New group hopes to foster unity among U.S. rabbis

The current disagreement over the Jewish character of Israel has exacerbated long-developing tensions between Orthodox and liberal Jews in the United States.

"The American Jewish community is crying out for a voice of rabbinic cooperation, not conflict; one of devotedness, not divisiveness," Schneier said in an interview.

While Jewish unity is a mom-and-apple-pie issue for leaders of the Jewish community, the idea has proven much easier to endorse than to accomplish.

The Synagogue Council of America was a venerable, 70-year-old umbrella group of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis and laity that died in 1995.

That group, with a similar mission to this new one, collapsed in part for financial reasons after some Orthodox participants decided they were no longer interested in this form of interdenominational dialogue.

Nonetheless, Schneier is confident that NABOR, the new group, will succeed where the Synagogue Council failed.

Noting that rabbis already work together on the local level, he said, "We already have the microcosms throughout the country. We're looking for a macrocosm."

Others are hopeful, too.

"This stands a chance because those participating come unencumbered by institutional baggage," since they are there as individual rabbis, rather than delegates from their movements, Rabbi Henry Michaelman of New York, the longtime director of the Synagogue Council, said as the new group got under way this week.

"The Synagogue Council collapsed because it lacked a strong central office willing to engage day and night in shuttle diplomacy" between the Orthodox and liberal movements, he said. "This organization will have to do that, too, to work."

Yet others have questioned the value of adding a new organization to the alphabet soup of Jewish institutions, particularly at a time when those already in place are struggling financially.

"To go and try and organize a pan-American board of rabbis is unacceptable," said the executive of one major centrist Orthodox group, who asked that his name not be used. "You're not going to paint with one brush a ganz [whole] America.

"There are enough organizations already. To spend needed resources is a waste," he said.

Schneier disagrees. "We could serve as a paradigm of rabbinic unity at a time when people are looking for this. Our very existence could rally the Jewish community," he said.

The kickoff dinner, held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, included as guests Martin Kraar, executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, and Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which were the conference's co-sponsoring organizations.

The conference was funded by philanthropists Charles Bronfman, Michael Jesselson and Michael Steinhardt; each contributed over $16,000 to fly in rabbis from communities large and small and from each of the major Jewish denominations.

They came from Omaha and Kansas City, St. Louis and Portland, Maine. They came out of curiosity — and hope, said those interviewed.

"I came to compare notes as to what other boards of rabbis are doing," said Reform Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, based in Los Angeles.

The L.A. board has 250 members from all of the four denominations, "men and women, gays and straights, everybody together," Goldmark said with pride.

Orthodox Rabbi Joseph Weiss, chairman of the rabbinic council in Pittsburgh, said he came to New York "to find out just what's going on. To present a unified voice is possible, but it's not an easy course."

For Reform Rabbi Paul Cohen, head of the 1-year-old Maine rabbinic organization, which is based in Portland, "What's intriguing is choosing to focus on ways that we can be together in community, rather than following the trend of looking at who's not there.

"Whatever we can do to enhance relationships is a good thing."

That thought was echoed by many others present.

"Anything fostering cooperation is good," said Conservative Rabbi Neil Sandler, one of three rabbis in Des Moines, Iowa, a community of about 3,000 Jews.

The reality in many communities is that rabbis of all denominations work closely together — most often to organize community-wide celebrations for Holocaust Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day, but also on other matters of local interest.

Exactly what's next for the new NABOR is not yet clear. The question of funding looms particularly large.

"I have no idea" where future funding where come from, said Schneier. "I just believe there are enough people in the Jewish community who will embrace this organization and be supportive."