We live in an increasingly divisive world. We hunker down in our poles on the left and right and see the center diminishing in front of us.
A number of months ago, I gave a sermon about the same painful divisiveness that exists in our political world permeating into our Jewish world as well.
This summer, the plans for an expanded egalitarian worship space in the Robinsons Arch area of the Kotel were scrapped, and the rabbis for whom their conversions would not be accepted in Israel both increased and was made public. These two actions by the Israeli government and rabbinic authorities in Israel were significant but not new. This has been the status quo in Israel for decades – ever since David Ben Gurion ceded all aspects of religious life to a then small sect of Ultra-Orthodox in order to gain their support for the new Jewish state.
Yet this time, there was a public acknowledgement that this behavior of the Israeli government was wrong. Jewish Federation of Ottawa made a statement in opposition to these acts. CIJA circulated a letter asking rabbis to sign on opposing the government and Rabbanut’s decisions. When was the last time any of us saw either of those organizations making a statement opposing something done by the government of Israel? This must have been seen as a really big deal and significantly wrong.
What was it about these issues that caused these groups to need to speak out? One is that Jewish institutional life is invested in détente, in equilibrium, and our Federation and CIJA were concerned that these decisions would undermine that effort. We all acknowledge that there is divisiveness and even animosity that can exist within our community, we just don’t want it to be aired publically. We want it to exist under the surface in order to maintain a perception of Jewish unity. The other advantage of using these events in Israel is that they serve as the locus of our conversation about Jewish unity. It gave us in Ottawa the chance to talk about this very real problem without needing to acknowledge how divisive our own community can be.
Everyone would rather believe in that détente, that there is such a thing as a peoplehood of Israel. However, the events in Israel served as a reminder to us that in our current religious context and climate there is no singular Jewish people, or K’lal Yisrael, if there ever was one to begin with. While these events took pace in Israel, we don’t need to go half way across the world to see that to be true. These problems exist in Ottawa too.
Example #1 – As I mentioned a moment ago, CIJA reached out to rabbis all over Canada to sign on to their letter opposing the actions of the Israeli government and Rabbanut in Israel this past summer. Dozens of Reform and Conservative rabbis signed on including all of the rabbis in Ottawa representing those communities. While a very small number of Orthodox rabbis did sign on to the letter, not one of my Orthodox colleagues in Ottawa did. I wanted to know why, as the Kotel agreement still maintains a space for separate worship, and the conversion question does not require any individual rabbi to accept the conversion. I spoke to a few colleagues and not one was comfortable signing on to the letter as it would imply that my converts were legitimate Jews. Not only are my converts not accepted within the Orthodox communities, but, as far as these individuals were concerned, not within the larger Jewish people either.
Example #2 – In the last month, three brides have attempted to use the community mikvah before their weddings. One called me crying and the other two emailed deeply concerned when they got the third degree from the Rebbetzin overseeing evening hour use of the mikvah. The first was worried that she wasn’t eligible and the second two feared the excessive questioning was due to the fact that they were marrying each other. In the end, all three gained access to the mikvah. The first without any communal involvement and the second two after a meeting with Andrea Freedman of the Federation, Barry Sohn of the JCC, and conversations will Rabbi Sher of Machzikei Hadas. While all three were supportive of these brides’ right to immerse, the hoops the women had to jump through in order to engage in an age-old tradition of our people were uncalled for.
Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly, we were told by two different people in relation to this issue not to make an issue of this, because if we do it will only add fuel to the fire of those in the Orthodox community who are invested in building a second mikvah not two kilometres from the JCC, specifically for their community. Just deal with it quietly. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Otherwise community dollars will be spent unnecessarily on this second mikvah. Just suffer in silence, for the good of the community.
And some smaller examples:
Example #3 – Our synagogue is asked to host the Choices Women’s Event by the Jewish Federation, but some women stay outside during the speaker rather than entering into a Conservative synagogue’s sanctuary.
Example #4 – The left wing of our Jewish community has disengaged from communal and institutional Jewish life, assuming that their positions are not welcome and that their ideology will be ignored. Left wing religious institutions have decided to largely keep to themselves because of the constant pull of our community to the right. People with left or center-left ideologies about Israel have grown accustomed to their viewpoints not being presented.
Example #5 – Our community’s Unity Havdalah was canceled due to lack of interest.
*****Not included in the sermon as delivered: When deciding which examples to use, I attempted to only talk about things that happened more than once. For example, the first time the problem with the mikvah occurred, it could be explained away. By the second time, it needed to be acknowledged. Over the summer, I received my first aggravated e-mail about a young person being told by someone running a funded agency of Federation that s/he was not practicing Judaism correctly because s/he was Conservative, questioning his/her status. I didn’t bring up that example in the sermon, because it was only one time. Since delivering the sermon, I have heard from yet another young person navigating this same problem from another funded agency. S/he is very concerned because s/he feels like they cannot participate in the activities of this organization any longer because of being repeatedly harassed to change his/her religious approach. What does it mean when synagogues cannot receive communal funding for its own work, but funded agencies can actively denigrate one approach to Judaism while simultaneously trying to pull community members away to another?*****
Our very own Jewish community is broken and we are left searching for ways to repair it.
One option is to ignore it (don’t ruffle feathers, it works) – this is the response of communal institutions, invested in stability.
Option two is to accept it (It’s just the way the world is and there is nothing we can do to change it) – This has been in many ways our default approach as well as those to the left of us. It’s just the nature of Ottawa, there is nothing we can do to change it. Let’s just keep to ourselves because there is nothing to be done.
Option three is to get angry. Perhaps my foundational Jewish story led me down that path. It was 1997 and for the first time, a group of daveners convened in the Kotel plaza to pray with men and women together in commemoration of Tisha B’av. The day where we mourn the loss of Jerusalem due to baseless hatred between Jews. We gathered by the metal detectors in the back of the plaza, 400 strong, a good distance away from the Mechitzad section of the Kotel. As we organized to begin our service, we were surrounded by Ultra-Orthodox Jews and they hurled, bottles, feces, and insults at us. The police surrounded us, presumably to protect us, until they warned us. They said that we were causing a riot and needed to leave. As we had all the permits necessary to be there and were in the middle of the Amidah, we didn’t move. So they lined up with crowd breakers and pushed us through the Dung Gate. People tripping over each other, falling into the archeological site. Once removed from the Old City of Jerusalem we were told if we tried to return, we would be arrested. We sat in the dirt outside the walls and recited the book of Eicha/Lamentations bemoaning being exiled from Jerusalem due to baseless hatred between Jews. You have never done Tisha B’Av until you’ve relived it like I did. I left that night so angry about the state of our Jewish world, so mad about the divisiveness in our community.
That anger continues every time a conversion candidate is told s/he is not actually Jewish. When I am told that I can’t be trusted to certify my own synagogue’s kitchen’s kashrut, when an event has to be called for Rabbis and “communal leaders”, so that not everyone present at the table needs to be acknowledged by the others as a rabbi, I get really angry, but my heart also breaks. This is not the Jewish people that I know we can be and I know that we must be.
It makes me want to yell, “You’re not breaking up with me, I’m breaking up with you!” or huff off like a toddler – “I’m taking my toys and leaving”.
But I can’t leave, I can’t run away from the Jewish people. I remain a glutton for punishment because I believe too strongly in the Jewish people and I know that a better future is possible and this is the fourth option.
So how do we do it? First, I think we have been given a wonderful blessing by this covert, implicit Jewish reality going public this summer. After all, a hidden problem cannot be solved. We first need to acknowledge that the problem exists. Rather than doing what we usually do which is pretending the problem isn’t there, we need to first and foremost say out loud that the Jewish people is broken and in need of repair. We need to bring the private conversations public and bring to a very public space the reality of the brokenness of our Jewish world. As all self-help programs teach us, the first step is admitting we have a problem.
And then what? We learn from the teachings of Hillel our elder, who taught us.
Im ein anli li-mi li, If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
We need to know who we are and what we stand for. For many of us, we affiliate with a Conservative synagogue but don’t really know what that means. We need to educate ourselves about our approach as well as others so that we can engage in meaningful dialogue. Throughout the month of October, I will be running a series of classes on this very topic. It will be taught twice a day with both a daytime and evening option for each class. These classes will be focused on teaching us all about where Conservative Judaism came from and what it stands for. It will talk about how Conservative Judaism is the only form of Judaism that has always been Zionist. How we understand our relationship the God and how the Torah’s teachings are not only inherited but also passed on from generation to generation.
Once we know who we are we need to engage in dialogue with our friends and neighbours about this serious topic and challenge. One thing that I have learned from discussing these issues with colleagues to my right is that they have no idea what Conservative Judaism is all about and do not realize the implications of the events in Israel and at home. When I was in Rabbinical School we learned about other approaches to Judaism in order to understand what we all stand for, but that isn’t true for all clergy, let alone all lay people. There are members of the Ottawa Jewish community who might not even know that I am shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut, and that my movement promotes these practices.
If you are saddened that a rabbi wasn’t willing to sign on to the CIJA letter, tell him, if you are proud of Federation for speaking out in favour, tell them too. When you have friends that affiliate with institution or participate in classes with people that won’t acknowledge our converts Judaism or enter into our sanctuary for a speaker, talk with them about it. Engage in a dialogue with the objective of reaching mutual understanding rather than mutual agreement and that it really important. These conversations are about being heard and understood, not changing a person’s approach to Judaism.
If we believe that our approach to Judaism is simultaneously Torah true and inclusive, where everyone must have a place, where the voices of our past, our present, and our future, are all invited to the Jewish conversation. Then we need to do so proudly and strongly in order to assure that our values permeate into the larger Jewish community as well. That is why we partnered with Ottawa Talmud Torah religious school to assure that the program represented our values. That is why we applied for and received an innovation grant through Federation so that we can work to assure that our reach expands beyond our walls to people who will never join our synagogue but who are still yearning for access to our Torah. If we don’t advocate for ourselves, no one will. We can and we must assure that all Jews can use the mikvah. We can and must make sure that young couples and families feel that the Jewish community has a place for them regardless of who they love. We need to make sure that the meaningful content that we know we have to offer is able to be shared broadly and proudly. That is the first step in our journey.
Hillel continued: Not only, If I am not for myself, who will be, but If I am only for myself, what am I? We need to reach out to everyone, and though they may not reach back we need to be open to that. Pluralism is an essential part of what it means to be a Conservative Jew. That does not mean that every perspective is welcome. There are ideas that have no place within this community. But it does mean that there is no one we won’t talk with or attempt to find ways to collaborate with.
So in a divisive world, how do we do this? We can learn from a story shared by Rabbi Dov Lipman, an Orthodox Rabbi who joined the Yesh Atid party with the secular leader Yair Lapid. Rabbi Lipman writes in his book about the first conversation between the two. He writes, “Toward the end of that meeting Yair said to me: ‘Dov, we come from different planets. But we have just talked for close to an hour and have discovered that we actually agree on about 80 percent of the issues. Regarding the other 20% we disagree, and sometimes quite strongly. Israeli society has told us that we have to be in different camps — you in the religious camp, and me in the secular camp — and we have to fight against one another. Let’s do something different. Let’s change the paradigm. Let’s break down that barrier and work together. We will move forward on the 80% over which we agree, and with regards to the 20% over which we disagree, we will sit around a table and come to compromises and mutual understanding. That process won’t be easy, and will often be uncomfortable. But in the end we will have found a way to get along with one another.’ Those last words touched me”, writes Rabbi Lipman, “and I joined Yesh Atid. Immediately, I was shunned and criticized by many groups, religious and political.”
This partnership would not work between every rabbi and every secular Israeli. But it did for these two because they saw the benefit to mutual collaboration. It doesn’t mean agreeing on everything, but finding places where we can work together. Being willing to stand together even when people will call for your head because it is the right thing to do. An example of this has been happening here in Ottawa over the last few months. It troubled me from the time I arrived here that I was Mara D’Atra, religious authority of Kehillat Beth Israel, but wasn’t allowed into the meat kitchen because it was under the Ottawa Va’ad HaKashrut. I called a meeting with Rabbi Teitelbaum, the head of the OVH to discuss my concerns. I suggested that since the Kashruth that I want for my kitchen was no different than what OVH did, could I become a deputized OVH Mashgiach and, therefore, gain access to the kitchen? He looked into it for months, and tried to find a way for me to serve as my own Mashgiach but the powers that be in the world of Kashruth wouldn’t allow him to have a Conservative rabbi be a Mashgiach under the auspices of an Orthodox Kashruth Organization. It was said that it was because we had microphones in the building, but I am sure, if there weren’t, they would have found another reason to say no.
And it would be easy in that moment to just say that our movements are keeping us apart, to take my toys and leave. But that’s not what we did. We met again, as we had for months. We talked about the challenges that each of us were facing. We shared how these policies made us feel and the fact that we had a relationship allowed us to work together towards an agreement that isn’t perfect but that will allow each of us to maintain our integrity. As much as I aspire towards a world where our denominational barriers don’t preclude working towards shared objectives, it will begin by being able to talk with each other, respect each other, and find ways to work together.
This is a challenge for the Ottawa community at large because every last Jew needs to feel welcome simultaneously which usually leads to everyone accepting the frumest common denominator. That doesn’t need to be our way. We do it by finding partners when we can like doing Tikkun Leyl Shavuot with Reform, Reconstructionist, and another Conservative Synagogue. By hosting an Orthodox High School in our basement and partnering with Machzikei Hadas and Beit Tikvah on OTT. We are hosting two religious schools, three days a week. We are the home of the Federation Kickoff and Choices. K’lal Yisrael can live here. Not by everyone agreeing with each other, but by being a hub in which all are welcome to enter. By finding places for mutual collaboration wherever possible. By finding the 80% we agree on and having the real and serious conversations about the implications of the other 20%. K’lal Yisrael isn’t about everyone coming together in agreement. It is about everyone having a place and an openness to listening and being heard.
Hillel concluded, Im Lo Achshav Aimatay-If not now, when? Now is the time. For too long we have subjugated our needs for the needs of others. We have allowed our destiny to be determined for us rather than controlling our own fate.
We can create a shared Jewish home where meaningful conversations happen without the objective of agreement but mutual respect and understanding. Yesh Atid, there is a future where this is possible and that future is right here at Kehillat Beth Israel. We can build it together. And it starts today. Hayom Harat Olam, today the world begins anew. Today we begin rebuilding our community in our own image and let’s do it together.