Report Back: Hope Not Fear

Standard

cong-beth-elohim

[H/t to Flesh is Grass for encouraging me to post a write up of this event]

I recently attended a talk by Edgar Bronfman and Beth Zasloff at Congregation Beth Elohim. The event was held in the sanctuary. Since it has been under construction for a while I had never seen the inside. Take a look:

congregation_beth_elohim-sanctuary

The focus of the discussion was Bronfman and Zasloff’s recent book, Hope Not Fear. I have not had an opportunity to read the book but the description sounded interesting:

After a lifetime of fighting the persecution of Jews, Edgar M. Bronfman has concluded that what North American Jews need now is hope, not fear. Bronfman urges North American Jewry “to build, not fight. We need to celebrate the joy in Judaism, even as we recognize our responsibility to alleviate suffering and to help heal a broken world. We need to understand Judaism as a multi-faceted culture as well as a religion, and explore Jewish literature, music, and art. We need to understand our tradition of debate and questioning, and invite all to enter a conversation about our central texts, rituals, and laws. We need to open our book anew, and recreate a vital Judaism for our time.”

Through a reexamination of important texts and via interviews with some of the leading figures in Judaism today, Bronfman outlines a new agenda for the Jewish community in North America, one that will ensure that Judaism grows and thrives in an open society. He calls for welcome without conditions for intermarried families and disengaged Jews, for a celebration of Jewish diversity, and for openness to innovation and young leadership. Hope, Not Fear is an impassioned plea for all who care about the future of Judaism to cultivate a Jewish practice that is receptive to the new as it delves into the old, that welcomes many voices, and that reaches out to make the world a better place.

The sound was very low but I was in the third row so I was able to make out what they were saying. Rather than a formal presentation, this was a conversation between the authors and Rabbi Andy Bachman.

Rabbi Bachman’s questions moved between biography, philosophy and action. Why was Bronfman drawn to this topic? How can one be Jewish and not believe in God? How are his ideas received in the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox communities? Why does he think we are experiencing a Jewish renaissance?

I am especially moved by Mr. Bronfman’s perspective on intermarriage:

At one time in my life, I thought that the high intermarriage rate was just awful. Then of course you start to think further, and, slowly, if you meet enough people who are thinking differently, like those I write about in my book, you begin to learn that this could be an opportunity; not the end of the world but maybe the beginning of a new path. We need to change the attitude and education of Jews. Instead of trying to force them to fall out of love with someone, let us try to help them fall in love with Judaism.

As most regular readers know my wife and I are an intermarried couple. She is Hindu. Intermarriage is a big concern in both communities. Not at all Jewish congregations (Rabbi Bachman married my wife and I) nor at all Hindu temples (we had our ceremony in Chennai officiated by a pandit from the Arya Samaj). Nevertheless, it is still a highly contentious issue.

Unfortunately I some of Mr. Bronfman’s answers a bit vague. For example, Bronfman wants to create a more inclusive Jewish community (who would disagree with that?). Yet he provided no concrete examples on how to achieve this beyond a vague call to challenge the divisions of the denominational system. I suspect there is more on this issue in the book but I still wish he had let the audience know of successful endeavors in this regard.

Another thing, in place of the synagogues that exist in America today, he would like to see much more small-scale local synagogues rather than large congregations. While he did not mention it, I think this is how things are in Israel. It seems like every neighborhood has a synagogue and some have more than one. But a big difference between Israel and the U.S. is the majority of the population is Jewish in Israel. Therefore it makes sense to have lots of small shuls. Here in the U.S., the Jewish population is generally spread out. The shul is a place to bring the people together and foster a sense of community. Yes, there are large concentrations of Jews in neighborhoods like Borough Park but that is far and away a minority situation in the U.S.

I still plan on reading the book and may post a review at some point.

Advertisements

One response »

  1. Very interesting. I like the intermarriage position. As for the alternative route to conservation, falling in love with Judaism, that’s very complicated.

    I have to say, having been part of a community in a new town which met in a building which smelt of rotten mops and had a corrugated roof, that the space in which you meet is important. The beauty of Beth Elohim, and the atmosphere which it effortlessly creates, must be a big draw. Small communities can’t afford a Beth Elohim, though. And there needs to be something beyond the magic of the surroundings too. Without God, Judaism becomes a matter of living and passing on traditions. I’m not sure what would attract me to this – I’d feel too self-conscious and funny about it. Because of this I tend to think that it’s better to raise your family in a big community – live in Brooklyn, or Israel, or North London, where it’s all going on around you as a naturally occurring thing, and you can start your reflections on Jewishness with certain things taken for granted. But that’s only me.

    Slight tangent – I went to a christening last summer and almost the first thing the vicar said was that if the children wanted to play during the service, that would be fine. I thought that was exactly right – they had a ball running round the font and the atmosphere was positively festive. Never seen the like.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s