Candor and kishkes from Conservative rabbis
Prior to the S’lichot services this year, which fell on a rainy Saturday on the last night of August, five distinguished Central Florida Conservative rabbis met at Congregation Ohev Shalom in Maitland for a panel discussion open to the public. The rabbis—Joshua Neely, from Temple Israel; Richard Margolis from Melbourne; Moe Kaprow, a retired chaplain from the U.S. Navy; and Aaron Rubinger and David Kay from Ohev Shalom—were asked “What are the most pressing issues facing the Jewish community in the New Year?” The rabbis first spoke in alphabetical order:
Rabbi Kaprow stressed a need for greater Klal Yisrael, or Jewish community. He argued against the balkanization of the Jewish people into branches so distinct that they have little communication with one another. He also argued that Jewish continuity continues to be the main issue of the Internet Age. He challenged Jews to make Judaism relevant and exciting to young people.
Rabbi Kay’s primary message was about authenticity. He said that all streams of Judaism were valid, yet “needless effort is spent arguing that one is more authentic than the others.” Kay pointed out that historically, there have always been “Judaisms,” in the plural, that have responded to text and tradition, based on geography, culture, community needs and other factors. He challenged Conservative Jews not to be defensive about their position, or call it “the fuzzy middle” between Orthodoxy and Reform. He argued that Conservative Jews should proudly present themselves as who they are—rather than who they are not.
Yet Kay also warned against what he calls “polite,” “sanitized” or “parlor room anti-Semitism.” For example, in some circles, phrases like “mainstream media” can sometimes be subtext for “Jews,” as many television anchors are Jewish (e.g. Wolf Blitzer, Dana Bash, and John King of CNN, Andrea Mitchell of NBC or Rachel Maddow on MSNBC) as are a number of personalities at NPR, such as Ina Jaffe, Robert Siegal, and Scott Simon. Whereas it is no longer acceptable to use the “N” word for African Americans or “kike” for Jews, Kay believes anti-Semitism survives through coded language.
Rabbi Margolis exhorted the American Jewish community to t’heet chadash, renew thyself. He spoke specifically about federations and synagogues, lamenting that there are fewer federations across the nation than there were decades ago, and that many are “recycling old money” rather than raising new funds. There are only about 150 federations left in America today. Margolis spoke of “civil Judaism,” a trio of Israel, and the Holocaust, and anti-Semitism that was stressed more than actual Torah. He charged contemporary Jews to focus on problems existing in world Jewry today. Margolis noted that we have “won” the Holocaust, meaning that there are such things as a National Holocaust Museum in Washington and compulsory Holocaust education here in Florida and in other states. Margolis closed by stating that the business of the synagogue today is “to make Jews.”
Rabbi Neely’s focus was on “connectedness to the holy.” He feels that among our preoccupations with “civil Jewish” issues, holiness is often overlooked or simply ignored. Neely also expressed deep concern about civil rights in Israel, noting the power that the Orthodox wielded over the entire society in such issues as wedding ceremonies, and the rights of women to pray at the Western Wall. Neely closed by urging Jews to “rediscover their ancestral ability to argue tooth and nail with those whom we love.”
Rabbi Rubinger first expressed concern for the physical well-being of Jews, particularly in Israel. He reminded the audience that Iran manufactures weapons and trains proxies to attack Israel. According to Rubinger, there are tens of thousands of rockets aimed at Israel at all times. Some social scientists believe that anti-Semitism is used in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East to take peoples’ minds off of their own suffering and lack of economic opportunity.
Rubinger also spoke out against emphasis on rituals in Judaism at the expense of actual ethics and menschlikit. He denounced “far-right” Jews who might, on the one hand, be involved in financial corruption and money-laundering scandals on the one hand, and be overly concerned with levels of kashrut or how to wear tsi-tsit on the other.
The panel then fielded some questions from the audience. One was about making Jewish day schools available to all. The rabbis seemed to be in agreement that even if it were free, most Jewish families would not send their children to a Jewish day school, and would deliberately opt for a public school or all-faith private school. The rabbis suggested that summer camps, time spent in Israel, and better synagogue youth programs should be available to more Jewish children and teens.
The discussion was not entirely a “love fest.” A number of the rabbis deplored far-right, anti-Zionist American Jews who will “not sing ‘Ha Tikvah’ in public” but will fly to Israel to organize votes that help the Orthodox there. “Let us expose hypocrisy when we must,” said Rubinger.
Richard A. Ries is a graduate student at UCF and a contributing writer to the Heritage.