Jewish Unity, Not Uniformity

Jewish Unity, Not Uniformity

One of my most vivid memories from my time living in Israel from 2002-2003 was my interview for rabbinical school with the Jewish Theological Seminary.  It is during these interviews when rabbis ask difficult questions to prospective students, and I remember one quite distinctively.  One of the members of the panel asked, very simply, do you believe that the third Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple, should be re-built?  Quite honestly, I was taken aback by this question.  If I answer absolutely yes, will they think that I am a religious fanatic?  If I answer no, will they doubt my commitment to our tradition and history?  But I searched deep down and gave them the following answer from my heart:  “I do believe we should build a third Temple, however, it must be under the following circumstances:  that every streamline of Judaism be represented inside the Temple, and they must exist in perfect harmony and peace with each other.  However, in order for this type of unbridled unity, mutual respect and acceptance between our movements seems to be dependent upon a miracle, like the coming of the Messiah, so I suppose we will have to wait.”  Needless to say, I was admitted to rabbinical school shortly after.    

Last week, on June 3, the South Palm Beach Jewish community came together for Unity Day, commemorating the first anniversary of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach, by Hamas terrorists.  Last year, the Jewish world came together to help bring back our boys.  The parents of the boys made a stirring video in preparation for the event (click here to view).  The event in South Palm Beach County, which was put together with only a couple of weeks notice and preparation, was the largest gathering in North America with over 500 people in attendance.  An estimated 1.2 million Jews around the world participated in a Unity Day event on June 3, 2015.  I was honored to give a speech at the event (click here to listen to Rabbi Baum’s address at the Unity Day event). Sharing the stage with my rabbinic colleagues, from all the major Jewish religious movements, from Reform to Orthodox, male and female, and seeing the diversity of those in attendance was truly a night of inspiration that I will never forget.  I left that evening on a spiritual high, forgetting the past incidences of conflict between streams of Judaism.  Unfortunately, I was brought back to earth just days after this event when an incident between the President of Israel, Reuvin Rivlin, mishandled a bar mitzvah for special needs children that was organized by the Masorti movement (the Conservative movement of Judaism in Israel).  To read more about the specifics of this incident, I urge you to read a letter written by the leaders of our movement from around the world including our the Masorti leadership in Israel(click here to read this important statement).  There has been a long standing conflict between the Orthodox establishment in Israel, who are in control of marriage and divorce, conversions, kashruth, among other important aspects of Jewish life in Israel, and the Masorti and Reform movements in Israel who are underfunded and held back from taking a larger role in Israel.  To read more about this ongoing conflict, and more background on this specific incident, I highly recommend Shmuel Rosner’s op-ed in the New York Times, “Don’t Disrespect American Jews.”

Unfortunately, as much as we pray for unity and peace for Judaism in Israel, we seem to be far from it.  One of the enduring quotes I heard at the Unity Day celebration was from one of the mother’s of the three boys, Rachel Fraenkel who said that on this day, “We want unity, not uniformity.”  I interpreted this to say that Jewish unity does not mean that all Jews must worship and believe in exactly the same way.  In order to truly come together, we must respect each other’s views, and give voice to all movements in Israel.  If we want Israel to be the homeland of the Jewish people, it must truly be the homeland for all Jewish people, regardless of movement.  I believe that the diversity of our movements in Israel is not only important, but absolutely necessary for the present and future of the state Israel.  

It is with these thoughts in mind that I want to thank those who voted in the World Zionist Congress elections.  The results of the elections were released this week, and the results were a success for the progressive movements in Israel.  39% of the votes went to the Reform movement (Arza with 56 seats) and 17% went to the Masorti/Conservative platform (Mercaz USA with 25 seats), and the Orthodox movement (Religious Zionists: Vote Torah for the Soul of Israel) with 24 seats.  

I truly believe that in order for Israel to continue to be the homeland of the Jewish people, we must have more unity, but not necessarily uniformity.  It is why I support the Masorti movement in Israel which makes a tremendous difference with very little resources.  To learn more about the Masorti movement, click here.  There is a famous quote from the book of Isaiah:  “For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).  My hope is that one day, Israel will truly be the house of prayer for all streamlines in Judaism, and that one day, we can

My hope is that one day, Israel will be the place where we can respect and accept each other as Jews.  Let us pray it happens soon, bimheira b’yamenu. 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi David Baum


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