A Groundbreaking Meeting

  • 0

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.roundtable

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.

If you are interested in participating in a future meeting or facilitating a similar meeting in your community please contact me (rabbifink@gmail.com) or Leah (leah7vincent@gmail.com).

  • Eliyahu H

    Maybe you could call it “post-modern orthodox” 🙂
    But seriously, it’s always nice for people to come together, hope good things come out of it…

    • What is post-modern Orthodox?

      • Eliyahu H

        It seemed like you had some trouble defining what kind of orthodox Jew you are… (”members of the (non-Modern Orthodox, non-chasidic, non-Lakewood) Orthodox Jewish community ”), so I thought of that.

        • Oh. Post Modernism means something. And it’s not this! 🙂 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmodernism

          • Eliyahu H

            From the article you linked:
            “Postmodernism includes skeptical interpretations of culture, literature, art, philosophy, history,”
            Almost all of which are things I have seen in your articles about orthodox Judaism. 🙂

            • Ha. Maybe so, but that’s not the worldview of any of the others who were present.

              • Eliyahu H

                Got it.
                Well, good luck!

  • vladimir

    Brave idea. I wish I’d be a fly on the wall… Rabbi, on the picture, aren’t you the one who raised the right hand?

    • yeshivaforum

      I second the fly on the wall idea. I wish it was taped

  • vafsi odr

    Seems team ortho all men team otd all women ???

    • MarkSoFla

      Ms. Chizhik is on the frum side. And Anonymous is probably Ari Mandel (Rachmuna Lezlan), a male on the OTD side.

      • It was not Ari and it’s not useful to try and guess. But it was a man.

  • Hanan

    Question: Other than serious criminal/moral issues like sex abuse, what other issues do OTD even care to discuss with frum leaders? It’s not like they are part of the community nor necessarily care to return to it. You mentioned the unpleasantness of excommunication. What else was there?

    • Noam L

      I was not at the meeting but commend those who were there. When we are willing to sit with others we can connect and be empathic. I’m found in my experiences that those who have felt the need to leave the community often are the most knowledgeable about the areas that need to be worked on, and when conversation occurs there can be understanding.

      There are so many issues that warrant discussion really almost any issue that is being dealt with elsewhere. I can imagine that some might include:
      The method and focus of the education system and the fact that so many struggle
      The financial struggles of living a
      frum lifestyle and how those challenges trickle down to children
      The way religion can be used as an excuse for all sorts of negative behaviors
      SSA and a place for such people within the Jewish community

      • Noam L.

        And Hanan for many who have left, they still have family and friends who are part of the community. They have families whose support they could use and they may simply want to try to help those who are where they were a while ago and that includes a wide range of social issues.

  • NotAJungle

    Very interesting and also very vague 🙂 will there eventually be Lakewood and chassidic voices heard?

  • Moe Ginsburg

    Why wasn’t participation sought or allowed by those who believe much or most of the criticism of the Orthodox community is unwarranted – and that many or most of the items being criticized as being handled incorrectly are in fact addressed properly by the Orthodox community?

  • PG

    There’s a very self-congratulatory tone to this post. And it’s all very hush-hush. If its supposed to be secret – why bother posting about it at all?
    And if you want to share with your readers – why not post the details of the discussion – and let us judge for ourselves how worthwhile the event was?

    Very strange.

  • reder

    I am a chareidi who is probably to the right of rabbi shafran. this is the first time I am reading your blog. I heard about this meeting and wanted to read more about it. I think what you did was fantastic.so much heat gets generated when your knowledge of someone is entirely based on their public statements. I’ve always thought that getting people to sit down and talk together away from the public eye would be a great first step in rebuilding achdus.

  • reder

    awesome. I think that r zev cohen of Chicago would be a great person to approach about being part of your group. He is a charedi and rabbi of a large modern orthodox synagogue. Very well spoken in able to talk to both sides of the topic.

  • binyamin

    it should be noted that two of your rabbis – aharon fink and avi shafran – are sons of shul rabbis from baltimore (technically pikesville) who took shtellers below their stations – shuls where a majority of the congregants were not shomer shabbat – and on a regular shabbat hardly had a minyan of shomrei shabbat

    • Why should that be noted?!

      • binyamin

        when it is an accomplishment when the child of a member of a shul marries a fellow jew, then you learn to appreciate each jew for what he is – not how you want him to be. From what Leah Vincent describes – she would have been accepted with open arms in such a community. Both Avi and Aharon were raised in that envrionment

    • seagul47

      Why is going to a posting/position (shtelle) where people are not necessarily shomer Shabbos beneath you station? If the rabbinate is your “calling” the HK”H will send you where you are needed.
      It is typical of some (too many) frum people not to appreciate Jews who are less observant. A little (maybe a healthy dose) ahavas yisroel would be better.
      I suggest you get yourself involved with something like “Partners in Torah” or some other kiruv work and realize what is out there.

      • binyamin

        I consider what I wrote as the ultimate compliment. i wouldn’t be where i am today were it not for Rabbi Shafran Sr. Shlita and Rebbetzin Shafran Sr Z”l

        • The way it was written made it sound like an insult or at the very least, a way of discrediting them. The way it sounds now, it is indeed a point worth noting. Thank you for clarifying.

  • Emes

    Read the comments on Rabbi Adlerstein’s post of the meeting on Cross Currents. Better than all this nonsense .