To those who have been through it before, it was par for the course at the seventh-annual Rabbinic Leadership Retreat run by CLAL--The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a 26-year old organization devoted to Jewish pluralism.
At the conferences, rabbis and other religious leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish ideologies and denominations come together to discuss their differences and work toward living together in peace and mutual respect.
"The goal is not to get the Reform to agree with the Orthodox," said CLAL's president, Rabbi Irwin Kula. "In the circle we call human community, you need every view."
Such efforts at cooperation and respect among Judaism's disparate movements are increasingly rare. More often, inter-denominational relations are marked by controversy and acrimony. Jewish leaders and laypeople tend to agree that inter-group civility is increasingly rare in today's Jewish communities.
Kula said the Jewish people have emerged from a lengthy period of "powerlessness, persecution and poverty" to one of "power, freedom, and affluence." They no longer face issues of physical survival, but of spiritual survival in an age of endless choices--an overwhelming historical shift.
Large numbers of Jews have used their freedom to choose to sever ties with their religious identities. Kula said most Jewish institutions, built "for another epoch," have failed to recignize the inevitability--and the desirability--of multiple viewpoints and lifestyles within the Jewish community.
Arriving Feb. 6 at the five-day retreat in Newport, R.I., the 33 participants in this year's program brought with them the realities of the Jewish world and its divisions. This cultural baggage was displayed most starkly during a group visit to the Touro Synagogue, America's oldest synagogue, which was dedicated in 1763 in Newport.
After touring the synagogue, Rabbi Steven Moskowitz of the Jewish Congregation of Brookville in Old Brookville, N.Y., suggested that the group pray together. The idea, however, met with stiff resistance from some retreat participants, because the Touro Synagogue follows the Orthodox custom of separating men and women at prayer.
Moskowitz--himself a member of the liberal Reform Jewish movement, which opposes any separation in gender roles--would himself have preferred a mixed-seating prayer.
But, he said: "It is a holy place for American Jews And what do you do at a holy place? You pray."
In the end, some prayed at Touro, while others returned to the hotel in which they were staying. The incident occasioned an intense discussion about compromise and respect. Although the discussion was by all accounts painful, the participants learned a lot about each other through it--and came to a point of mutual respect.
The next morning, the group prayed together to the satisfaction of all. The first part of the service was led by rabbis from the Jewish Renewal movement, which mixes meditation and chanting with the prayers. The remainder was led by an Orthodox rabbi, although the group maintained mixed-gender seating.
"Everybody compromised somewhat," said Rabbi Uri Cohen, who along with his wife, Yocheved Cohen, runs the Syracuse Kollel in Syracuse, N.Y. (A "kollel" is an academy for adult Torah study.) "Pluralism still says that I think I'm right and you're wrong. But I agree to respect your position, and I could even see some value in it."
The Cohens, who were among a small number of Orthodox participants, compromised by agreeing to participate in the service, despite the mixed seating. To maintain some sense of gender separation, they stepped to the back of the room during the service.
Just to attend the conference, the Cohens said, they took a lenient view of certain aspects of Jewish law, a position they are accustomed to from their work in Syracuse with a diversity of jewish congregations.
CLAL officials stressed that the pluralism which they hope to impart to the retreat participants goes beyond merely tolerating differences or agreeing to refrain from outright conflict. It also shies away from a universalist attitude that claims all viewpoints are equal and all are correct.
Instead, CLAL seeks to engage the myriad viewpoints in passionate debate with the underlying assumption that Jewish people needs all such viewpoints to survive.
"They [universalists] miss the texture, the taste of who we are as human beings," Kula said. "The criticisms are the most interesting parts."
In one exercise, which Kula termed "sacred envy," participants share four levels of emotion: What they're most proud of in their own traditions; what frustrates them the most about their own traditions; what they're most envious of in others' traditions; and what frustrates them the most about others' traditions.
"What we're surfacing are the commonalities and the differences," Kula said. "You recognize that what bonds us together is not some bulls---t essence of Judaism..There's a will a group of people have to say 'We're a people' that trumps all differences."
And, in bringing together people who rarely interact, Kula said that retreat participants learn that they have the same concerns as their counterparts in other denominations, concerns that generally revolve around strengthening the Jewish identity and observance of their communities.
Pointing to a table where four participants sat studying a Jewish text, Kula said, "Nowhere is that happening in the United States. Its' so radical to see it."
At that table, Yocheved Cohen discussed Psalm 13 with Rabbis Juda Mintz of the Orthodox Mt. Freedom (N.J.) Jewish Center, Isaac Jeret of the Conservative Beth Am Congregation in Verona, N.J., and Roderick Young of New York's Bet Simchat Torah, a gay and lesbian synagogue.
Young, an openly gay Reform rabbi, read through the Psalm--"Until when, God, will you forget me forever?"--and discussed its power as a tool for pastoral counseling. The others at the table said they had never seen the Psalm in that light and would try using it for that purpose.
"You put it to one side," Young said of ideological differences within the group. "You say, 'This is my truth, this is your truth, and where do we find common ground?'"
The participants' real challenge, though, lies in bringing the retreat's sense of unity and mutual respect to the broader Jewish community.CLAL purposely chooses mostly young leaders who have yet to move into positions of institutional power. And as CLAL's retreat alumni--now 350 strong--begin to take their turn as Jewish communal leaders, Kula hopes their experience at the retreat will effect the values of tomorrow's Judaism.
Retreat participants hope for the same.
"In this age, when people in the Jewish world are asking not primarily how to be Jews but whether to be Jews, we need to once again articulate the ancient and modern mission statement that human beings in the image of God can heal, repair, and transform the world," said Rabbi Marcia Prager, a Jewish Renewal rabbi. "We can celebrate our differences. We can again rediscover what unites us. We can build bridges that are constructed of deep caring and genuine love and respect."