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Clal Making Headway in Drive to Nurture Jewish Unity

May 12, 1988
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Leaders of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, were buoyed by the attendance and cooperation of more than 350 rabbinical and lay leaders from every Jewish denomination at their second Critical Issues Conference.

Nevertheless, their executive director cautioned that the organization was still taking “baby steps” toward reaching its ultimate goal.

“This issue is not going to be solved by any one conference,” said Paul Jeser in an interview Tuesday. “But it’s not like waiting for the Messiah, and it’s an issue everyone has to got to be involved in. This has to remain a top issue.”

The issue is Jewish unity — specifically, an easing of the conflicts among Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist denominations and a movement towards what CLAL calls in its literature “pluralism and a respect for the many forms which Jewish practice may take.”

Founded in 1974 by Rabbi Irving Greenberg, Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Steven Shaw, CLAL seemed to crystallize, in 1986, around the first Critical Issues Conference, based on Greenberg’s dire thesis, “Will There Be One Jewish People By the Year 2000?”

According to Greenberg, denominational disputes among the movements regarding conversion, patrilineal descent and religious divorce threatened to create two Jewish people — “mutually divided, hostile groups who are unable or unwilling to marry each other.”

Jeser said he was pleased both by the numbers and the attitudes of the rabbis at this year’s conference. Of the 130 rabbis attending, 35 percent were Conservative, 25 percent Reform, 20 percent Orthodox, 5 percent Reconstructionist and another 5 percent “just Jews, ” he said.


“They encounter one another on a much different level than when we started” two years ago, said Jeser. “Now they may still differ emotionally, but deal on a one-to-one basis in terms of trust and respect.”

“Still,” said Jeser, “there is not the community support in terms of developing long-term, in-depth Jewish-Jewish dialogue. The real goal is get the Jewish community to consider that this has to become a long-term priority.”

Jeser, a former federation director in Florida and Maine, wants to see major Jewish organizations, including the Council of Jewish Federations and the United Jewish Appeal, “becoming part and parcel of the process of communication.”

A highlight of CLAL programming has been the inter-denominational dialogues among rabbis. Monday night’s colloquium included Rabbis Saul Berman (Orthodox), Neil Gilman (Conservative). Arthur Green (Reconstructionist) and Lawrence Hoffman (Reform).

Their dialogue was devoted to presentations of the philosophical histories of the their respective movements, and disappointed listeners who had expected a debate on specific critical issues.

But Jeser said the program represented another facet of CLAL. “Before dialogue, there must be an understanding of the educational underpinnings. Most of us tend to respond on an emotional basis, not based on any real understanding or study.”

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