Dozens of hands shot up last Tuesday night the moment Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz opened the floor to audience questions. In person and on Zoom, roughly 100 people attended Valley Beit Midrash’s (VBM) panel “Can the Phoenix/Scottsdale Community be United?”
With so many raised hands, Yanklowitz resorted to asking for a rapid-fire round of questions before he had to cut them off, allowing the panelists a brief chance to answer before making a final statement.
By that point, the panel — charged with talking about what divides Jews and what, if anything, can be done — had lasted nearly two hours, but it was clear that people had more to say. Three decades after the famed English Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks called the notion of Jewish unity “deceptively simple” and suggested the idea was more “a myth, perhaps, rather than a reality,” in his book “One People? Tradition, Modernity, and Jewish Unity,” the possibility of unifying Jews still draws a crowd.
Between those who attended the event and the people who have since watched the recording on VBM’s YouTube and other social media channels, Jews are expressing a hunger to hear more on this topic, which was VBM’s main goal.
In 1993, Sacks wrote specifically about schisms in Judaism brought on by modernity, between Reform and Orthodox, religious and secular, Israel and the Diaspora.
Yanklowitz, VBM’s president and dean, suggested a few more issues that divide Jews today, including political leanings, financial competition, physical distance, perspectives on Israel, moral priorities, visions for a Jewish future, even food choices. “And sometimes, perhaps, our egos,” he added.
For the first in what Yanklowitz hopes will be a series of conversations, he brought together four community leaders, representing the three main branches of Judaism and the leader of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy of Greater Phoenix (CJP).
Richard Kasper, CJP’s CEO, Orthodox Rabbi Pinchas Allouche of Scottsdale’s Congregation Beth Tefillah, Conservative Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin of Phoenix’s Beth El Congregation and Reform Rabbi John Linder of Paradise Valley’s Temple Solel sat on the dais together — from left to right — to kick off a discussion about fractures in the Jewish community and possible solutions.
CJP’s focus is on supporting the community rather than unifying it, Kasper offered in response to Yanklowitz’s query regarding whether unity should even be a goal.
While unity is something to aim for, it is important to set the community’s sights on something achievable, Kasper said.
“We want everyone to have an opportunity to live a meaningful Jewish life in our community; however they define that,” he said.
All of the panelists at some point highlighted diversity as a strength of the Jewish community and something to be embraced.
Allouche started by defining Judaism as a large and diverse family.
“Maybe the goal should not be unity, but should be harmony, almost like a symphony, where I’ll play the violin, and another the piano and someone else the drums and we can play together and recognize that there is indeed beauty in diversity.”
Two audience members, however, challenged the panelists on the idea that the entire Jewish community valued diversity. One raised the exclusive policies of Israel’s new government toward LGBTQ Jews and asked how she, someone who had lived in Israel and considered it her home, could still view it as such when her own gay child was no longer welcome.
Allouche said it’s a “travesty that Israel is relating to the gay community as it is at this stage.”
Addressing her concerns, he recounted visits to France, his home country, saying he often feels unwelcome there because of being visibly Jewish but that he would not consider himself any less French than any other French citizen.
“My connection with France is deeper than that. And I would even dare say that my connection with Israel is even deeper than that. Hopefully, that brings a perspective that can give you comfort.”
Another audience member identified as a gay Jew of color, who finds his Judaism continually questioned in Jewish spaces said, “We don’t all look the same.”
The panelists all acknowledged these were troubling realities. Linder called it “a mountain of an issue.” Kasper stressed the need “to create a climate where people feel welcome,” and Stein Kokin said it should be a priority to “honor the dignity of our fellow human beings.”
Israel kept popping up as something dividing Jews, especially since new government players there, such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, have made it clear that the Orthodox interpretation of Jewishness is the only legitimate one.
Linder called it “the most complicated issue that pushed the envelope for the Jewish people,” and pointed to the recent protests against Israel’s new government that drew an estimated 80,000 Israelis to the streets.
Stein Kokin intends to keep “knocking on (Israel’s) door” to fight these policies and called recognizing women as fully legitimate prayer partners her “red line.”
Still, whatever the political happenings in Israel, “as a Jew, I need to grapple with it and educate myself, and we need to talk to each other and not just walk away, but really engage this issue, even though it can be painful,” she said.
"Israel is the spiritual home of the Jewish people,” Allouche said, arguing that it “belongs to every Jew. We have to divorce the politics from the home, which is ours. I agree that everyone should find some way of a connection to Israel in their own way.”
One audience member raised two points specific to the local Jewish community: There should be a single rabbinic board and a single Jewish communal high school.
Greater Phoenix has two rabbinic boards, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Greater Phoenix for the Orthodox and the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix for Conservative, Reform and community rabbis.
As a representative of the latter board, Linder invited Allouche to a meeting as a first step to resolving the schism. Allouche said that while there are strong personalities on both sides, he would do his best to show up and bring others to the table.
He said that labels are the enemy of unity and welcomed “the day in which we, as Jews, move past the denominational labels that exist because a Jew is a Jew.”
In putting together the panel, Yanklowitz said it was important to have an Orthodox representative but that it is challenging to find Orthodox rabbis who will sit down formally with non-Orthodox rabbis.
There are two Jewish communal high schools in Scottsdale, Nishmat Adin High School and The Oasis School.
Allouche clarified that Nishmat Adin is a community-wide school open to all denominations and said it is not Modern Orthodox. He was surprised by the question and told Jewish News that it “was based on rumors.”
The panelists put forward proposals about specific steps to be taken towards unity: creating more Jewish communal spaces, more Hebrew education, financial support to overcome costly barriers of entry to Jewish life and possibly replicating the model developed by Rabbi Elana Kanter’s Women’s Leadership Institute to foster Jewish leaders.
Yanklowitz admired the willingness of all the panelists to take part, especially since many people ascribe to the theory that it’s dangerous “to rock the boat and talk about Israel and distrust and politics,” he said.
“But unity has to be worked towards with hard work and public conversations and that means we stay in the room together even when hard conversations are happening.” The challenge is with those who are not willing to show up to the conversation at all, he said.
A follow-up to this event could include rabbis, community leaders and lay people "to find out what might be needed and start putting something new in place as a pluralistic communal effort," Stein Kokin told Jewish News.
A few younger people in the audience told Jewish News that the panel provided an opportunity they couldn’t pass up to voice their concerns on the idea of unity, though they thought their age cohort was underrepresented. Yanklowitz agreed and planned to set up a panel specifically for Jews in their 20s and 30s.
Elijah Kaplan, Yanklowitz’s brother-in-law from New Jersey, told Jewish News that he was not surprised by any of the topics raised on Tuesday night, and suspected they were all very similar to what Jews in New Jersey are thinking about.
Alan Silberman loved what he heard but was “shocked” by how few people turned out.
“I would have expected 250 people here because it’s such an interesting topic, but there’s a lot of apathy out there,” he said, echoing another audience member’s comment that came up during the Q&A.
“The problem is not that we are not united — the problem is that nobody is showing up.” JN
Jewish News is published by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Phoenix, a component of the Center for Jewish Philanthropy of Greater Phoenix.