Can Yehuda Kurtzer’s Doctrine Of Pluralism Heal The Divides In The Jewish Community?


A long-standing rancor — on Israel, on relations between Israelis and American Jews, on President Trump, on Jews of different stripes even being able to talk to one another — has left its bruises on the Jewish community.

Could the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America (SHINA), with its unusual approach to bringing Jews (and others) together, be a balm in Gilead?

The New York-based operation, a branch of Jerusalem’s 47-year-old pluralistic think tank founded by the late Rabbi David Hartman, is expanding its footprint with a new headquarters near Columbia University that’s double the size of its former Midtown location. And it is doing so at a time when the political discourse in the country has become increasingly tribal and the divisions within the Jewish community, particularly over Israel, have all but strait-jacketed the search for common ground.

Enter Yehuda Kurtzer, 41, the whip-smart SHINA leader armed with an array of pluralistic, reaching-across-the-religious aisle, Israel-warts-and-all, let’s-study-together programming. One even carries the trendy title of iEngage. (It seems fitting for Kurtzer, who was named as the inaugural chair of Jewish Communal Innovation at Brandeis before taking over the Hartman Institute here eight years ago.)

On the significance of Israel for Jewish life, Kurtzer is aiming for nothing less than “a new covenant between Israel and world Jewry, elevating the existing discourse from a crisis-based focus to one rooted in Jewish values and ideas,” according to the group’s website.

But crises aplenty are tearing at the fabric of Israel-diaspora relations. To name just a few: egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall, conversions from leading rabbis here that don’t meet the Chief Rabbinate’s standards, an Israeli government that seems lukewarm on democratic values and bent on a permanent occupation of the West Bank and the weaponizing of Israel.

Is Kurtzer tilting at windmills by challenging orthodoxies with his doctrine of pluralism, one that even reaches beyond the Jewish community and includes difficult conversations between Jews and Muslims?

“If it is important to us, we have to talk about it,” Kurtzer said during a wide-ranging interview in his office. His personal style is as unpretentious as his management philosophy. He favors a plain, knit kipa and often goes tieless. His desk is neat, with piles of the next books and journal articles on his reading list.

“If we’re not addressing the most difficult questions that Jews are asking, then we are doing a disservice to the Jewish people.

“It’s hard to pray together. It’s hard to do political activism together. The only thing we can do together is study.”

“It’s hard to pray together,” he continues. “It’s hard to do political activism together. The only thing we can do together is study.”

The new SHINA headquarters is where much of that study takes place. It occupies half of an entire floor in The Interchurch Center, a mix of conference rooms and administrative spaces. Even their look — almost all the office doors and walls are clear glass — is intentional (and metaphorical). “It mirrors our values,” Kurtzer says of the space. “We want to be a transparent organization.” The staff and participants of the Institute, he notes, include “Jews of all denominations.”

It is from this new perch that Kurtzer, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox family but now identifies as “traditional egalitarian,” is staking his claim as he builds a reputation as one of the leading public intellectuals in the U.S. Jewish community. The son of the former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, he is a prolific, if sometimes overly discursive, writer, pumping out thoughtful op-ed essays for publications like the Times of Israel and The Jewish Week, and blogging on topics like Jewish leadership, Jewish identity and relations with non-Jews and “the growing values gap” in the Jewish community.

In recent years, under Kurzter’s direction, the Institute has grown in many metrics: its physical space has doubled from 5,000 square feet to 10,000; its full-time staff has risen from three employees to 28, with a parallel jump in the number of fellows and adjunct faculty members. Instead of two or three public programs a month it now offers more than 10, and its activities, which earlier reached a few hundred people a year, now reach 10,000. SHINA also has staff in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Los Angeles. The fellows fan out into the Jewish community, carrying forth the pluralistic message.

People have taken notice, ranking Hartman with such well-known organizations as the Wexner Heritage Program, the Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning, the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute, and CLAL–the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

Now, says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, “Hartman is a player.”

“People are excited by ideas, … by intellectual creativity. Our job is to improve the quality of Jewish life through ideas.”

“Adult Jewish education tends to rise during eras of change,” Sarna said, citing an increased interest in such programs that coincided with the growth of the baal teshuvah movement and do-it-yourself Judaism in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Of the Institute’s growth, Kurtzer says, “There is an enormous hunger in Jewish life for rigorous conversations about critical issues. People are excited by ideas, … by intellectual creativity. Our job is to improve the quality of Jewish life through ideas.”

Despite his progressive leanings, Kurtzer ties his approach directly to ancient Jewish tradition. It’s a sign of the tricky tightrope he’s trying to walk. The give-and-take of the Talmud — the idea that the Jewish community is improved through vigorous discussion and debate with people who hold contrary opinions — is his North Star.

That back-and-forth is “one of its hallmarks,” he says of the Talmud. “There is a huge thread in rabbinic literature that prioritizes the discipline of learning and study over the discipline of the prophet and the monarch.” A modern shrink might call the approach “cognitive dissonance.”

“The Jewish people,” Kurtzer stresses, “are carried by the capacity of our leaders to be the ambassadors of that idea.”

Shared Values Of Jewish Tradition

One recent afternoon, Kurtzer led a discussion on “Zionism in Tension with Other Values” at SHINA’s new headquarters for a group of seven young scholars. They represent the organization’s first cadre of David Hartman Center Fellows, handpicked men and women who are participating in a year-long training program.

Kurtzer handed out a photo-copied brochure of readings that included such topics as the relationship of Zionism and feminism, the legitimacy of egalitarianism and a Talmudic excerpt on the value of compromise. For an hour, the participants, representing various streams of Judaism and political leanings, listened respectfully to Kurtzer, raising questions without raising their voices.

The glue, it seemed, is what Kurtzer refers to as the “shared values” of Jewish tradition. Instead of concentrating on a yeshiva’s standard texts like the Torah or Talmud, or on secular, academic sources, as in a university, SHINA’s lectures and videos offer an amalgam; they do not favor the perspective of one branch of Judaism over another, but foster discussions on such issues as justice, peace, compassion and self-preservation.

On another recent weeknight, two dozen middle-aged and retirement-aged academics and business people who play an active role in a variety of Jewish organizations sat around a small meeting room at the SHINA offices. Under the direction of Elana Stein Hain, the organization’s scholar-in-residence and director of leadership education, they discussed the “Modern Jewish Experience,” reading from a photocopied text that included excerpts from the Torah, the Talmud and the New Testament.

The two sessions inaugurated the Institute’s “Salon @ 475” series of discussions for a small group of invited guests (475 is the address on Riverside Drive of The Interchurch Center, the Institute’s new home); they had the feel of a Talmud class, but with introductory remarks and historical context not usually not present in a classical yeshiva Talmud study session. Instead of simply answering the questions the participants asked, Stein Hain opened the floor to further discussion.

“I’m not trying to give you easy answers,” she declared. It’s the Hartman motto in eight words.

Kurtzer’s high-wire approach is to transcend differences, or burrow through them to come out on the other side. He says he wants to “to prioritize both Jewish peoplehood and a deep engagement with ideas and values as a means of creating a conversation across divisions, even if we don’t agree on consensus.”

“I’m not trying to give you easy answers.” – It’s the Hartman motto in eight words.

In other words, agree to disagree — and to listen. “We try to bring [to SHINA programs] a diversity of voices so the learners know their views are being taken seriously and they are being heard,” he says.

Kurtzer recognizes the promise, and the pitfalls, of such an approach. The advantage, he says, “is that the scholarship that comes out [of such discussions] has been an intellectually honest reading of the tradition.” The disadvantage? An unwillingness of some people to question pre-set opinions and to listen to contrary views — too much cognitive dissonance can backfire, he seemed to be saying. “Our approach sometimes falls short of what they need.”

Much of the SHINA programing is geared to reaching out to leaders of the Jewish community rather than the wider amcha community. It’s about creating a kind of pluralistic version of the Rebbe’s Army, the popular name of the emissaries of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe who reach the four corners of the globe spreading Chabad’s Jewish outreach message. This approach, Kurtzer says, “recognizes the capacity of the leaders to strengthen the amcha. If we teach 150 [leaders], you reach thousands and thousands of Jews.”

As part of its concentration on Israel, SHINA will soon sponsor “Israel @70: Judaism and Democracy,” a nationwide series of programs dedicated to the Jewish state’s 70th anniversary. And the Institute’s website offers videos on topical issues; a one recent one features Stein Hain speaking about “Jewish Canon and Male Privilege.”

Other new programming included a webinar, “What Israelis Need to Understand: An American Jewish Perspective,” featuring author Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at Hartman in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein, executive director of the 14th Street Y here.

“What attracted me” to the invitation to become a Hartman Fellow “was the opportunity to learn from these excellent scholars and thinkers,” said Shira Billet, a Ph.D. student in modern Jewish thought at Princeton University.

Like the other fellows, Billet comes to the SHINA office once a week; she plans to teach Jewish studies at the university level. “They’re showing us new teaching methods,” Billet said. “I’ll be a better teacher.”

Nahum Twersky, a retired marketing consultant who attended the first Salon meeting, said he integrates the lessons he has learned there and at previous SHINA sessions, in his work as a consultant with Jewish nonprofits.

Rabbi Daniel Burg, a pulpit rabbi at Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore, brought iEngage to his congregation a few years when he observed that members of his synagogue, were “finding it increasingly difficult to have meaningful conversations about Israel,” often unwilling to listen to each other’s perspectives.

Several dozen people, from the political left and right, participated in the initial iEngage encounter at Beth Am; there were no fistfights, and in subsequent years he has sponsored iEngage twice more, Rabbi Burg said. He added that he noticed the same effect each time – while synagogue members have not changed their views, “all of them have been able to learn together respectfully.”

And to discuss Israel without rancor? “Absolutely. People were engaged with the relationship between Jewishness and democracy … people in our classes have almost always been respectful … [growing] in the area of empathy and appreciation for others’ positions or narratives.”

Muslim participants in the Institute’s activities have also praised its effect.

Wajahat Ali, a journalist-playwright and Muslim activist who took part in the Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, which was launched four years ago, said the program’s meetings with “people from both sides” of the Jewish-Arab divide has increased his contacts, broaden his writing and helped him “learn how to carry conflicting narratives in your head.”

Parvez Ahmed, an Indian-born professor of finance at the University of North Florida and a Muslim activist who participated in several Hartman Institute educational activities, said he, like many Muslim participants, has encountered some criticism from fellow Muslims.

“Are you being brainwashed?” they ask; are you lessening your commitment to the Palestinian cause?”

His answer: “If you have a disagreement with somebody, you have to have a conversation with that person.”

It’s a start, but Kurtzer is thinking bigger, and longer-term. “If we think only in terms of short-term crises,” he says, “we are short-changing our leaders” — and the community. “Our work requires a really long arc.”

The 19th-century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, in a passage famously paraphrased by Martin Luther King Jr., observed, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, and from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

Kurtzer is betting that it bends towards pluralism, as well.