Rabbis’ Confab To Bridge Denominations

By Steven I. Weiss

Published September 12, 2003, issue of September 12, 2003.
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The founders of an upcoming conference in New York would probably never pray together, but they will study Torah together.

Lishmah, a term used to describe learning Jewish texts for the sake of learning, is the brainchild of 10 rabbis in New York City. The one-day conference featuring numerous sessions of Jewish learning is most noteworthy for a universalist approach that is bringing together a diverse group of Jews who would likely never be seen at a single prayer service.

“If prayer is the way that Jews speak to God, then the study of Torah is the way Jews speak to each other,” says Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, a founder of the upcoming daylong Lishmah conference on Manhattan’s East Side.

With 10 rabbis of different denominations as its founding organizers, Lishmah has assembled a leadership that draws from the major Jewish streams. Conference organizers expect more than 1,000 attendees to its day of learning at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York on September 14. The project is the brainchild of Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox synagogue. Herzfeld got the idea for the conference after he attended Limmud, a similar program launched in Britain during the early 1980s. That conference’s beginnings saw 80 people in attendance its first year and 50 more the next; now, Limmud is a British phenomenon, with numerous miniconferences throughout the year, in addition to a yearly weeklong gathering.

But Herzfeld is quick to note a fundamental difference between his conference and the British one. “Our mission is not the same as Limmud,” he said. Theirs is “an organization that is completely run and founded by the laity,” whereas Lishmah was founded by a group of rabbis.

Not all rabbis, however, are pleased with the conference. According to Herzfeld, two prominent Orthodox organizations refused an invitation to sponsor and participate in the event: Yeshiva University and the Orthodox Union. Both organizations have gained a reputation for failing to connect with others in the Jewish community of late, often for adopting antagonistic approaches to other Orthodox organizations. A spokesperson for Yeshiva University did not return a call requesting comment. Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive director of the Orthodox Union, said that the O.U.’s nonattendance at Lishmah is consistent with a blanket policy of avoiding events at which the O.U. cannot control content, and he expressed chagrin at the attention received by the project. “I don’t understand why everyone is asking about Lishmah,” said Weinreb in an interview with the Forward.

Stern responded to such criticism by listing a number of the conference’s Orthodox presenters. “Shmuel Goldin, Jonathan Rosenblatt and Adam Mintz are among the most important teachers of Torah today,” he said. Mintz, the rabbi of the Lincoln Square Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, has attended the Limmud conference in the past and cites the relevance of interdenominational learning. “I believe that this conference is extremely important,” Mintz said. “Ultimately, we’re united by Torah and by being able to study together.”

Another presenter is Pearl Gluck, an artist most prominently known for her documentary “Divan,” recently screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. She says her presentation will discuss “how a story can bridge gaps between you and your history.” She sees Lishmah as an exercise in “trying to find interconnectivity in the different voices in Judaism,” a way to “use learning as a meeting place.”

One way in which Lishmah achieved such religious diversity was, surprisingly enough, by avoiding religious categories. “Instead of looking for people representing this idea or that idea of Judaism,” says Stern, “we went looking for people who represent different categories — a journalist, an artist, a storyteller and so on.” Ira Stoll, the former managing editor of the Forward who is now the managing editor of the New York Sun, will sit on a panel discussing “The New Language of Anti-Semitism” with Herzfeld, former Manhattan borough president Ruth Messinger and human rights lawyer Kathleen Peratis, no two of which would likely be seen praying together.

Stoll, who is 30 years old, sees particular relevance in the age-focus of the conference. “In general, in the Jewish organizational world, there’s a lot of stagnancy and a lot of decline and death, so whenever people are trying to start something new that involves young people, my tendency is to try to be encouraging and helpful,” he said.

Indeed, a youth-driven focus is a major part of Lishmah, all the founders of which are under 40. Conference organizers note that the event has always been driven by such an approach, from their first meeting at the youth-oriented Makor to the fact that much of the discussion about the conference took place on the Internet.

Still, some criticism of the conference has already surfaced. A recent editorial in the right-wing newspaper, the Jewish Press, decried Lishmah because it will “accord legitimacy to non-Orthodox movements.” Stern would not comment on the editorial directly, choosing instead to focus on the program’s positive mission. “What we’re trying to do here is to create America’s first pan-Torah community where the heritage that unites us speaks, sings and performs far louder than the politics of denominations that divides us,” he said.

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