Not long ago, I was honored with an aliyah to the Torah at the Shabbat morning service of the convention in Israel of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the North American organization of Reform/Liberal/Progressive rabbis) which took place at the Bet Daniel Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. What was the occasion? I was honored, along with two other colleagues (see photo above) , for having served (or survived) for 50 years as a rabbi. It was a meaningful moment in my life, as we were given a standing ovation by the more than 250 rabbis and others in the audience and since we were beautifully blessed by Rabbi Hara Person, the wonderful and welcoming CEO of the CCAR.
Since then, I have been reflecting on my jubilee year as a rabbi. What kind of rabbi have I been? What has been my method and my message?
First of all, I will say that I have not been a congregational rabbi. I grew up in the business (my father, Rabbi Leon Kronish, of blessed memory, was a wonderful congregational rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Miami Beach for 40 years) but I knew it was not for me. It was not the kind of life that I wanted to lead and I knew that I wouldn’t be good at it. I give a lot of credit to those rabbis who do it well, but I was not cut out for the congregational world. (Fortunately, I knew this early on!)
So, I debated between Hillel (working on a college campus) or Jewish education. After ordination in 1973, while I was studying for my doctorate in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I worked as a Jewish educator in the Boston area in two places and did not love either one. I found supplementary Jewish education in the USA to be very weak and without much meaning or substance. At the same time, I worked in Hillel at Clark University for three years, and did enjoy working with college students.
But my intention was to move to Israel. Three weeks after earning my doctorate, in June 1979, together with my wife, Amy, and two very young daughters (a third one was born a few years later in Jerusalem), I made aliyah to Israel. During my first two years, I worked part-time as a lecturer and researcher at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, on Mount Scopus and as a senior staff person at the Melitz Centers for Jewish Zionist Education. I loved both jobs, which engaged me in meaningful educational projects and programs in Israel. But when I was asked if I wanted to pursue an academic career, I decided that it was not for me, that I preferred an educational job in the field. So, I became a rabbi-educator and focused my energies for my first 7 years in Israel (1979-86) in informal Jewish education with the Melitz Centers, while teaching part-time at Tel Aviv University in the Department of Education for a few years.
When I sat down to write my personal/professional memoir several years ago, I recalled that I then realized that I would devote my life to education in one form or another.
It was during my years at the Harvard Graduate School of Education that I became an educator in my philosophy and in my practice which shaped the rest of my life. I would say that since then, I have always seen the world—and especially my professional work – through the lenses of an educator. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the influence of the American pragmatist philosopher of Education, John Dewey, on Jewish Education in America, which established me then as one of the foremost scholars of Dewey and of Jewish Education in the 1970s. In those years, I spoke at conferences and wrote articles on this subject in many journals and became a progressive educator in thought and in deed. (In later years, I taught courses on Dewey and Education in the School of Education of Tel Aviv University.) [from The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue a View from Jerusalem, Hamilton Books, 2017]
Little did I know then that I was going to become not just a Jewish educator but an interreligious one. But this developed later in my life.
In 1991, with the assistance of a few other people, I founded a new organization in Israel which was called the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which I directed for 24 years, until I retired at the end of 2014. During all the years that I served as director of ICCI — which was also the Israeli chapter of Religions for Peace, (and was for a while the Israel chapter of the International Council of Christians and Jews (ICCJ)—I became one of Israel’s few experts in the field of interreligious relations. As a result, local representatives of the foreign press, as well as local journalists, would often seek me out for quotes and background information about developments in this field in Israel.
Also, in my capacity as director of this institution for more than two decades, I was invited to speak at conferences, seminars and workshops all over the world, from North America to the Far East. These experiences brought me into contact with Jews, Christians, and Muslims (and others) who genuinely believe in and practice interreligious dialogue and who actively work for peace in their countries, regions and internationally. In this respect, I saw myself always engaged as an educator and a representative of Judaism to the non-Jewish world.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, I was intensely involved in Vatican-Jewish Relations and interreligious dialogue with Catholic leaders as well as leaders from other religions via the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews and the Pontifical Council of Interreligious Dialogue. I participated in some amazing encounters, dialogues and conferences at the Vatican and in Assisi, during which time I met Pope John Paul II three times. In addition, I was deeply involved in the preparations for the historic visit of this pope to Israel in March 2000, along with the papal nuncio in Israel at that time, and wrote about it in newspapers and journals.
Following this amazing week, I co-produced a film, together with my wife, Amy Kronish, with the assistance of a documentary film production company. The film was called I am Joseph Your Brother, and it told the story behind this groundbreaking visit of Pope John Paul II to Israel. The film was screened at film festivals, Catholic seminaries, synagogues and universities where the history of Jewish-Christian Relations is taught. The production and distribution of this film—and the accompanying guide book—was without doubt one of the highlights of my career in interreligious dialogue and peacebuilding.(The film is now available via YouTube on the internet.)
By the way, this historic visit of the Pope to Israel—which was the first of its kind—came only 7 years after the signing of the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO, as well as the signing of The Fundamental Agreement between the Holy See and the State of Israel on December 30th,1993, in which the Vatican finally decided to formally recognize the State of Israel and the State of Israel recognized the Vatican in return! I was privileged to be in the room at the Foreign Ministry of Israel when it was signed.
Looking back, one other highlight stands out for me in my career as a rabbi involved in interreligious dialogue as a method of peacebuilding for many years. In 1999, I was privileged to host the Dalai Lama in Israel twice—once for a small seminar with a group of Christians and Jews who came to Israel from San Francisco, to enter into dialogue with this great religious leader in an off-the-record, intimate setting. In addition, the sponsors of this seminar hosted a large reception at the hotel one evening for members of the interreligious community in Israel. During this reception, I was given an award for my work in this field in Israel, in the presence of the Dalai Lama.
On a second occasion that year, my organization co-hosted a conference for interreligious leaders in Israel, Palestine and from abroad, with the Dalai Lama at the Bet Gavriel Conference Center on the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Both events were deeply meaningful and transformative in my life as a person of dialogue.
When I retired at the end of 2014, I decided to devote my time to educating a new generation of interreligious activists through teaching, writing, and mentoring. I have mentored several young people who have become leaders in the field. In addition, I have taught Christian seminarians at Drew University’s Theological School for the past five years on the subject of Interreligious Dialogue and Peacebuilding, and I did this previously for five years for Brandeis University’s MA Program in Conflict Resolution and Coexistence in their Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Moreover, during the past 7 years, I have edited one book (Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel: Voices of Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015) and written two others—The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, A View from Jerusalem (Hamilton Books, 2017), and Profiles for Peace: Voices of Peacebuilders in the Midst of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (2022). Also, I have written over 200 posts for my blog for The Times of Israel for the past 11 years on these and other issues in Israeli society.
What has been my rabbinic message and method in all of my teaching, mentoring and writing?
I once put it quite simply on a new website that we developed for ICCI, the organization that I led for more than twenty years:
Our goal is peaceful coexistence. Our methods are dialogue, education and activism.
In other words, I have been preaching and teaching about the importance of peaceful coexistence between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs for many years, both in my professional work and in my Divrei Torah (Words of Torah ), which I have written for my blog on the Times of Israel website and in my articles for the Jerusalem Report and for other publications. I believe that Shalom is one of most central values in Judaism and that we ought to seek peace and pursue it actively.
My methods have included dialogue, education and action. I have described these methods often in some detail in my books and blog posts and have taught them to young people for the past ten years. During all of my years in the field, I supervised professional staff and many student interns in these methods and messages, and I know that at least some of them are active in this endeavor still today, which gives me great satisfaction.
If I had to sum it up, I would say that I have tried to be a disciple of the rabbinic image of Aaron, as depicted in the following famous passage from the Ethics of the Fathers:
Hillel says: Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving human beings and bringing them closer to Torah.