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Why I Chose To Be A Conservative Rabbi - Jewish Unity - Not Uniformity©

People often ask me, why did you become a rabbi?

To answer that question, I want to take you all back to my rabbinical school interview which happened in Israel.

I sat in front of three rabbis, in a suit that I hadn’t worn in years that was a lot tighter than I remembered. The interview panel poured over the essays I wrote. At the time, interview panels were fond of asking difficult questions in order to trip up the interviewee and see how they would react.

One of the rabbis picked up on the language I used in referring to my Florida synagogue: Temple Beth Israel. He looked at me with a smirk and said, “So, I see you went to TEMPLE Beth Israel. You must have grown up Reform, why do you think you’d be a good fit to be a leader in our movement?” It took me a minute to understand what was happening; I explained to him that TEMPLE Beth Israel was actually a Conservative synagogue. That sort of torpedoed his plan, but he went along with it anyway. “David, do you think that the synagogue is a replacement of THE Temple?” Before I could answer, another rabbi jumped in, “While you’re thinking, I have another question - do you think we should start building the Third Temple?” Ok, so now we went from movement talk to whether I believed we should start World War III. Things were not going well.

I took a deep breath, and I said, “these are great questions, challenging questions. Here’s my answer, the synagogue can never replace the Temple, but they are called Mikdashei Me’at - our small holy places. As to the next question, should we start building the Third Temple: I was taught that the Holy Temple will only be rebuilt if the Messiah comes. And considering the tensions between the movements in Judaism, the only way that all the streams of Judaism, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox Ultra-Orthodox and everyone in between, can peaceably co-exist in one place is for the Messiah to come; so the answer is, yes, but since we’re still waiting for the Messiah, the construction will be delayed indefinitely.”

I guess they approved of my answer.

After this summer, I can say with 100% certainty that we’re still waiting for the Messiah. A couple of days before I arrived in Israel this summer, an American Jewish family was accosted at the egalitarian side of the Kotel, the Western Wall, during their daughter’s bat mitzvah.

Dozens of Ultra-Orthodox men and teenage boys aggressively harassed and intimidated the participants shouting down their prayers, and calling the families “Nazis,” “animals” and “Christians,” while ripping up their prayer books. One Ultra-Orthodox boy was videoed blowing his nose into the pages of their siddur and then ripping it to shreds.

The officiating rabbi, Arie Hasit, a Conservative rabbi who spoke at Shaarei Kodesh several years ago, said that the incident ‘broke’ him: He said: “Some people hate me. They are willing to hurt me. Because my Judaism is different from their Judaism.”

Deborah Lipstadt, a renowned Holocaust scholar and newly appointed State Department antisemitism monitor, painfully admitted: “Let us make no mistake, had such a hateful incident — such incitement — happened in any other country, there’d be little hesitation in labeling it antisemitism.”

Jewish Unity is kind of like world peace - we think it existed once in the distant past, and we fault ourselves for not being able to create it. The truth is, world peace never existed. Jewish Unity, in the sense of us being all alike, maybe only happened once. Our Unity moment was at Sinai. During the revelation at Sinai, the Torah says (Exodus 19:2):

וַיִּחַן-שָׁם יִשְׂרָאֵל, נֶגֶד הָהָר

And they camped there opposite the mountain

Rashi picks up on the peculiar language of the line: read grammatically correct, we read: And HE camped there, opposite the mountain. Who is ‘he’? Rashi comments: the people camped k’ish echad, b’lev echad “like one person with one heart.” In other words, all the people were like one.

So what happened? Why don’t we have one body and one heart? If Jewish unity is fleeting, or some say a lost cause, maybe we should give up on it?

Today, on Rosh Hashanah, is a day when we embrace the paradox of humanity - to hold both universalism, an extended feeling of kinship with all humanity, with particularism, the natural tendency to feel most at home with our own kind.

The same can be said of the different types of Jews in the world. We are gathered here separate from other services; we are a Conservative movement synagogue and service. And yet, we stand before God as one people.

Today, on day two of Rosh Hashanah, I want to lean into particularism, our relationship with each other as Jews. But even within particularism, we can employ universal thinking.

I want to share what I learned this summer in Israel, and also here in Boca Raton, about Jewish unity, and why it’s important to me, and should be for you.

I recently attended a special gathering from our Federation where two representatives from each institution were invited. Our Vice President, Ariella Reback and I arrived at Zinman Hall and there were a series of long tables set up parallel to each other - it looked like long rows that were separate. We were assigned seats opposite a person whom we didn’t know from a different background. My learning partner was a man with a black hat, beard, and suit. We started by introducing ourselves, and the man learned that I was the rabbi of Congregation Shaarei Kodesh. He said, “Oh right, the shul right across from the gas station! I’ve walked by it many times.”

He went on to tell me his story: he was a former Conservative rabbi, and although he was ordained 25 years before me, we both studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Quite honestly, I tried to do more listening than speaking, and my chevrutah obliged, speaking most of the time. After he learned I was a Conservative rabbi, he started talking about the virtues of Orthodox Judaism. He couldn’t understand why any man would pray next to a woman, even saying it was as if you were naked together in front of God. There were many such comments.

We studied more sources, and the first discussion question was: “what keeps us from unifying as Jews?” He asked me the question, and I said, “Unfortunately, it is interactions like these.” I said: “I know the Orthodox world well. My father grew up in the Ultra-Orthodox movement, and I attended Orthodox shuls growing up (along with Conservative synagogues), went to Orthodox minyanim in College, and lived in Jerusalem for two years. I am no stranger to Orthodox Judaism. But I chose to join the Conservative movement. I can explain why, but I’m sure you likely know why. What holds us back from unifying is that it appears that you think I need to be ‘saved’, that something is missing in my life, that I don’t see the truth. The truth is, I believe in the concept of Clal Israel, or Peoplehood.”

I quoted the Mishnah from Pirkei Avot that I quoted yesterday, but a different section (Avot 4:12)

שֶׁלִּי שֶׁלְּךָ וְשֶׁלְּךָ שֶׁלָּךְ, חָסִיד

The person who says: "what is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours" -- [that's a] chasid" (righteous person).”

I told him, “I strive to be a Hassid in this way. When I meet someone from another movement in Judaism, I’m not shy in sharing why I chose to belong to the Conservative movement, but I also respect the place where they are, honor it, and learn from them.”

This philosophy is born out of a feeling that we try and repress, we even have a commandment against this feeling: envy. But envy can actually become holy: it’s called sacred envy - an act of appreciation.

The same can be said about other movements in Judaism - we can appreciate what they have without feeling like we must have it in exactly the same way.

There are times when I have ‘sacred' envy looking at other Jewish communities. For example, how incredible would it be to have eleven children, who could give me over one hundred grandchildren! But it’s not something I can do…or better yet, not something Alissa would allow.

I was in awe in 2020 when the Ultra Orthodox community gathered 90,000 people together to finish the cycle of Daf Yomi, the practice of reading a page of Talmud a day for seven years. Talk about commitment!

I have attended Reform services with a full band rocking out to prayers in English and Hebrew. While I enjoyed the service, and felt a bit of envy, I knew that it just wasn’t for me. I can give numerous examples of the sacred envy or appreciation I see in the other streams of Judaism that are my left and right. x

In an age of extremes, it’s not easing being in the middle. In an age of silos, acknowledging truth in someone who is in competition with you is a weakness.

But I disagree; we can choose a different path.

I mentioned that we were united once, at Sinai, but before we reached Sinai, we crossed through the Sea of Reeds when it miraculously split. The Torah doesn’t give much detail as to how we walked through the sea, but the Midrash offers some visions. One reports that the sea didn’t split into two, but into twelve paths. The twelve tribes walked through in their respective lanes, but they could see one another, and then, after they saw each other, they were able to see God (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 42:5).

The message here is simple, yet profound: Unity without uniformity. We walk together, in the same direction, as one people, but we walk on our own unique paths. As we walk, we look to our sides, acknowledging the presence of our brothers and sisters, and respecting their path, while proudly walking down our own path.

This appreciation of other types of Jews and commitment to peoplehood is essential to what it means to be a Conservative Jew. In his book on Conservative Judaism, former Chancellor Arnold Eisen writes:

“A strong bond to Jews of every generation, past and future, has gone hand in hand with a sense of connection to all Jews alive today, regardless of ideological commitment or level of observance. Pluralism has always been basic to this vision of Judaism in a way it is not to any other. The leaders and teachers of Conservative Judaism have recognized that there is more than one way for serious Jews to join engagement with the Jewish past to engagement with the societies and cultures of which we are a part, even while believing that Conservative Judaism was the best way of doing so. Jews have always differed in our understandings of Torah and likely always will. The unity of Clal Yisrael despite those differences, we believe, is essential to the fulfillment of Covenant.”2

He alludes to an issue that Conservative Judaism has always grappled with. If you look at the heads of Federations and Jewish community leaders, you will find that most of them identify with our movement, which is a problem because it means that they aren’t leaders in OUR movement.

Is this a flaw, or a strength? To me, it’s a strength. These leaders see the full picture of the Jewish community, recognizing that we are all moving in one direction, and only someone in the middle can bring all the sides together.

Jewish unity without uniformity matters because, as we know, we are a small people, but also greatly diverse - one size cannot fit all. Our strength lies in our diversity.

But there is another important reason Jewish unity matters.

I want to share two stories from a time when we thought we were united as a people.

There is a new documentary by Ken Burns called “The U.S. and the Holocaust” which tells the story of the American government’s failure to save European Jewry during the Holocaust. During this period, it is widely believed that American Jewry was not aware of the Holocaust being perpetrated against the Jews of Europe. That may have been true at the beginning, but by 1942, it was known to the world, and to the Jewish community in America, even if it was buried in the headlines of American newspapers. Little was being done about it in the organized Jewish community, but three rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Noah Golinkin, Jerry Lipnick and Moshe Buddy Sachs rose to the occasion.

They took on the establishment and challenged the indifference of their fellow Jews in America. Rabbi Stephen Wise, the most well-known Reform rabbi at the time who had a close relationship with President Roosevelt, was in a bind. Should he publicly call out President Roosevelt, which would damage their relationship and lose his influence which was vital for American Jewry? Other leaders feared that demanding action to save European Jewry would lead to anti-Semitism in America. Polls found over half of the U.S. population perceived Jews as greedy and dishonest, and a third considered Jews to be over-aggressive. Only 30% of Americans said they would openly oppose a widespread campaign against Jews, while 35% would openly support it.

The Jewish community was in disarray. At a meeting with heads of major Jewish organizations, a free for all brawl broke out, and 32 Jewish organizations denounced each other as socialists, racists, and Christians. They could not come together as one to speak with one voice to save their fellow Jews.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for these three rabbinical students who stood up against all of their leaders for the value of Clal Israel. They lived by the Talmudic dictum: Kol Israel Areivim Zeh Bah Zeh - All of Israel is responsible for one another (Bablylonian Talmud Shevuot 39a). Not just one tribe, or group, or movement, but all Jews are responsible for all other Jews no matter where they live, no matter how they practice. They organized the Jewish community as best they could, with very little resources. The three students considered their efforts a failure because they couldn’t save European Jewry, but they helped force President Roosevelt create a War Refugee Board in 1944 that helped saved 200,000 Jews and 20,000 non-Jews from certain death. (The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust - page 126)

I am convinced that the failure of the American Jewish community during those years led to the American Jewish community’s unified support of Israel during the 1967 Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, and more importantly, the Save Soviet Jewry movement in the 1980s.

The shadow of the Holocaust still loomed, but I wonder if we’ve forgotten.

After a Conservative rabbi and her community were attacked for over a year in Whitefish, Montana by white supremacist Richard Spencer, the Jewish Defense League, an extremist-militant Jewish group created by the late Meir Kahane, said they had no plans to help because they were ‘liberal’ Jews who were being attacked. One of their leaders, Jonathan Stern commented: Richard Spencer is “a white nationalist who stands up for white people and there is nothing wrong with that.”

A Chicago congregation recently changed its charter to say that Anti-Zionism is one of its core values, and Jewish Voice for Peace, a left-wing organization, supports the Boycott-Divestment-Sanction. While the BDS movement has been a failure economically, it has succeeded in isolating and terrorizing Jewish college students on campuses across the world, and here in the U.S.

Anti-Zionism isn’t non-Zionism - it is saying that Tel Aviv is an illegal settlement, that Israel was born in sin, and Israel should not exist. But what about the estimated 7 million Jews who call Israel home? Where should they go? Israel is their home, and it’s also our home, no matter what movement you belong to, whether you believe in God or not.

This summer, in Israel, I attended the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Seminar where close to 200 rabbis across the denominational spectrum gather together to learn from the greatest Jewish thought leaders of today, but also, from each other. During that trip, I was reminded of a little known but important story when in June of 1948, Israel was almost destroyed when it was only a month old.

On June 20, 1948, a month after Israel was being attacked by the surrounding Arab nations, Israel had two fighting forces: the Haganah, under the rule of Israel’s leader, David ben Gurion, and the Irgun, the underground forces under Menachem Begin’s command. Ben Gurion and Begin were polar opposites politically.

A ship named the Altalena was ready to dock on Israel’s shores with arms and ammunition but the ship was under the control of Begin’s militia and a fight broke out between him and Ben Gurion about which army should receive the armaments.

A firefight broke out, and the Altalena ended up landing near what is now Tel Aviv’s Frishman Beach on June 22 with Begin on board. Ben Gurion ordered the ship to be shelled. Sixteen members of Begin’s Irgun were killed that day. Standing on that very ship while his comrades were dying, Menachim Begin gave the order not to fire back, declaring, “Milchemet achim l’olam lo – there should never be war between brothers.” If you go to that beach in Tel Aviv, you can see a monument dedicated to that incident with Begin's words: Milchemet achim l’olam lo – never should there be war between brothers.” Imagine if Begin fought back? The Israeli Armies, plural, likely would have gone to war, and the state of Israel would have ended a month after it began. That was the beginning of the Israeli Army as we know it - one army whose task is to defend Israel.

The High Holiday season doesn’t begin on Rosh Hashanah, it doesn’t even begin on Rosh Chodesh Elul. It begins on Tisha B’av, the day when we remember the destruction of the two Temples. Our Sages teach us that the second Temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred between Jews. On that day, every year, our collective house is destroyed, and during these weeks, we slowly build up to Sukkot, when we rebuild that House of Israel.

In the Sukkah, we hold our lulav and etrog which the Midrash explains represents all different types of Jews; good ones and not-so-good ones, believers and non-believers. We hold the lulav and etrog together to remind us that the House of Israel is always in danger of falling if we cannot see ourselves as part of one while also holding our diversity.

One of the reasons, I’m a rabbi, a Conservative rabbi, is because I hold the value of Clal Israel, Peoplehood and Pluralism, as a core value. My family knows the consequence if we don’t, because they were in Europe in Concentration Camps while the American Jewish community was arguing and brawling over whether and how they should act or not.

No one could have predicted the Holocaust at the time; and yet, it happened. When we say Never Forget, let’s also Never Forget that we are one people, despite our differences. Our diversity is our strength, if we can learn to appreciate and love our fellow Jew not for what we want them to be, but who they are.

I’m a Conservative Jew, and rabbi, because I can stand in the middle, reaching my hand out to both sides, to bring others along to fulfill our Jewish destiny.

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This Sermon is articulated perfectly the words jumped off the paper as if each letter represented all those who have fallen from acts of hated and antisemitism; as though the acts of atrocities that were enacted from the Holocaust are still present today! Kol H’Kavod! You hit it out of the park and we all need to come together and forge one path to unite together or our children will be facing this again; because if we don’t learn from past history it is sure to repeat itself! G’mar Tovah and May you and your beautiful family with Alissa be blessed for many years to come!

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