N.Y. Board of Rabbis Issues Survey of Rabbinic Cooperation
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N.Y. Board of Rabbis Issues Survey of Rabbinic Cooperation

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The New York Board of Rabbis has released a collection of hundreds of recent examples of rabbinic interdenominational cooperation from across the country.

But a conflict within the board itself over an interfaith prayer service last week in New York illustrates the continuing tensions in relations among Judaism’s streams.

The examples of cooperation range from some that seem ground-breaking to others that don’t involve substantive interdenominational cooperation at all, like when rabbis offer their own views of the pluralism debate in panel discussions or when congregations around the country, connected with all of the movements, separately host a crash course in Hebrew offered by the National Jewish Outreach Program.

Many of the examples came in two arenas where joint interdenominational work has long been practiced: chaplaincy and adult Jewish education.

Other examples in the New York board’s report include:

New York Orthodox synagogue Kehillath Jeshurun opening up space in its Ramaz Day School to Conservative congregation Or Zarua, which used the room for High Holidays services and its community seder.

A workshop on intermarriage, held in East Bay, Calif. last June, drawing about 25 Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis.

In Portland, Maine, rabbis from each of the four denominations meeting last June to discuss establishing a community mikvah, community day school and kashrut oversight committee.

In San Francisco in August, a community-wide Tisha B’Av service involved Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis.

In Houston in August, the Fourteenth Annual Cantors’ Concert was held at a Reform temple, with Orthodox, Conservative and Reform cantors performing together.

A group of 38 Los Angeles-area rabbis from each of the four denominations, calling themselves “Darchei Shalom,” or Paths of Peace, issued a statement calling for Jews to adopt a code to govern the way Jews with different opinions speak and write about each other.

Rabbi Mark Schneier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis, came up with the idea for the study because these days, “people only hear about the divisiveness and the conflict” within the Jewish community.

“I’m trying to give a more balanced view of the state of the Jewish union. There’s a calling out there for the Jewish and rabbinic community to find ways to unite, and there’s a very strong foundation of rabbis out there making a concerted effort to find ways to cooperate and find areas of common cause.”

The $10,000 cost of the study was underwritten by philanthropists Charles Bronfman, Michael Jesselson and Michael Steinhardt as part of their joint $50,000 gift to Schneier’s new effort to put together a nationwide association of boards of rabbis.

Just as Schneier released the report, however, the New York board faced a conflict which may, according to some, threaten Orthodox participation in the 117-year old organization. With more than 800 members, it is the nation’s largest local interdenominational rabbinic organization.

The imbroglio began when Reform Rabbi Robert Levine, head of the board’s interfaith committee, sent a letter to the membership inviting his colleagues to participate in a Sept. 9 service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on behalf of the city’s poor.

Orthodox members of the board — including Schneier — strongly objected, because their interpretation of Jewish law, or halachah, prohibits them from praying in a church and from engaging in joint prayer with non-Jews.

Levine quickly sent out a follow-up letter to board members, trying to present the event as the innocuous gathering that he felt it was.

But at a time when right-wing interpretations of Orthodox Judaism hold growing sway and centrist Orthodox rabbis worry about being tainted as insufficiently strict, it didn’t control the damage, which has played out in a series of recent angry articles in the Orthodox newspaper The Jewish Press.

The event itself was a success, said Levine after the service, with the massive landmark cathedral filled with Catholics, Jews, Protestants, Muslims and Buddhists.

From the dais looking out over the crowd, he said, he couldn’t tell if any Orthodox New York board rabbis ended up attending.

According to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a longtime analyst of Jewish religious and communal life who predicted in 1985 that religious extremism would polarize the Jewish people into virtually two religions, the flap within the New York board is more reflective of current reality than the examples of cooperation in the organization’s study.

While he welcomed Schneier’s effort to point out the “moments of light and relief, the big picture is that there’s less cooperation and communal activity and willingness to do things together than there ever has been,” Greenberg said in an interview.

“No one should fool themselves into thinking that the big picture is truly a good one,” he said, when “the atmosphere is one of an almost total breakdown” between the different Jewish religious philosophies.

Greenberg compared the examples cited in the New York board study to the few thousand righteous gentiles who risked their own lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

While we should be grateful for them, he said, “no one has the illusion that they stopped the catastrophe from happening.”

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