Listening to three local rabbis trying to explain the Bay Area Jewish community to a group of visiting Israelis was like watching a juggling act.
“I’m a Conservative rabbi with Renewal tendencies, neo-Hassidic at heart,” said Rabbi Aubrey Glazer of Beth Sholom.
“I have an Orthodox congregation, but few are observant,” countered Rabbi Joel Landau of Adath Israel.
“We’re in a post-pluralistic time in San Francisco,” piped up Rabbi Noa Kushner of The Kitchen, adding quite unnecessarily, “It’s bananas here.”
The trio was presenting at Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation in San Francisco, to a dozen midcareer Israeli professionals in the Gvanim program, a leadership project sponsored by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation to promote pluralism in Israel. They were on a three-day tour of the Bay Area to see how we do Jewish.
Some of what they heard and saw should be brought back to Israel, the visitors said.
“This term ‘doing Jewish’ is very big here,” said Tehila Elitzur, an Orthodox woman who teaches Midrash and Gemara at women’s seminaries in Jerusalem and the West Bank. “In Israel, most of the population isn’t interested in such questions, and that’s unfortunate. Judaism is something that ‘belongs’ mostly to the religiously observant.”
Other issues of concern in the Bay Area don’t apply to the Jewish state, she noted — like the fear there won’t be a Jewish future. “In Israel, that’s not what we worry about,” she shrugged.
The three local rabbis seemed eager to highlight communal unity rather than denominational divisions. Several of the visitors pressed them to describe their points of difference “beyond the mechitzah,” as one suggested.
It wasn’t a question they wanted to dwell on. “I’m not that interested in the lines between us,” insisted Kushner.
“Most of my congregants would be comfortable at The Kitchen and at Beth Sholom,” said Landau. Asked what drew his admittedly nonobservant crowd to an Orthodox shul, he threw out his arms and sang the opening stanza of “Tradition,” in full Tevye mode.
“We three rabbis have theological differences, but we are friends and we work together. We have more that unites us than divides us.”
The themes in their presentation were familiar to anyone conversant in American Jewish life: post-denominationalism, the search for meaning, the need for Jewish literacy, attachment to Israel, gender equality and — above all — dwindling numbers and the battle to keep Jews Jewish.
Landau likened the American rabbi’s role to that of a lifeguard. “People are drowning, and we can only save so many,” he said. “In terms of numbers, it’s a disaster.”
So why fight it, asked one visitor? Why not just let those Jews who want to leave the community, leave?
That caused the Americans to stop short. Let Jews just walk away? It’s a suggestion that brings heart palpitations this side of the Atlantic, but to most Israelis, it’s not a priority. Israel will continue regardless, they say — why force Judaism on those Jews who don’t want it?
These differing perspectives, as well as the desire to help each other survive and flourish, are what make this sort of cross-cultural dialogue so necessary.
“It’s very important that the Israeli and American Jewish communities talk to each other and keep in close contact,” said Elitzur. “These kinds of visits are crucial to that relationship.”
“You can’t just cut and paste” from the American experience, cautions Yosefa Drescher, director of Masa Chai, which introduces nonobservant Israelis to the beauty of Jewish text. But because today there are two main pillars of Jewish life — Israel and North America — it’s crucial that communal leaders understand and respect each other. “We’re the parents, responsible for raising this Jewish child,” she said referring to the rest of the Jewish world.
The sense of community is something Drescher wishes she could bring home. “We don’t have that in Israel,” she said. “Most Israelis don’t belong to a synagogue. And synagogues in Israel aren’t communities — they’re houses of prayer.
“You might say that talking about bringing Jewish community to Israel is like bringing coals to Newcastle. But it’s not. Jews in Israel need to feel connected, responsible for the place they live. Then they’ll choose to stay.”