What Should Be the Mission of an Interdenominational Rabbinic Council?

This past Sunday evening, I joined local Rabbis of Conservative, Reform and Chabad synagogues in Long Beach and Oceanside, in a meeting organized and facilitated by the UJA. The purpose of this meeting was to try to create a council of local Rabbinic leadership to come together and work in unison for the betterment of the Jewish people.  Sepi Djavaheri, Community Mobilizer for the Long Island region of UJA-Federation of New York, began the discussion by noting we and our congregations have more in common than what divides us. For the success of our council and the betterment of our communities, she encouraged us to focus on areas of common interest and stay away from divisive issues.  What’s fascinating to me is that the issue that perhaps used to be most effective in unifying all denominations, namely Israel, today is often seen as divisive.

Of course, all of us who attended this meeting recognize that there are serious points of disagreement between the different denominations.  Practically speaking, there are some programs in which my shul, being orthodox, cannot participate, based on certain halachic principles.  But what is perhaps harder to overcome are the fundamental theological challenges that arise when our different denominations seek to partner together.  On the one hand, as an orthodox Rabbi it would go against my fundamental beliefs to endorse a non-orthodox approach to Judaism as an authentic, legitimate approach.  On the other hand, I can understand why a Rabbi who is not Orthodox could be resentful of my stance, particularly if a pluralistic approach is foundational to his understanding of Judaism.

Can we work past these obstacles?  I was heartened by the knowledge that our Oceanside community is unique as the only, or perhaps one of the only, Long Island communities that has an annual UJA event that is attended by all the major local synagogues of each denomination.  At this meeting, we talked about different possible programs and initiatives that our broader Jewish community could launch.  After thoughtful discussion, we came to the conclusion that in order to move forward effectively, we first need a mission statement and a set of measurable objectives that support our mission.  Once we have a consensus on these defined goals, we can launch a plan to achieve our objectives and support the mission of our council.  So we left the meeting with some homework.  Each one of the Rabbis will submit his perspective as to what the mission of the council should be.  Our council will collect all of these missions and discuss them and refine them and come up with one that is acceptable to all.

What do I think should be the mission of an interdenominational Rabbinic council?  Here are some preliminary thoughts.

1. Ahavat Yisrael, plain and simple:  The council will promote ahavat Yisrael, love of all Jews, regardless of denomination or belief.  We all joined together as one in a beautiful vigil in Oceanside after the horrific Pittsburgh shooting.  We came together on the premise that we love all Jews, regardless of whether they are orthodox, conservative, reform or unaffiliated.  Why should we limit promoting this value to only times of crisis?
2. Promoting greater understanding:  This is a tricky mission.  The council has an opportunity to promote greater understanding of different perspectives of the different types of Jews.  It will promote the understanding that for certain Jews, there are mitzvot that form the basis of their practice and are critical to their way of life.  For other Jews, their desire to connect with their Jewish roots, the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition is met primarily through cultural engagement.  This is tricky, because, as mentioned earlier, as an orthodox Jew I do not believe in the pluralism ideal that all means to spiritual connectedness are created equal. Yet I still admire the sincere yearning that all Jews have to connect with God, the Jewish people and Jewish traditions.
3. Promoting values and dealing with issues that are of concern to our entire community:  Even though each synagogue and each denomination may have its own particular set of concerns, there are many issues that concern all of us.  Some examples that come mind are challenges facing our elderly or teens at risk.  We all struggle to serve these individuals in our communities, and we can benefit from each other’s wisdom in trying to meet these needs. Similarly, there are many values that we all wish to promote, albeit in different ways.  Perhaps we could dedicate a week or a Shabbat when every synagogue in our community focuses on one particular mitzvah or middah, be it prayer, Shabbat, or acts of kindness.  Coming together over goals that unite us can present opportunities for joint programming as well.

These are my preliminary thoughts as to possible missions for our council.  But now I turn it over to you, my readers.  What do you think?

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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