Friday, April 27, 2012

The Speech that Saved Orthodox Judaism in Omaha

On Sunday I drove three hours to Kansas City to attend the funeral of Rabbi Dr. Gil Shoham.  Rabbi Shoham's daughter Cynthia now lives in Omaha so I had the great privilege of getting to know him over the last few years.  
In December of 1995 Rabbi Shoham saved Beth Israel Synagogue.  Since 1951 Beth Israel had functioned as an Orthodox congregation with mixed seating.  When their beloved Rabbi of over 25 years, Rabbi Isaac Nadoff, passed away the shul was told that they would have to install a mechitza if they wanted another Orthodox Rabbi.  This decision threatened to tear the congregation apart.  Rabbi Shoham was a professor of philosophy in Kansas who had filled in for Rabbi Nadoff in the past.  One winter night he drove all the way to Omaha to give a speech to the entire congregation.   
I have a recording of his speech which I recently transcribed for posterity.  It is my honor to present that speech which remains as relevant today as it was 20 years ago. 
May his memory be a blessing and his legacy live on in his children, grandchildren, and all of the people whose lives he touched.

Words of Introduction
Firstly I want to say good evening to you all. Many of you I have known from previous occasions here. I want to clarify the capacity in which I am here. I have no institutional affiliations whatever to put forward. I am a member of the RCA by virtue of my prior experience and a member of an Orthodox congregation, BIAV, in Kansas City. But professionally I am not involved in the rabbinate. I don't make a living from it and I owe no allegiance to any organization with which I would feel obliged to put forth a program of a national organization.
On the other hand my credentials as a rabbi are no worse than anyone else’s. I am a graduate of yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan (YU), I was a student of Rav Yoshe Bear Soloveithcik, and I have a fair secular education. I teach in the University of Missouri Kansas city.
I have no concern about my livelihood or my status or what people will say about what I do or don't say so I don't mind if you record this and I don't feel apprehensive about anything I might utter here this evening.

Before we approach the delicate issues that we are confronted with I am asking you to bend over backwards and to put yourselves in the other person's shoes. The older folks see what the concerns of the younger people are and the younger folks see what the concerns and needs of the older folks are and see what our perspectives and needs are. Let us respect one another's needs and see how we can accommodate each other without undermining our own interests. That is my ultimate objective.
So with all those introductory remarks, perhaps superfluous, I will give you some background as to what I understand the issues here to be.

External Issues
Firstly the issues you have to deal with here are of external origin and internal origin. With regards to the external origin they have to do with the relationship of Beth Israel with the UOJCA (Union of Orthodox Jewish congregations).
This is an orthodox congregation, it is in your charter, and the UOJCA has certain standards for Orthodox congregations, and apparently the union of Orthodox congregations is not entirely satisfied with the mode of operations that you have here now.
The rabbinical council of America, which is a rabbinic not a synagogue organization, which functions in conjunction with the synagogue organization, has certain standards, and its membership has its standards and behaviors to respect as well.
So the problem is of external origin in that it deals with the Synagogues relationship with the UOJCA and it also deals with the apparent reluctance of recent rabbinic graduates of Orthodox yeshivot to serve in mixed seating congregations. So that is a problem that you have. An institutional problem. It is not even a theological problem. You want to have an Orthodox Rabbi and the recognized orthodox institutions and their staff people will not serve you unless the congregation has separate seating.

Internal Issues
Then you have problems of internal origin. Having to do with on the one hand the genuine commitment of some families to the requirements of Orthodox ritual requirements to separate seating in the synagogue and the inclination of many of the members to maintain the status quo.
And then of internal origin is also the concern for the children of the community. The Jewish status of children particularly of parents who have converted to Judaism. How will they be accepted in Israel? Will their conversion papers be accepted? Upon what authority will those issues be resolved? So those are genuine issues that drive the discussion in the congregation.

Orthodox Judaism's Shift to the Right
Now let's look at first the matter of external origin. The relationship with the UOJCA.
Many of us older folks remember during the 50s 60s and 70s there was never an issue brought to our attention about the fact that we have an orthodox rabbi and we have a mixed seating congregation.
It was accepted in the OU and in the traditional world that such congregations had Orthodox rabbis in their pulpits and they maintained other standards of Jewish practice, that there would not be any question of their status. It was never brought up.
In the last 10 of 15 years the OUJCA began to bring this issue to the floor. And one has to look at the reasons for this to understand it. The reasons may or may not be relevant but at least they are interesting and it is worthwhile understanding. Why is it that the UOJCA suddenly is concerned and preoccupied with the issue of the minutiae of Jewish observance when it pertains to Jewish observance in so far as it pertains to the seating arrangements in a Jewish place of worship, in contrast to the practice of 20 or 30 years when this was never brought to question?

Firstly, we are subject as Heinrich Heinrich said, if the general hot climate, the religious climate in the dominant community affects the religious attitudes of the Jewish community as well.
Generally worldwide there is a fundamentalist orientation in the religious climate and that applies to the Jewish world as well. There has been a rightist orientation in Jewish life and it has affected Jewish behavior, Jewish thinking, some of you may be familiar with the inclination for rabbis to be machmirim. Young people to be machmirim. The chumra of the week. What does that mean? It means to be more stringent. If there is a question of whether something is permitted or not it is considered more exemplary to take the negative approach then the lenient view. This is a relatively recent phenomenon. Certainly not characteristic of the way I grew up, or my practice in the Rabbinate.

Cultural Reasons
There are cultural and sociological factors that might be worthwhile to consider in detail. My generation, I grew up in the 30s, I was born in 1930s. My parents were immigrants to this country. The first language that I ever heard was Yiddish. When I went to day, what you call day school - Yeshiva - the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, I studied Chumash in translated into Yiddish. I conversed in Yiddish. I am not trying to impress you with my linguistic abilities. I am trying to suggest to you that my association with Judaism was cultural. It was internalized not through stuff that I read in books. It was internalized through my household, my mother's kitchen, through the streets.  I grew up in a ghetto. There were not any gentiles living on my street.
And that is how I internalized Jewish life. It was perfectly natural. I didn't even have to go to school to learn it. Although obviously what I practiced was reinforced by what I studied at school.
My parent's generation and my generation were not so much concerned with identifying jewishly. We were identified jewishly. We did not have any problems knowing who or what we were jewishly. Our mouths spoke yiddishisms. That was not our problem. Our problem was to be accepted in general American scene. We were a greener, we were children of geena, and we wanted to be Yankees. So as I grew up and practiced in the rabbinate my primary function was to try and make Jewish values and standards and behavior acceptable in the American scene because we wanted to be good American’s as well.

The folks that are raising their kids today, that is not their problem because they are Yankees. They are not members of a minority anymore. They are accepted on the American scene just like anyone else. Jews are not a minority anymore so they don’t have the minority complex of being accepted as Americans. But their concern is how to identify as Jews. Nobody had to teach us how to identify as Jews. We learned it at our kitchen table. But the younger folks here who are third and fourth generation, they don't know how to identify as Jews. Because they did not get it from the street, most of them did not go to day school, they did not get it from their friends, and they did not get it from the dominant culture, where are they going to get it from.
So their concern is how do we identify as Jews?
So what we took for granted they have to fight for. They have to search for. They have to grovel for. They have to find a way of learning why and how to be Jewish because they did not have the advantage that we had of European parents or of growing up in ghettos or of internalizing this from the street.

Economic / Political Reasons
So we have to understand that. Now there is another factor which is very mundane which is crass in a way but you have to understand that as well.
The UOJCA at one time was primarily dependent upon the support of congregations to sustain itself.  It had one or two hashgachas.  Since I was a kid, Heinz 57 had a UO.  Between Heinz and a few other hashgachas and the shuls that paid their membership dues the UOJCA was able to function.  Now, my dear friends, the kashrus business is big business, big business.  And the UOJCA relies heavily for their income on their hashgacha.  And any blemish on their kashrus endorsements can be seriously undermining of their economic viability.  So they have to protect themselves against any possible challenge to their impeccable credentials in being able to certify something is kosher.  So if Rabbi Chaim yankel can come and say to the UOJCA, “you are going to tell me that such and such is kosher?  How can you tell me that if you have non-kosher synagogues in your organizations?”  So the UOJCA has to come down on its, quote, non-conformist congregations.  Nobody is going to admit this and nobody is going to assert this but that is an economic reality as well.  It all feeds into the big picture. 

Jewish Status
Finally the question of Jewish status.  How can we assure that the status of our family as Jews will be accepted universally, particularly by the Israeli rabbinate?
Now the process of establishing the civil status of Jews by the Israeli rabbinate is fluid and at times highly subjective.  The Israeli rabbinate works in conjunction with the RCA and it is a symbiotic relationship.  The RCA supports the Israeli Rabbinate and its position and its power in Israel which is to the advantage of the Israeli rabbinate.  The Israeli rabbinate in turn supports the RCA in America by identifying it and regarding it as the sole determinant of the status of Jews in the United States.  So if you want to establish the civil status of a Jew as a Jew in America then it has to be done in conjunction with the RCA.  That is sine qua non.  That too is a reality. 
So with the endorsement of the RCA, acts of civil status by the enactment of the Rabbi would be accepted in the absence of any complications introduced in another corner. 
Very frankly, this means as follows.  If you have a rabbi in this congregation and he is a member of the Rabbinical Council of America, and he asserts that someone was divorced or married or converted or is Jewish and he attested this fact, as a member of the RCA he sends a communication to the Israeli rabbinate to that effect, in the absence of any complications that will be accepted.  On the other hand, if a Rabbi who you have here doesn’t get along well with some rabbi in Israel and the Israeli rabbinate in Israel asks this rabbi about this rabbi living here, whether he is reliable or not, if the person who is being inquired of says there is some question then they won’t accept him either.  It can become a political issue.  Given all things equal, if you have a rabbi of the RCA attesting to a member of the congregation as to a person’s status that will be accepted.  If he is not a member of the RCA that is questionable.

The Real Issue
That is the background information.
I am somewhat familiar with the congregation and it seems to me that the issue of the separate seating of the congregation is really, although some of you might disagree with me, but fundamentally, I don’t see it as an ideological problem.  I see it as a practical problem.  You want to develop this as a place to impart Jewish values to your families in order to do so you need an affective Rabbi.  One who is dedicated and competent and who will engage in kiruv, outreach. Someone who is highly motivated.  You are not going to pick someone like that off the streets.  You need someone young, someone fresh, someone recently out of Rabbinic school who has done outreach work, that is part of their training today.  And you have to meet a requirement as to how to get such a person.  To get someone in your congregation to be a caretaker rabbi is simply biding your time until the congregation just poops out eventually.  In my estimation, if you want to create a vital group, you have to have a vital active imaginative, creative dedicated, capable rabbi above all before anything else. 
You cannot limit the range from which you are going to choose your men.  You have to keep your options as open as possible.  And I would ask you to forget the ideology.  It is not an issue if it is right or wrong.  I would be comfortable in relying on Rabbi Nadoff’s position regarding seating arrangement whether that is right or wrong.  I don’t think that is the greatest sin to commit.  But the fact of the matter is the reality that you have to deal with is that unless you can get a rabbi sent to you by the RCA who meets the qualifications that you require in your congregation then your congregation is going to falter and the needs of the membership will not be satisfied. 
In my estimation, and I am putting together, encapsulating whatever I know about your congregation, you all have to put your heads together and find some way of accommodating one another’s needs.  There may be ways of doing this.  We discussed some options earlier, but you have to find some way of doing this.
Again, it is not an ideology.  It is not that those who want the mechitza are bigger tzaddikim than those that don’t. 
It has nothing to do with that.  You are all fine people.  You are all dedicated Jews.  You all love your congregation.  You have to find a way to work this out together without ranker, without excessive disputations; try to understand one another’s needs. 
Any questions?


  1. Amazing speech! Thank you for posting!

  2. P.S. The word at the end should be transcribed as "rancor," not "ranker." Feel free to delete this comment after you fix the typo. If you care to.

  3. thanks. Transcribing gives me a head ache!!!

  4. the word "affective" should be "effective" in the section THE REAL ISSUE.

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