During two stimulating days at the Stamford Crowne Plaza, members of the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) caught up with old friends, recognized valued contributors to Jewish life, installed a new slate of officers to lead the organization for the next two years and studied Torah together. More than all that, though, they gave great thought to how to best apply timeless Torah ideas to new challenges coming their way.
In a program ably guided by the convention chairs, Rabbis Zev Goldberg of the Young Israel of Fort Lee, Chaim Poupko of Ahavath Torah in Englewood and Yechiel Shaffer of Ohab Zedek (soon to be of Pikesville Jewish Congregation), the kickoff event was a shiur by R. Daniel Feldman, about how halacha explores the parameters of change in confrontation with new communities.
The rest of the day was given to learning how better to deal with millennials, first in a presentation by Dr. David Bryfman, chief innovation officer at the Jewish Education Project. Assisted by actual millennials, Dr. Bryfman sought to help the rabbis begin to consider how to work effectively with a cohort of people whose worldview and perspective differ in many ways from their own.
That evening, four leading educators—Rabbi Dr. Eli Ciner of Frisch, Sharon Richter of SAR, C.B. Neugroschl of YUHSG (Central) and Rabbi Dr. Gil Perl of Kohelet—spoke about the innovative ways they have and are developing to work with those who are millennials and younger. Ms. Neugroschl stressed that while millennials are in some ways different, they are overall “awesome,” with tremendous potential for positive contributions when reached in the way that works for them, and also not as different as we might think. The central questions of adolescence and developing adulthood, she said, remain the same today, and are a matter of working with and guiding inquiring minds into their best future.
Another theme of that panel was choice. All the educators gave examples of settings in which they set out choices for students and/or families, with results that were astonishingly positive. While educators still set the agenda by deciding which choices are on the table, allowing the students or their families to choose within them led to very positive results.
Reaching Those Who Might Seem Far
The next day’s morning panel addressed dealing with those who have left Jewish observance. Moshe Bane, president of the OU; Rachel Berger, director of community engagement at Footsteps; Yaakov Horowitz; and Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of the Hillel at University of Maryland, College Park, all agreed that it is vital to avoid completely rejecting those who leave observance.
From their perspective, they are doing what feels necessary to them, the panelists emphasized, and the sense of rejection from family can only exacerbate a painful life passage. While families will need to agree on acceptable behavior within the house, and communities may need to act with other concerns in mind, all involved have to work hard to be sure that they act out of their purest motives in order to get the best possible results. When personal ego or shame get in the way, things can go awry quickly.
In the afternoon panel, two psychiatrists, Drs. Michelle Friedman and Rachel Yehuda, gave an introduction to their book on pastoral counseling. Their opening hypothetical set the tone for the session; they asked the assembled rabbis how they would react if an elderly man, on his deathbed, asked to confess his sins in front of his wife, and then named, as his first and primary one, that he had married the wrong woman.
The ability to avoid prejudging what he meant, to edit out the rabbis’ own personal reactions and to guide the conversation toward a productive outcome for that congregant were overall pieces of advice for the rabbis in much-less-stressful examples as well.
Honoring and Remembering
Mealtimes, aside from being laden with excellent and plentiful food, were for marking passages. R. Barry Kornblau, who worked for the RCA for a dozen years, was honored for all his many services. Shalom Baum, the outgoing president of the RCA, gave his final remarks, and (at a separate meal), R. Elazar Muskin gave his vision of an RCA that focused on aseh tov, doing good, and focused less on identifying ra, which can lead to bickering rather than productive work.
At other meals, R. Jonathan Morgenstern bestowed the Rabbi Jacob Rubinstein Memorial Award on R. Elie Weinstock of Kehillath Jeshurun in Manhattan. Both rabbis spoke about the rabbinate as a way to reach others from all walks of life, to bring them closer to Hashem’s service in a loving, welcoming way.
R. Mitchell Ackerson was honored for his decades of service as a U.S. military chaplain, serving Hashem’s purposes at the same time as he served those of the United States Army. R. Ackerson spoke of the sacrifices of a military career—his longest stretch away from home without a break was for more than a year and a half—but also of the deep satisfaction that comes from a life of contributing at many levels.
Above all else, rabbis care about and are interested in Torah, its study and understanding, and the convention provided multiple opportunities. After R. Feldman’s shiur, there was a Daf Yomi shiur every morning. Tuesday morning saw two members (R. David Hellman of the YI of Brookline, and this author) offer chaburot, joint study sessions. Before dinner, R. Hershel Schachter gave a tour of halachic issues that arise within the shul liturgy, and on the final morning, R. Yona Reiss of RIETS and the Chicago Bet Din spoke about the sanctity of Jerusalem.
That shiur, to mark the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem, was led into by reminiscences of R. Yechiel Wasserman, head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora for the World Zionist Organization. A junior at the time of the Six-Day War, R. Wasserman was in the first cohort of high school graduates to attend the newly founded Yeshivat HaKotel. His recollections of a time when the Old City had almost nothing in it, as compared to what is there today, prepared all the assembled for R. Reiss’ reminders of all the ways that Jerusalem is sanctified.
Closing With Matti Friedman
The program closed with an AIPAC-sponsored discussion with Matti Friedman, the former AP journalist who has made a mark in three distinct areas. He first spoke about his experience with the outsized attention given to Israel by the news media, noting that when he worked for the AP in Israel there were 40 reporters based there while there were eight in China, and that the Middle East conflict refers to the Israeli-Palestinian problem even though there are three hundred million other Arabs in the Middle East.
From there, he moved to less controversial matters—his book on the Aleppo Codex and the subculture of Jews across the world who desperately want to find the missing pages of this Codex (which his research led him to believe still exists), and his memoir of his time in Lebanon, a place he went back to visit on his Canadian passport.
Start to finish, it was a time to see old friends, meet dedicated peers, older and younger, and remember what the rabbinate can be at its finest, and to see those who aim to be sure that it’s that finest foot that the rabbinate puts forward at all times.
By Rabbi Gidon Rothstein