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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.