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What Ari Roth and Theater J Could Have Learned From the Jewish Conciliation Board

These days, privacy seems to have gone the way of the rotary phone, overtaken by the contemporary yearning for transparency, accountability and the ubiquitous selfie. Under the circumstances, it’s no surprise that conflict — be it domestic or institutional — is increasingly played out in the public sphere. It’s not enough that we now know what goes on within and without the bedrooms of our celebrities. We’re now equally privy to what goes on within and without the walls of our institutions as well.

Consider, for example, the ongoing contretemps at the Washington, DCJCC. For nearly two decades, it housed and hosted Theater J, one of the American Jewish community’s most distinguished cultural venues. Under the innovative direction of its long-term impresario, Ari Roth, Theater J made a point of using the theater arts to provoke and stimulate public conversation about American Jewish identity and, most especially, its relationship to Israel. Nothing wrong with that, you might think.

But for several years now, some members of the American Jewish community have insisted that Theater J’s director has gone too far: By their lights, in staging one after another after another of unabashedly anti-Israel productions, he abandoned any pretext of communal solidarity and, consequently, forfeited the right to Jewish communal funds. Roth’s many supporters, in turn, charged that any concession to Jewish public opinion, any attempt to pull the plug or to rethink the theater’s schedule of performances, not only smacked of coercion but also constituted a woeful violation of artistic freedom.

And so the matter rested, an escalating volley of claims and counterclaims, until a few weeks ago when Ari Roth was told to pack his bags and to leave Theater J forthwith. Taking the high road, the theater director characterized his departure as an expression, pure and simple, of censorship. The DCJCC administration, ably led by the estimable Carole Zawatsky, saw things differently, explaining that its decision to part company with Roth had to do with institutional policy rather than cultural politics: The DCJCC claims that he was no longer one with its broader vision. Acting on the belief that individuals transcend institutions, Ari Roth, it would seem, went one way, the cultural center another.

On and on it goes. What we have here is a classic tale of dueling perspectives, which, sadly, is publicized everywhere — in the press and the blogosphere as well as on the Jewish street; worse still, it shows few signs of abating. Deeply pained by this situation — I count both Zawatsky and Roth as friends and colleagues — I can’t help wondering what might have been, had the participants in this drama been able to avail themselves of the Jewish Conciliation Board of America, an institution that sought to settle internal Jewish disputes amicably, and quietly. But that’s wishful thinking. It no longer exists.

When it did, from the early 1920s through the early 1980s, this “Jewish tribunal” settled “difficulties of an intimately Jewish nature,” or so The New York Times reported. Over the course of its long, if little known, history, the Jewish Conciliation Board, a “court without lawyers, fees or a gavel,” successfully arbitrated nearly 30,000 cases, and at no cost to the litigants. Convening twice a month, an interdenominational panel of rabbis, businessmen and judges — one admirer labeled them “latter-day Solomons” — heard from sparring couples and meddlesome mothers-in law, from aging parents who expected more from their children, and from synagogue employees who expected more from their congregation’s balabatim.

A newfangled form of the age-old bais din, or Jewish court, the organization didn’t rely on the fine points of Jewish law so much as on general principles of Jewish justice, common sense and, most tellingly still, a “Jewish heart.” Under the sensitive leadership of Rabbi Israel Goldstein, its presiding spirit for more than 30 years, the organization dispensed the kind of sagacious, time-honored advice which, related former U.S. Attorney Charles Tuttle, “made Anglo-Saxon and European civil courts seem young and tainted with the nouveau spirit of modernity.”

Those who appeared before the Jewish Conciliation Board — a largely immigrant clientele, at first — did so without benefit of counsel. Lawyers, it was widely believed, tended only to get in the way. The quarreling parties were also asked in advance to sign a document in which they agreed that the board’s decision was not only binding but also enforceable in civil court. Somehow, this attempt to nip things in the bud before they became too hot to handle actually worked: Injustices were corrected, salaries replenished, families reconciled and shalom bayis restored.

The Jewish Conciliation Board was by no means the only Jewish court of record in town. The Orthodox community had, and continues to have, its own, and multiple, batei din. Those of a more secular cast of mind, meanwhile, could turn to “Rabbi Rubin’s Court of the Air,” a weekly radio program broadcast on WEVD and other Yiddish radio stations during the late 1930s through the mid-1950s. Rabbi Shmuel Aaron Rubin, who singlehandedly directed the Jewish American Board of Peace and Justice, sought to take the sting out of family feuds by having the disgruntled parties appear before him and, quite literally, air their anger. You can hear for yourself how successful he was in defusing tension (“Should I Take Him Back?”) by tuning in to the Yiddish Radio Project, where a select number of broadcasts has been preserved.

I’m not sure whether Rabbi Rubin or the Jewish Conciliation Board would have been able to resolve Roth v. DCJCC. The stakes are too high, perhaps; the two camps much too far apart. Still, it would be comforting to think that an approach that placed a premium on mediation rather than the media might have quieted this roiling family affair.

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