Hope for new Jewish unity blossoms in Windy City

NEW YORK — At a time of increasing religious factiousness, a ray of hope has blown in from the Windy City.

The city's two rabbinical organizations — the all-Orthodox Chicago Rabbinical Council and the multidenominational Chicago Board of Rabbis — have jointly issued a statement calling on their respective communities to work together toward understanding and cordial relations.

"We invite our respective communities to join in working toward authentic dialogue," said the statement, which was issued earlier this month. "We do not anticipate resolving the many points of disagreement that separate us, nor is this our goal.

"Rather, we seek to achieve better understanding and more cordial relations among ourselves as rabbis and congregants, rooted in the conviction that the Jewish future is better served when we voice our disagreements to one another, and not to reporters."

It is the first time that the two groups have overcome the clear ideological wall that increasingly impedes Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups from officially working together.

In Chicago, relations have been historically "cool but cordial" between Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, said Rabbi Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis.

His group has 200 members, 20 of whom also belong to the Orthodox Chicago Rabbinical Council, which has 100 members.

Rabbi Menachem Rosenfeld, executive director of the all-Orthodox group, was concerned about the flak his organization might get for cooperating on a public statement with the pluralistic rabbinical body.

"We haven't really sent it out, and have kept it low key," he said. "We were also very apprehensive at the beginning about the possible fallout within" the Chicago Rabbinical Organization.

But "there was not a single dissenting voice. It was a very welcomed step."

Eager to downplay it, though, Rosenfeld said, "The bottom line is that I don't see this as being a major breakthrough. We all know that the Jewish community is one, and we tried to reaffirm that this is what we have to strive for.

"Sometimes we, as rabbis, miss the boat, and we're just trying to refocus."

Orthodox religious groups, in general, no longer work with non-Orthodox groups. Many Orthodox religious leaders also put pressure on the few of their colleagues who are still willing to cooperate with non-Orthodox rabbis to stop.

They say the liberal movements have veered so far from the historically accepted standards of Jewish practice — on the ordination of women, and the Reform movement's acceptance of patrilineal descent and homosexuality — that it has become impossible to sit down at the same table.

It has been at least a decade since the two Chicago bodies were able to meet directly, Youdovin said.

Together, Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis informally study Jewish texts from time to time, Youdovin said, "though it's even harder now than it was five years ago" to get them sitting down at the same table.

Worry grew in Chicago "when the invective being hurled on the national and international levels" between Orthodox and non-Orthodox religious leaders "began to show up in local press with local quotes," he said.