4 rabbis agree to disagree at S.F. Jewish unity forum

The road to Jewish unity was paved with mixed metaphors at a panel discussion last week.

Four rabbis, each representing a different movement, cited everything from the Holocaust to "The Wizard of Oz" in attempting to find common ground. And while many of the 200 participants who attended the Feb. 3 event at the UCSF Laurel Heights Conference Center deemed it a success, it had a rocky debut.

Only after negotiating a maze of endless hallways, each bearing a small piece of paper with the phrase "this way to Jewish unity," and a long flight of stairs could one find the "Forum on Jewish Unity," which was organized by Robert Jaffe and Morton Fleishhacker.

"They want us to be too tired to fight," cracked one audience member. "That's the secret to Jewish unity."

But lethargy was in short supply as both rabbis and audience members proved that no Jewish quibble is unworthy of being turned into a quarrel.

"There is always a fear at events like this," said moderator Andrew Heinze, "that the panel and audience will be one and the same."

Then he scanned the packed house, and commented on how it boded well for the community that there was such a strong turnout. Heinze, who directs the Swig Judaic studies program of the University of San Francisco, also pointed out that the four movements represented — Reform, Chassidic, Conservative and Renewal — all are in their relative infancy, having been formed only in the past three centuries.

After a lengthy admonition to respect a seven-minute time-limit, Heinze turned the floor over to the Brooklyn-based head of the Samborer Chassidic movement, Herschel Yolles.

The diminutive rabbi, who stood barely taller than the podium, was led back to the center table so he could be viewed more clearly. "Don't count this as part of my seven minutes," Yolles quipped. Throughout the evening, the rabbi quoted from the Torah and laid down some snappy repartee.

After a non-linear speech laced with Yiddish and Hebrew, the rabbi talked about the historical importance of the Jewish woman, and how vital it was that her role be recognized.

"The Jewish wife has been the backbone of the family, and of Torah studies for centuries," Yolles said. "This is a noble occupation, and is something that cuts across many different schools of thought."

The lone female rabbi on the panel spoke next. Rabbi Pamela Frydman-Baugh, representing Or Shalom Jewish Community, a Renewal congregation in San Francisco, delivered the most personal and emotional talk of the evening. Barely capable of fighting back tears, Frydman-Baugh related how her ordination had brought about great crisis in her family.

Noting that Orthodox members of her extended family refused to discuss her becoming a rabbi, she relayed an anecdote about her uncle, who telephoned the family to talk of his dream. According to the rabbi, her uncle dreamed he saw his mother (Frydman-Baugh's grandmother) dancing with glee.

"Why are you dancing with such happiness?" the uncle asked his mother.

Frydman-Baugh's grandmother, who she said was "murdered in a horrible way" during the Holocaust, responded that she was dancing because "her granddaughter was about to become a rabbi."

After telling the story, Frydman-Baugh implored a clearly moved audience to "look beyond their differences."

"Our people's history has evolved from much pain," she added. "We owe it to each other to explore ways of resolving the issues that separate us."

Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Reform Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco echoed Frydman-Baugh's comments.

"Jews love to fight," Pearce said. "The Talmud is made up of fights. In fact, it's good for the Jews to fight and struggle over the issues. What we must be really cautious against is letting our internal struggles cloud the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is that anti-Semitism is again on the rise."

Glancing at Frydman-Baugh, he said, "As history tells us, when the hate-mongers come for us, they won't make a distinction as to what movement we belong to."

The last speaker of the evening, Rabbi Alan Lew of San Francisco's Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom, said the four movements resembled a dysfunctional family, staggering down the yellow brick road toward Oz.

"This movement is accused of having no brains, this one of having no body, this one of having no heart, this one of having no soul. The question is," said Lew, wiping his brow, "where is the fine line between disagreeing with each other and demonizing each other? When do we focus on the positives, and not the negatives?

"When do we praise the Orthodox movement for its passion, the Reform movement for its openness, the Conservative movement for its intellectualism and the Renewal movement for its spirituality?"

After Lew concluded, the panelists took questions from the audience. The only answer they unanimously agreed on was about making kosher food available at all Jewish events, so observant Jews wouldn't feel excluded.

Many of the questions involved the thorny issue of interfaith marriage. The audience seemed to be evenly divided on the subject, with neither side hesitating to audibly disparage contrasting viewpoints.

During concluding remarks, all four rabbis expressed hope that the discussion would engender continued dialogue. Two similar events are planned in Berkeley and San Rafael.