I have greater appreciation of the obstacles that divide us.

As with all great learning experiences, I am left more aware of what I still do not know. Preparing to speak tonight was an opportunity to organize some of my thoughts and reactions to the Mission and to keep my internal dialogue going. Now my challenge is to figure out how I would like to participate in such dialogue within our community. I invite you to help me figure that out.

Excerpts from "Steps That Unite Us"

by Mark Frydenberg, Temple Beth Israel, Waltham

For two days in Novem ber, I had the privilege to be among thirty Boston-area Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionst Jews as we traveled, ate, prayed, studied, sang and learned together.

It was the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts' 13th Annual Unity Mission, a journey for congregational leaders of all denominations to visit a major center of learning or seminary from each of three movements, in New York. There we would have the opportunity to ask questions of its leaders, and experience prayer services in the styles to which members of each movement are accustomed.

The purpose of the trip is to take small steps at fostering dialogue between members and leaders of different movements, to build on what we have in common, and accept each other's differences and varying beliefs with tolerance and respect.

Does Freedom Unite Us?

Orthodox Rabbi Irving ("Yitz") Greenberg, founder of CLAL (the Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership) was the keynote speaker when we arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary on Sunday morning. He saw the problem of Jewish unity as one of learning to deal with freedom. "Persecution and the threat of outsiders has kept the Jewish people united for 2000 years. That threat has disappeared within the past 50 years, and we are unprepared to deal with that freedom." Greenberg says that each movement respond in its own way to new freedoms, and this results in conflict and a flowing rejection of other movemtns.

Assimilation and pressure to conform (i.e., "Think Yiddish, Dress British") is lost as people express their own freedoms. Chasidim place Chanukah menorahs in city halls, saying that they are free to do so in America. Liberal groups have their own agendas as well: the Reform movement feels ethically and morally obligated to sanction gay marraiges in a Jewish context. And the push toward egalitariansim by the Conservative movement within the past twenty years shows how that movement adjusts to American life. The lines between Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews are sharpened, making it more difficult to accept or tolerate each other.

How do we achieve Jewish Unity? We start by learning and listening to each other, by seeing all manner of Jewish people being themselves and being able to talk to each other about that. Experiencing prayer services in another's style was enlightening for many. One Reform Jew noted that he had never previously set foot in an Orthodox synagogue. Now he has prayed in one and even put on tefillin for the first time. An Orthodox Jew had never experienced Reform style worship, but admired the "true kavannah and joy" that she sensed while attending services at Hebrew Union College.