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October 2, 2014 | 8th Tishrei 5775

Pluralism Snapshots

August 5, 2001
Marc Rosenstein


I.
Often Israeli groups touring in the area order lunch in our dining room; and often the tour guide asks us to give a brief talk about our community, over the coffee and cake. This ten-minute talk usually includes three topics: the history of Shorashim, from its founding by a group of North American immigrants as a moshav shitufi, a collective moshav, through its privatization and transition to a non-collective community; what it means to be a Masorti/Conservative community; and the nature of our relations with our Palestinian Arab neighbors. The responses and questions are generally sympathetic, though occasionally we get challenged either on our liberal religious outlook or on our optimism about Arab-Jewish coexistence. So I was prepared, when addressing a group of retired civilian employees of the police department, for the challenge of a Yemenite grandmother in flowered print dress and white kerchief, who asked: “Do you mean to say that in your synagogue men and women sit together just like we are sitting in this restaurant?” “Yes,” I answered calmly. “And are you saying that if you have nine men and one woman in synagogue, that is a minyan for you?” “Well, yes,” I answered, bracing myself, unprepared for what was coming next: “Good for you! It’s about time! Those rabbis think all we are good for is having children! There should be more places like this!”

II.
A group of ultra-orthodox families are vacationing in our hostel, most of them French immigrants. We are doing our best to meet their needs; they are doing their best not to be too demanding. On the last day, one of them asks for an explanation of Conservative Judaism. I try to give a brief summary of the differences among the movements. “Let’s be specific,” he asks, “What about family purity (mikvah)? Do you observe it?” “Well, first I have to say that there is a gap between the movement’s official position and what most people actually do...” “I know, I know,” he said, “It’s the same with us! I understand that; I just want to know what the movement requires...”

III.
A bar mitzvah at Shorashim. The extended family are gathered from around the country and even from abroad. Grandpa, whose traditional sensitivities the family respects by not putting any women on the list of aliyot (those called to recite Torah blessings); the ultra-orthodox aunt, who won’t enter the synagogue but listens to the proceedings through the open door; the secular teenage cousins in their skimpy halter tops, who don’t see any reason to take a prayerbook. Everybody finds a place. Nobody is angry. The entire spectrum of religious ideology is somehow brought into a temporary harmony by human bonds that are more powerful than ideology. We are one - at least until lunch is over.

IV.
A group of 11th grade girls from a an orthodox high school, brought by their teacher to learn about The Other. After I give my “on one foot” summary of the development of and differences among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, many are upset, and eager to challenge me: “But if every individual - or every congregation - can just do what is meaningful for them, can just interpret the law however they want, there will be no more law and no more Jewish people...” “Can someone explain to me, then, why half of you are wearing skirts and half are wearing jeans?” “That’s because our rabbi says women can wear trousers, and theirs says they have to wear skirts.” To me, it seems that the case is closed. But somehow I don’t think they get it.

 

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