By Amy Klein
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 14 (JTA) - "Where are we as a people?"
On Monday, the three heads of the leading Jewish seminaries tackled this question, as well as the challenges of teaching a new generation of Jews in an hourlong plenary session that stepped outside the overriding focus on Israel at the United Jewish Communities' General Assembly.
Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University; Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion spoke about training the next generation, led by moderator Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president for policy development, of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
It was the first time that these Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders have appeared together, a reflection, perhaps, of the changing of the guard at the seminaries. Joel, the former director of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, is three years into his job at Yeshiva University, and Eisen, chairman of the religious studies department at Stanford, is the newly elected chancellor of JTS and will begin there in July. Both appointments have been hailed as indicators that the institutions are moving in new directions.
Although it was not a "kumbaya" session, where the three leaders of the universities "waved candles and sat together," as Joel said in a post-meeting discussion with the three leaders and The Journal, that was not his ultimate goal. Instead, they focused on their common challenges and goals, while still delineating their differences.
They share the aim of trying to create seminaries more in touch with the outside world or, as Eisen said, "The sociological understanding of the realities of American Jewish life." They all are seeking to educate Jews of all ages about Jewish life and Israel and, most importantly, exploring how to create meaningful experiences that will engage the younger generation.
"There's no doubt that the young people today will not be just like us," Eisen told the thousands of people at the morning plenary. "There's a lot that's not working, a lot that's not worth joining and there's a lot that's not directed at them. We can't really look at 18-year-olds and 25-year-olds as future propagators of the Jewish people. We have to work with them as individuals with hearts and souls and minds that we need right now; that we have something to say to right now."
Joel recalled that in 1969, at a similar gathering, the younger generation disrupted the meeting, saying the elders didn't understand them, and they wanted their voices heard. They said, "If only they would be allowed to join the conversation, it would be different!" Joel said, "They were allowed in, and it is different."
But also, in many ways, he said, it's not different. "Young people are young people," he said. "They would like to matter in the world." The challenge, he said, is not understanding them but educating them.
This next generation, said Cohen, is "searching for answers. If we can provide communities of meaning that can draw them in, that will enable them to struggle with the enduring question of life that we all have; they will ultimately be drawn in."
Cohen discussed the synagogue as the way to engage the younger generation.
Overall, the three expressed optimism that there are ways to engage the next generation, although during their public discussion, they were light on specifics. Eisen brought up birthright israel, the free trips to Israel offered to Jews ages 18 through 26. He called it the most successful program for the Jewish continuity "since the bar mitzvah" and suggested that the community do something similar for older people.
After the plenary, the three discussed the implementation of change within their seminaries. "The training at the colleges is radically different today" than it was 20 years ago, Cohen said. For example, he said, instead of simply taking classes, students are mentored, and they work in the community.
Eisen said that from his perspective at Stanford, he sees the JTS students as living in a cocoon "surrounded by people committed to Jewish professional careers," and he wants to get them into the real world. "I think that all of us have a problem that a huge portion of the rabbi's job is something they're not prepared for," he said, referring to everyday problems, such as dealing with synagogue boards. Joel added that his university has begun tracking its rabbinic students to find out which ones plan to go on to pulpits, into education or other professions, so they can tailor their education accordingly.
Cohen said one of the biggest challenges is to create collaboration between the denominations. "We are tremendously fragmented. How do we begin to see each other as partners?" During the plenary, Cohen encouraged the federation system to be the mediator in bringing synagogues and institutions of different movements together. "Our mere presence here is a statement of unified vision," Cohen said.
But Joel was quick to point out both publicly and privately that their vision is not exactly unified. "Let's acknowledge some clouds," he said. "We have huge differences between us that will never be overcome. There are boundaries we can't bridge. Good will will not overcome those boundaries."
The Reform and Conservative movements share some challenges that not common to the Orthodox, such as intermarriage, assimilation and engaging the next generation. The Orthodox are grappling with how to apply the Torah and moral learnings to the secular world and how to engage their Jewishly educated children in the world, while the Reform and Conservative are looking at how to apply the lessons of the outside world to educating their children Jewishly.
For example, Reform and Conservative congregants and students focus on social action programs, such as helping people in Darfur, to which they apply texts from the Torah and rabbinical teachings. Y.U. students, on the other hand, might have studied at yeshiva in Israel and learned the "Ethics of the Fathers" but don't know how to apply it in their own communities or other communities.
Which is why, Joel told The Journal, Y.U. recently started sending students on programs like the American Jewish World Service trip to Honduras and brought 55 of its students to this General Assembly, up from 30 at the previous one. It's in keeping with Y.U.'s motto of "Torah U'Mada," or "Torah and Science," which means living as a religiously observant Jew and being able to engage in the outside world.
Cohen said he hopes the dialogue will continue. "I don't think we have a luxury in a lack of conversation. I think in the world in which we live and the challenges, we just have to keep talking."
Joel said he makes these appearances infrequently, because his main job is not to dialogue but to strengthen his university. But Monday's appearance was important because it sent a message. "There were a few thousand people in that room who said, 'Boy, we can be a Jewish people,' "
Still some observers have argued that while on the surface the denominations seem to get along, "or at least do not come into conflict as much as they used to," in reality, relations between the three denominations have worsened.
"As one who feared the consequences of religious polarization for the unity of the Jewish people in America, I should rejoice over the spirit of cooperation," writes Jack Wertheimer, JTS provost, in "All Quiet on the Religious Front? Jewish Unity, Denominationalism and Postdenominationalism in the United States," an essay that appeared in the American Jewish Committee series on American Life in 2005.
"Beneath the facade of calm, the issues continue to fester, matters of personal status remain unresolved, and questions of religious principles are marginalized. A people famous for its disputive nature has convinced itself that consensus has been reached, when, in reality, healthy debate has been silenced - for now."
In the end, though, all three agreed that the main challenges they face aren't between the denominations or even communities calling themselves post-denominational but in engaging all Jews of the next generation.
Joel said that ignorance is the Jewish community's biggest enemy, adding that even when he doesn't agree with the methods of the Reform and Conservative moments, he's happy those Jews are getting some Jewish education. "We are better served by having a generation that's in play Jewishly than people who just disappear. I think we all share that."