From noon this past Sunday to noon Tuesday forty-eight hours later, I was privileged to participate in a program called “The Conversation,” held in the lovely Pearlstone Conference Center just outside of Baltimore. Sponsored by The Jewish Week and made possible through the generous support of UJA-Federation, the program brought together some fifty Jews active in one way or other in the Jewish community of New York for what seemed like an odd purpose- to talk to one another.
It was odd because all of us in the Jewish communal world do a lot of talking, sometimes to each other, more often, I think, to ourselves. We talk and talk, but whether or not we actually listen is a more interesting question. We tend to say what we’re expected to say, and more to the point, hear what we’re expecting to hear. And through it all, we keep talking…
“The Conversation” brought together people who actually don’t always have the opportunity- or the inclination- to be talking to each other. People like myself who are representative of the organized and established Jewish community, talking to those who see themselves as on the margins for one reason or another; religious leaders talking to those who have long ago despaired of ever having a meaningful experience in a synagogue; young artists and authors whose work is provocative and occasionally scathingly critical of the Jewish community talking with those who have given the best years of their lives to create and nurture that community,,, you get the picture. And, of course, there was the ever-present underlying theme of the have’s and the have not’s, and how expensive the Jewish world has become.
To be completely honest, for the first few hours of the program, I wasn’t entirely sure why I was there. I was older than a lot of the other participants, and I felt like a relic of a Jewish world that the younger participants there never knew and never would.
But slowly, and persistently, the program worked its magic. Utilizing the “open space” method (i.e., topics totally driven by those attending, no plenaries, no panels), I consistently found myself a part of conversations with people who cared passionately about the Jewish community- they wouldn’t have been there if they didn’t- but with opinions and attitudes almost diametrically opposite from my own. In most instances, if confronted with Jews who deny the crucial importance and centrality of Israel, or see the synagogue only as a comfort station for rich people, I would stop listening, or simply opt out of the discussion. But the whole purpose of this retreat was to stay in the room, talk, and listen. And I did.
What I discovered was something of a revelation to me, but of course it shouldn’t have been. I have as many a priori assumptions about those people as they have about me.
I chronically bemoan the fact that when people in the Jewish community meet me, they tend to think they “know who I am” because I am the rabbi of a large, urban Conservative synagogue- a caricature if ever there was one. I am, of course, more than that, and not necessarily well served at all by being defined so narrowly.
But by the time the program had run its course, and I had had the chance to talk at some length with many of the participants, I realized that they, too, were ill served by my stereotyping them so facilely. Those who were most critical of the things that I hold dear were also sensitive, creative, and totally unafraid to think outside of the proverbial Jewish box. As often as not, that freedom led them to places I would never go, and opinions I don’t necessarily admire. But though they did not convince me, and I’m sure I did not convince them, I came away realizing that- like me- there is more going on there than meets the eye.
As I said, I know that it shouldn’t have come as a revelation, but it did. As much as people look at me and think they “know” me based on the most minimal identifiers, I too often do the same thing to others, based on appearances, attitudes, and style of communicating. It’s never too late to grow…
So kudos to the Jewish Week for creating and sustaining “The Conversation,” and also to UJA-Federation for helping to make it possible. We talked, and talked… and it was a very good thing we did. Because we also listened.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here