The right stuff

The right stuff

I’ve been known to sometimes criticize the Modern Orthodox community and its leadership. (Only “sometimes”? some readers might ask. And those readers might be right.)

I do so, however, as a lifelong member of that community. I was educated in Modern Orthodox institutions from first grade through college — HILI, MTA, and YU. (The less said about my freshman year in RJJ the better.) Our children’s education was similar — MDS, Moriah, Frisch, and Midreshet Lindenbaum. I’ve lived only in Modern Orthodox communities — Far Rockaway, the Upper West Side, and Teaneck. The shuls in which I’ve regularly davened — the White Shul, Lincoln Square Synagogue, Bnai Yeshurun, and Rinat Yisrael — also have been Modern Orthodox.

I wrote two articles, “Modern with a Capital ‘M’” (Edah Journal) and “Modern with a Capital ‘M’ – Redux” (the Jewish Standard/TOI), defining what Modern Orthodoxy means to me. And the religious leaders who’ve inspired me throughout the years were mainly Modern Orthodox ones as I understand the boundaries of our broad-tent community — people like (a partial list) Rabbis Yosef Adler, Saul Berman, Yitz Greenberg, Ralph Pelcovitz, Murry Penkower, Emanuel Rackman, Shlomo Riskin, Leonard Rosenfeld, and Jacob J. Schacter, and non-rabbinic leaders like Blu Greenberg.

This is my Jewish community; it is profoundly important to me and an essential part of my self-identification. I care deeply about and love it dearly. Thus, any criticism is meant as an expression of that care and love and should be seen as constructive and hopeful.

But if I want to be intellectually honest as both a Modern Orthodox Jew and a columnist, it’s only fair for me to praise my community and its leadership when they get something right. And in Teaneck, they got it exactly right this past Thursday and Saturday nights at Congregation Bnai Yeshurun.

The issue was the judicial reform legislation that has been convulsing Israel for the past several months. The many Israeli political leaders present in the New York area this past week for our annual Celebrate Israel parade brought that issue to our shores with them. And one of them, MK Simcha Rothman, contacted Rabbi Elliot Schrier of Bnai Yeshurun and asked to speak there and present the coalition’s side of the judicial reform issue.

R. Schrier agreed with two conditions: First, that there also be a separate program for the opposition to present its side of the issue, and second, that rather than an audience Q&A session following the talks, R. Schrier would question the speakers.

This resulted in the two judicial reform programs at Bnai Yeshurun last week. On Thursday evening, MK Rothman, a member of the Religious Zionist Party, chair of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law, and Justice committee, and the author of the initial judicial reform law, spoke to a packed house. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. I did, however, see some videos — no, not of the presentation, but of Israeli protesters outside the shul waving Israeli flags and chanting anti-judicial reform slogans. It looked like Israel except without stopped traffic.

As far as I saw and heard, there were no altercations between protesters and attendees. And the lion’s share of the credit for that — as does the credit for almost everything that went right about these two evenings — belongs to R. Schrier, who managed them with talent and tact, courage and clarity, wariness and wisdom. He sent an email to his congregation (I saw a copy on Facebook) urging all to attend, and asking the attendees to “keep [their] distance from the protesters and not engage them in discussion or debate.” His was a plea to “conduct ourselves with the dignity and respect befitting our Kehillah [Congregation].”  And his plea was heard and civility prevailed.

But there was more. In the very same email he explicitly noted that he “fully respect[ed] everyone’s right to make their voices heard,” and “deeply value[d] freedom of speech and expression.” And perhaps most important, he made the critical point, which he also spoke about from the pulpit during services and at the programs, that important Jewish values that were essential elements of these events included presenting multiple points on a complex issue, embracing civil discourse, and listening to the other side — “central feature[s] of any functioning and thriving democracy.”

What a breath of fresh air in our too often siloed world.

I was, thankfully, able to attend the second presentation. It was delivered by MK Orit Farkash-Hacohen, a member of the National Unity Party, a former Minister of Strategic Affairs as well as other ministries, and one of those in the room where it’s happening in the judicial reform negotiations with President Herzog. The sanctuary was packed again, even though she did not start until after 10:20 on a Saturday night. There were no protesters outside, though the same wasn’t true inside. There, a couple interrupted her presentation twice with cries, in English and Hebrew, of “it’s a lie,” “shame,” and more. The first time R. Schrier promptly and personally warned them that no further interruptions would be tolerated. After the second disruption, R. Schrier, acting with clarity and without ambiguity, had them speedily removed.

Both presentations concluded with R. Schrier single-handedly taking control of the Q&A. He asked thoughtful, clear, articulate, and often piercing questions without rancor or speeches, as would have been the case had it been opened up to the audience. And he asked follow-up questions when responses were, well, unresponsive. That direct answers were avoided the second time around as well was a result of politicians’ expertise in dodging questions they don’t like rather than any deficiency on R. Schrier’s part.

This column is not about the substance of the controversy; reams of newsprint and untold digital bytes have been devoted to that over the past few months. Rather, it’s about an elevated discourse that the residents of Teaneck were privileged to listen to because of a leader who, while young in age — and unlike Rebbi Elazar ben Azariah, in visage — possesses an intelligence and insight that usually come only with years of experience.

When my family first moved to Teaneck in 1984, we joined Bnai Yeshurun. A number of years later we switched to Rinat Yisrael, which we thought better suited our family’s needs, though we retained many connections to our former shul. Yet for the past dozen years or so I haven’t entered Bnai Yeshurun’s building; I didn’t feel comfortable there. This past Saturday night I felt perfectly at ease sitting in its sanctuary, listening to a program arranged and led by its wonderful new rabbi (with whom, as we discovered while chatting a short time ago, I have one degree of separation). I still love Rinat Yisrael and I’m not switching shuls again. But it felt like coming home.

Joseph C. Kaplan, a regular columnist, is a long-time resident of Teaneck. His work also has appeared in various publications including Sh’ma magazine, the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times, and, as letters to the editor, the New York Times.

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