This week, I had the honor of attending the General Assembly meeting of the Jewish Federations of North America as a Wexner Graduate Fellow. My fellowship cohort is composed of 20 Jewish leaders from different denominations and career paths. We are rabbinical students attending Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and non-denominational schools; we are Jewish professionals and Ph.D students. We reflect the great diversity and complexity of the Jewish community today. The Federation “GA,” as it’s commonly called, provided a unique backdrop to highlight the pluralistic reality of both my Wexner cohort and the North American Jewish community.
As a student in HUC-JIR’s rabbinical program, I was proud to be represented by URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who was selected as the Scholar in Residence for this year’s GA in Baltimore. Rabbi Jacobs addressed thousands of GA participants, who attend this yearly gathering for reasons as diverse as their backgrounds. Highlighting the issues that speak to my passions and current events, he challenged us to broaden our discourse on Israel, specifically regarding women’s rights and religious pluralism. Honoring Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall, he called on GA attendees to carefully consider “why this holy Jewish site run[s] like an Orthodox synagogue…Why can’t there be space and time for both egalitarian prayer and for more traditional forms of prayer?”
My Wexner cohort listened (and tweeted) as Rabbi Jacobs’ words transcended denominational and institutional affiliations. Using the image of an eruv, a legal boundary that allows traditional Jews to carry items on Shabbat, Rabbi Jacobs spoke about the need for mutual respect among all Jews. He cited a story of an Orthodox colleague who celebrated when the community eruv was expanded to include Jacobs’ Reform synagogue; this allowed the Orthodox worshipers to comfortably attend b’nai mitzvah in the Reform congregation. As Jacobs explained to the GA attendees,
…this is precisely one of the great strengths of the big communal tent cast by Federation social services and by our Jewish Community Center system. Not every stream can and will draw the Eruvim of our community in the same place. But the lesson is clear: the broader we can draw these boundaries and can find vibrant Jewish experiences that can engage all of klal Yisrael in a richer Jewish life, the stronger the Jewish people will be.
My experiences with my Wexner cohort resonate with Jacobs’ message to the GA. I deeply value the conversations prompted by our divergent Jewish backgrounds. They are always a source of self-reflection, learning, and growth. Further, I appreciate the productive discomfort that emerges when our religious practices overlap and even conflict. A microcosm of the Jewish future, we represent the limits and potential of the broader Jewish community. We are also individuals who have personal, meaningful relationships with each other, enabling us to have those difficult conversations today, tomorrow, and twenty years from now as leaders of our respective congregations. As Rabbi Jacobs affirmed, “We Jews are one, but we are not the same, and that is our strength.”
May we go from strength to strength on our path to unity and understanding.
Liz Piper-Goldberg is a third-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York and a Wexner Graduate Fellow. She is a former legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center, has interned at the URJ, and currently represents HUC-JIR on the Commission on Social Action. This post originally appeared on the Union for Reform Judaism blog at http://blogs.rj.org/blog/2012/11/14/a-rabbinical-student-at-the-ga-transcending-affiliations/