At a Jewish Week Forum, heads of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform seminaries discuss challenge of the unaffiliated.
Dan Ain - Special To The Jewish Week
Enabling the unaffiliated to own their Jewish identity is the major challenge for the future of American Jewry, according to Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Speaking at the 92nd Street Y last week at a Jewish Week forum on the future of American Judaism, Rabbi Ellenson cited recent polls which he said indicated that the "the largest growing denomination in American Jewish life is the unaffiliated."
As a result, he said, Judaism needs to find a way to "embrace those people and include them so that they see themselves as part of the Jewish story and internalize a sense of Jewish memory."
Joining Rabbi Ellenson were Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, and Richard Joel, president of the Orthodox movement's Yeshiva University.
Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, moderated the discussion Feb. 15 before an audience of several hundred. The Y telecast the program to 12 communities across the country.
Joel agreed with Rabbi Ellenson's assessment, saying that much of the American Jewish community is "under-educated, under-experienced, and under-celebrated."
The question, he said, is "how do you provide Jewish learning opportunities so that people can own their Yiddishkeit? And then we can very happily compete for their affiliation."
Rabbi Schorsch, however, said he believed the greatest challenge "lies in Israel and not in North America." He explained that the American Jewish community "cannot reach stasis until the turmoil in the Middle East is reduced and resolved."
Rabbi Ellenson replied that he found an indifference toward the State of Israel "that frankly frightens me far more than the political situation in the Middle East."
Joel added: "The centrality of the Jewish people is its connection to the Torah. The reason for the State of Israel is to model the values that are our values as taught by the Torah."
Although all three found common ground in the need to expand the base of Jewish knowledge, they disagreed over the role halacha, or Jewish law, should play in determining Jewish identity.
Rabbi Schorsch said he does "not believe that Judaism is sustainable without the halachic infrastructure." The relevant question that confronts American Jewry, he said, "is whether you can have a Judaism without halacha."
"Our challenge is acquiring the sense of being commanded that is coming from a source that is greater than we are - that there is something obligatory," Rabbi Schorsch said.
Joel echoed this stance, saying that a legal system must make decisions as to "who is in and who is out." However, he said, problems arise when "we use those laws as weapons ... [or] when we build barriers so high we can't have conversation."
Both Rabbi Schorsch and Joel were critical of the Reform movement's decision to allow for patrilineal descent. Joel said that the unilateral step by the Reform movement to give children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother status as a Jew was a "schismatic statement" in changing the centuries-old definition of who is a Jew.
But Rabbi Ellenson insisted that events have eclipsed ideology and that in an open society, one cannot create the sort of boundaries that existed in a pre-modern world.
"I would certainly trade ... an allegiance to halacha for what I might call the richness of the Jewish literary, religious and cultural heritage," he said.
Rabbi Ellenson added that the classical way of understanding Jewish identity, "this binary type of thinking ... strikes me as not being overwhelmingly helpful."
In emphasizing the need for greater engagement of American Jews - a theme on which all three participants agreed - Rabbi Ellenson observed that uninvolved Jews are not displaying "hostility towards Jewish issues, rather it is the feeling that Judaism itself is irrelevant."