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STAMFORD, Conn. — The Reform, Conservative and Orthodox streams of Judaism each have their particular responses to issues facing American Jews, but there’s no reason they can’t work to address those challenges together, the heads of the flagship educational institutions for all three movements said Thursday (Nov. 6).
While the movements still clash over many traditional issues — the role of women, dietary restrictions and Sabbath observance, among others
— the men overseeing the next generation of American rabbis said they increasingly had common educational goals that they could — and should
— work together to achieve.
Richard Joel, president of the Orthodox movement’s Yeshiva University, Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi David Ellenson, head of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, agreed that after centuries of persecution and hardship, the Jewish communities in both America and Israel have never been stronger.
That strength presents unique opportunities for interdenominational cooperation, they said during an unprecedented joint public forum, as well as the risk that more Jews can now take their faith for granted.
“The challenges that American Jews confront — intermarriage, education — really do transcend denomination,” Ellenson said. “More and more of them are tired of what they see as needless wrangles. We are determined to work together when we can.”
Barack Obama’s presidential victory, with drew the support of an estimated 78 percent of U.S. Jews, further serves as a national call to unity, they agreed. Even at Yeshiva, which has a more Republican student body than the other two institutions, Joel said the campus has embraced a hopeful view of the future.
“We’re living in a historical moment, and I’m not just talking about Obama,” Eisen said. “Let us not let this moment go to waste. This is a moment that we must seize in our communities.”
Before the audience of about 500 at Temple Beth El, a suburban Connecticut synagogue, the men focused on acknowledging mutual respect for each movement’s accomplishments and reputation: the Reform movement’s commitment to social justice causes, the Orthodox movement’s ability to maintain traditional worship and ties to Israel, and the Conservative movement’s intellectual focus and bridge-building role.
“We learn from each other all the time,” Eisen said. “Jews can’t face the problems we face as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. We have to face them together.”
The trio did not propose any joint initiatives, however, aside from seeking financial support for all three institutions and other Jewish educational and youth programs. For now, just the act of appearing together and sharing their viewpoints is major step forward for American Judaism, said Ellen Umansky, an author and professor of Judaic studies at Fairfield University who has worked with all three over the years.
“You have three heads of these institutions who have strong respect for one another and who understand that we have a common set of challenges,” she said, noting that all three ascended to their positions since the dawn of the 21st century. “There’s been a real generational shift in leadership. The whole way that Jews talk to one another has really changed.”
The cooperative spirit of the discussion did not downplay the differences between the branches of Judaism, however. Joel, whose participation as an Orthodox Jewish spokesman in such interdenominational dialogues is a marked break from the past, half-jokingly described his pluralistic attitude as recognizing “your right to be wrong,” rather than an acceptance of the Reform or Conservative ideologies.
“These differences are worth preserving,” Eisen agreed. “Let’s do together what we can do together, let’s continue to do separately what we need to do separately … but, let’s do it well.”
Joel also spoke strongly about the need to reach out to the “post-denominational” Jews who do not affiliate with any of the major movements. This growing trend often presents “an excuse for ignorance,” he warned, leading to a generation of children being raised without proper grounding and instruction in the tenets of their faith.
“This is the first time in history where being Jewish is an option, not a condition,” Joel said. “Now, thank God, thank God, it’s a choice … (but) at our peril do we fail to teach our children why they should exercise the option to be Jewish.”
By Nicole Neroulias
2008 Religion News Service
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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