Conservative Judaism has always prided itself on being a big tent. There are inherent challenges that go along with this approach, as sometimes trying to be everything to everybody diminishes one’s ability to take a particular stance or to define a specific vision. And yet, our movement’s commitment to the greater klal Yisrael is both inspirational and aspirational in that it creates Jewish unity as a core value.
In the past when Jews have addressed the issue of Jewish unity, what we’ve really been exploring is the relationship between the different communities within the greater Jewish community. We’ve tried to gauge the strength of the connection that Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews feel toward one another as fellow Jews. Do we really feel as though we are a part of the same Jewish family?
On the best of days, we work together toward a common cause. We are particularly good about coming together in moments of crisis. We read about the accomplishments of other Jews (of any denomination) and feel pride, and we learn about a fellow Jew’s immoral, unethical or illegal actions and feel disappointed and ashamed. On these occasions, we know that our Jewish connection is strong and so is our shared loved for and commitment to God, the Torah and the Jewish people.
Yet, at other times, we can disagree on particular issues — both here and in Israel. When it comes to egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, the Tal laws that affect ultra-Orthodox service in the Israeli army or the
occasions that we pass by Naturi Karta Chasidim with posters protesting Israel’s existence on the way into the AIPAC convention, it’s impossible not to feel the divide.
In Baltimore, I am proud to say that at the leadership level we are able to join together as a united community. But the question of Jewish unity raises a whole new set of issues. The challenge is no longer the way that those within our movements feel about one another and the connection between us, but rather the new reality that the majority of American Jews today (yes, majority!) don’t define themselves by denominations at all.
According to recent census reports (and dating websites), the majority of American Jews today define themselves as “just Jewish.”
I would breathe a sigh of relief if the “just Jewish” Jews turned out to be post-denominational, but deep inside I know that mostly they are either unaffiliated, uninspired by what they have learned or unimpressed by what they see within the organized Jewish community.
My prayers for us — the united us — in 5774 are that we could learn from the great sages Hillel and Shammai; it is possible to disagree about our respective understandings of God’s will without diminishing the other. I pray that this year will be a year that the Jewish people can strive for an even higher standard of tolerance and civility toward one another and that those of us who live inspired by our Judaism will find meaningful ways to use the beauty, depth and wisdom of our Torah, traditions and peoplehood to reach out to those who haven’t yet experienced God’s presence in our communal midst. Just as we all stood together at Sinai, may we continue to be a part of a united Jewish people for thousands of years to come, and may we go from strength to strength together.
Rabbi Dana Saroken is a spiritual leader at Beth El Congregation, a Conservative synagogue.