[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:
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.