An Orthodox rabbi, a Conservative rabbi and a Reform rabbi walk into a… conference room.
This weekend, in a first, Limmud NY, the local branch of the worldwide pluralistic Jewish educational initiative, is launching a rabbinic student track at its annual conference in Stamford, Conn. And while the seminarians won’t actually be praying together, the occasion is bound to spark candid post-denominational conversations.
“Five years ago, I was against Limmud,” said Ben Elton, a rabbinical student from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a yeshiva known for a more liberal brand of Orthodoxy. “My mentors at the time viewed cross-denominational interactions as giving a hechsher [validation] to non-Orthodoxy,” he said. “Today, the idea that non-Orthodoxy needs Orthodox approval is outdated.”
Elton, 34, hopes that the program will give him an insight into how other rabbinic students meet the challenges he faces. Twenty-five students from eight rabbinic institutions, ranging from Yeshiva University to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, will be attending closed sessions focused on Israel and Jewish values. Each institution agreed to sponsor its students, so they can attend the conference free of charge.
“It’s more interesting when we’re not just taking about denominational differences, but about a subject that brings those differences to the surface,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, a Jewish education organization responsible for planning the pilot program’s seminars. “Emerging tensions surrounding Israel require pluralism to get a full picture.”
Though having a track for rabbis-to-be is a first for Limmud, Kurtzer is not expecting tension between the students of different nominations.
“We’re not praying together,” he said. In fact, the conference will offer five simultaneous services for attendees: traditional, egalitarian, Renewal, partnership, and family services. “This track is not intended to create a debate about ritual practice or theological differences. The goal is to create an environment where people are studying together and learning about one another. In a space like that, external differences become less obvious.”
Nahum Twersky, one of the conference organizers, described the rabbinic track as a “coup.”
“We have a full spectrum of participation,” he said. “That’s a triumph.”
Zohar Atkins, another student participating in the program and a first year student at Jewish Theological Seminary, said he “looks forward to the tension.”
“I’m comfortable with my truth,” said Atkins, 26, who considers himself a Conservative Jew. “There’s a concept of disagreement for the sake of heaven, [that] a variety of perspectives can be plausible. The more voices the better; the more challenges the better.”
Elton, who comes from an Orthodox background, hopes the unique mix of voices will lead to a meaningful dialogue.
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“Thinking in denominational terms can be limiting,” said Elton, who is originally from Manchester, England. “Opportunities like these allow you to start seeing people, and not just labels.”