It is good to give thanks, we’re told; in fact we sing Psalm 92, which begins with those words, every Friday night.
Last Shabbat afternoon, members of Congregation Rinat Yisrael and Congregation Beth Sholom, Teaneck synagogues whose buildings are only a few blocks apart, along with some outsiders from other shuls, drawn there by symbolism or perhaps by hope, came together at Beth Sholom to study texts examining thankfulness and thanksgiving.
Hardly newsworthy, right? But no. Rinat is Orthodox and Beth Sholom is Conservative, so the fact that members could study together, for a few hours, in the second of what is meant to become an annual tradition, is something worth mentioning.
But, really, when it comes down to it, it wasn’t newsworthy. It wasn’t tense, and it didn’t feel groundbreaking, or different, or at all bold.
It felt natural, appropriate, intellectually stimulating, and entirely right. It felt completely normal.
And that is exactly as it should be.
The afternoon’s organizers, who sat on a committee composed of equal numbers of representatives of both shuls, worked very hard to make the session successful. About 200 people were there that afternoon. Most of us had registered on line in advance. The organizers took the list of registrants and worked on dividing us into tables — 20 tables, with about 10 people at each one — as if we were going to a simcha, and they were giving the party, figuring out which friends would enjoy parsing a text together and which relatives wouldn’t speak to each other. They tried not to seat too many friends together, and to create groups divided as equally as possible between Rinat and Beth Sholom members.
Each table had a facilitator, and each facilitator was exhaustively prepared. Each knew the texts thoroughly, and had been well prepped in how to keep the conversation going, and how to elicit the insights that the texts could yield.
As soon as the preliminary remarks were made, the room buzzed with the happy sound of brains and tongues at work. That part of the session ended as such successful sessions always do, with the feeling that there was so much still to say, and not enough time which to say it.
Beth Sholom’s Rabbi Joel Pitkowski spoke; Rinat Yisrael’s Rabbi Yosef Adler, a strong supporter of the day’s program, was recovering from an illness and could not be there, but Rabbi J.J. Schacter, who belongs to Rinat and is a professor at Yeshiva University, represented his shul.
Later, when people raided the chocolate-laden dessert tables and talked, neighbors discovered each other. One prominent academic, a Beth Sholom member, stared at one of the Rinat organizers, trying to tease out why he looked so familiar, finally realizing that he and the organizer’s brother had been good friends. Next, the two realized that they lived literally around the corner from each other. They never had spoken to each other before.
The study session ended before davening began. There are bedrock principles that separate the Orthodox and Conservative Jewish worlds. Although many people are comfortable in both worlds, and there are a few families that retain memberships in both places, there are no compromises possible on such issues as egalitarianism — whether or not women can be counted in a minyan. Either they are or they’re not. But the genius of the program is that there are many values that Jews share, and text study is among them. So is eating dessert.
So Conservative and Orthodox Jews learned and ate together, and then separated to daven. It was natural, it was exciting, and it was exactly as it should be. And for that, all of us who were there were thankful.