Eleven people gathered in Monsey, New York on Sunday night in a meeting that may have been the first of its kind. Leah Vincent and I invited five prominent members of the (non-Modern Orthodox, non-chasidic, non-Lakewood) Orthodox Jewish community and five prominent members of the formerly Orthodox Jewish community to spend an experimental, intimate evening of discussion together.
The structure for the evening called for ten prepared presentations on pre-selected topics of interest in the Orthodox Jewish community. Each speaker identified a problem in the community, its negative consequences, and proposed improvements and solutions. Following each presentation, I moderated a more informal discussion. No one was trying to win over anyone to a specific cause or creed. It was just a conversation. A lot of time and thought went into creating a safe environment and container for this meeting. It would be unwise to just drop everyone in a room without advanced preparation and a specific plan.
For many of the participants, this was their first opportunity to engage with others who were living in the world which they left or to engage with others who left the world in which they live in a meaningful way. People who left Orthodox Judaism were talking with rabbis and influencers in the Orthodox Jewish community. Their criticism was being heard by people who need to hear it. More importantly, the group was not debating the existence of issues, rather the group was working together to identify the problems and discuss solutions. Truly groundbreaking. Prior to this meeting, it was extremely unlikely that anyone who is no longer frum would encounter influential members of the Orthodox Jewish community. At this meeting, however, we came together and experienced the luxury and convenience of face to face conversation. Not only was there interaction, it was the kind of interaction that had utilitarian benefit. Similarly, the influencers in the Orthodox Jewish community rarely seek an opportunity to engage directly with formerly Orthodox Jews. But this meeting was for seekers who want to have that conversation. And we had it.
Going into the evening, I had no idea what to expect. Turns out, I should have expected everything. Some conversations followed predictable patterns, but most did not. The majority of our time was spent really learning from one another. All ten presenters were given an equal platform. No one group was inviting the other group onto its home turf. We truly came together as peers with mutual respect and admiration for one another in an effort to put our hearts and minds together and improve the Orthodox Jewish community. The agenda purposely avoided a discussion about sex abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community. But it is such an albatross that is is an unavoidable conversation. At times, the discussion became very heated. It was not simply those who left the community feeling anger over the lack of direction on this issue, Rabbis were also expressing disgust over the manner in which abuse is handled in our communities. The loudest, most hostile voices sometimes surprised the participants. There were also times where a presenter was finding the language to express the criticism or solution during the presentation. I found that particularly powerful.
In contradistinction to the more common stereotypes and assumptions about each group, we were able to hear first hand from the familiar objects of speculation. We were in the same room, so we had the opportunity for immediate follow up questions. We saw the tenderness in the eyes of everyone present when we tackled some of the more painful subjects. At times, voices were raised and passions were ignited. Other moments were more somber and reflective. Most importantly, everyone journeyed through all of these emotions together.
Generally, there is far too much villainization of the other by these (and many more) groups. But the eleven of us are all friends now. We won’t be villainizing our friends anymore. Too often, those who choose to leave are forced to lose their families, friends, and communities. Losing everything hurts. When people who mean a lot to us are suffering, we are also suffering. And it’s not as if it’s easy for the parents and siblings who cut off ties from their rebellious children.
This encounter built a little bit of a bridge between the two communities. The hope is that this bridge will become stronger and stronger. The group agreed that encouraging isolation and excommunication is not a valid response to rebellion. Our children deserve our love forever, no matter what. But sometimes we get caught up in the moment, or we feel anxiety, and we put up a wall between the two groups. Part of the meeting was spent breaking down those walls. Building bridges took much of the rest of our time.
Over five and a half hours a lot was achieved. Some of the accomplishments were very local and very specific. Other accomplishments were super theoretical and very broad. In my view, the lessons of two major areas were vital. First, I don’t think we can underestimate the value of self criticism. Again, this was not a debate. All ten presenters were expected to be critical of the Orthodox Jewish community. The very first step to improving anything, requires the ability to look beyond natural bias and be unafraid to point out our flaws. This is compounded by the nature of educators and advocates to see the value of their product and not acknowledge any shortcomings. There was plenty of self-criticism. This made me proud.
But perhaps even more powerful, was the genesis of genuine relationships between the entire group. Everyone agreed that the group must reconvene again soon and keep in contact in the interim. A new community was formed. This new community crosses traditional lines and is focused on authentic friendship and partnership. The group is working together despite its differences and hopefully it can serve as a model of a more inclusive Orthodox Jewish community.
I have a feeling that some thoughtful analysis and evaluation will be published online in the near future by some of the other participants. I look forward to reading their impressions and continuing the conversation. Perhaps similar meetings will start cropping up in other communities around the country. The conversation is only just getting started.
Thank you to our inaugural meeting presenters:
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Ms. Avital Chizhik
Rabbi Ron Eisenman
Rabbi Aaron Fink
Ms. Adina Kadden
Mr. Ushy Katz
Rabbi Avi Shafran
Ms. Frieda Vizel
Ms. Leah Vincent
(Rabbi Yakov Hororwitz was instrumental in helping to facilitated the meeting. He was unable to attend simply because of a conflict. Rabbi Horowitz remains part of the team.)
It took considerable effort and commitment for every participant to agree to attend and then follow through. Five and a half grueling hours later, it was clear that this meeting was so invigorating and inspiring that it would be worth navigating challenges 100 times harder.
There was a certain magic at that meeting. It’s the kind of spirit that comes over a group when a lot of energy is being expended towards a virtuous goal. When myths are being shattered and preconceptions are melting away, something special is happening. It was incredible being present to feel the power of the meeting, to taste its inspiration, and hope that this amazing feeling is never going to go away.
A Groundbreaking Meeting http://t.co/eyoM9OB0NU
— Eliyahu Fink (@efink) May 12, 2014