NEW YORK — Calling it a "voice of rabbinic unity," rabbis from throughout the United States and Canada meeting this week in Manhattan proposed a North American Board of Rabbis "with the express purpose of working for the common good and the highest goals of the Jewish people."
Aimed at healing strains between Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism caused by issues such as whether conversions by non-Orthodox rabbis in the United States will be recognized by Israel's Orthodox Rabbinate, the proposed interdenominational board would knit together local groups of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis. The local groups would eventually vote on whether to set up the national board.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the New York Board of Rabbis and one of the movers behind the U.S.-Canadian group, said the sentiment among the rabbis was overwhelmingly in favor of creating dialogue among their groups through a larger body.
Schneier, founding rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, an Orthodox congregation, and Rabbi Ronald Brown of Temple Beth Am in Merrick, a Reform synagogue, came up with the idea of the nationwide group. With a third Long Island rabbi, Jay Rosenbaum of Union Reform Temple in Freeport, and the blessings of the World Jewish Congress and the Council of Jewish Federations, they invited dozens of rabbinic groups to Tuesday's meeting.
More than 30 sent representatives to the day of discussions and panels at the Park Avenue headquarters of Seagram Co. Charles Bronfman, co-chairman of Seagram, is one of three philanthropists, along with Michael Jesselson and Michael Steinhardt, who donated money for the gathering.
Rabbi Lawrence Goldmark of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California described the assemblage as "a tremendously positive group of people who want to make it work."
"Are we going to solve the major problems of Jews worldwide? Probably not. Will the Orthodox and Reform go walking arm in arm after this is over? That's not realistic," said Goldmark, who heads Temple Beth Ohr, a Reform congregation in La Mirada. "But we're able to meet in the same room and respect one another. . . . We're in the tent."
"It was an act of faith on the part of the New York Board of Rabbis to find sponsors and send out invitations. They didn't know if anyone would come," said Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz, president of the Rabbinic Assn. of Greater Miami. "Each of us felt there was a need. The situation within the Jewish community is such that we felt significant steps needed to be taken because there was such pain and polarization."
Chefitz, who described his affiliation as "eclectic," said the rabbis need to begin "tugging and pulling to untie the knots that have us in such a bind."
Michael Balinsky, an Orthodox rabbi from Chicago, said Jews in the United States are so comfortable because of the general lack of anti-Semitism that "sometimes the need to get together gets lost. It's very important for Jews on a religious level to reconnect to one another."