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Thursday, January 08, 2009

Building a bridge between Chabad and Reform Jews

by rabbi gedalia potash & rabbi jonathan jaffe

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone. — Pirke Avot, 4:1

One day last summer, the two of us met to discuss how we could bring our communities closer together. Here we were, two San Francisco rabbis, born a single day apart and working a few miles from one another, and yet in seemingly separate worlds.

We committed that day to breach this gap and to bring Reform and Chassidic Jews together, not in the spirit of division or condemnation, but rather in partnership and learning.

And so, from late October to the end of last month, members of Congregation Emanu-El and Chabad of Noe Valley came together one night each week to study Torah and to learn from one another.

Historically speaking, this class presented a radical break from the usual avoidance practiced between Reform and Orthodox communities. At the same time, Reform Judaism and Chabad’s Chassidism share common roots as modern responses to the perceived banality of rote custom, which is why the class was titled “One People, Two Worlds: An exploration of Reform Judaism and Chabad.”

We differ only in the remedy: While Chabad sought to imbue ritual with additional kavanah (insight), Reform Judaism chose to reconsider those rituals and liturgies that no longer held meaning in the modern world.

But as the Reform movement now continues its current trend toward a re-examination of once-dismissed customs, we sense an opportunity to learn from one another. After all, we share not only a common past but a common vision as well: To reach out to those on the periphery of Judaism, to welcome and inspire them to bring the majesty of Judaism into their homes. And so we set out on this journey together.

Along with 15 classmates from both communities, we wrestled with such pivotal issues as the authority of oral and written Torah, the role of mitzvahs, patrilineal and matrilineal descent, the place of women in society, the messiah and messianism, and Zionism.

We also considered what a Jew’s role in the world should be — after all, Reform Judaism and Chabad have very different views on how public Jews should be with our rituals and observances. For classical Reform Jews, Judaism was meant to be relegated to the private domain, although this has changed somewhat over time. Chabad, on the other hand, has a much more public focus, with town-square menorah lightings, tefillin wrapping and the like.

At times the discussion became heated and we agreed to disagree. But throughout the thorniest of issues, we rededicated ourselves to the idea of klal Yisrael, that we are ultimately one people with both a shared history and destiny. All Israel is responsible for one another, not just those who share common views or customs.

And in due course, we found much more in common than we have in conflict.

In mid-December, we celebrated Shabbat together at Chabad of Noe Valley and at Rabbi Potash’s home, where we sat together for a festive meal. Over food, song and plenty of wine, the group toasted our newfound connection and friendship.

The entire class also shared in moments of tragedy, such as the inspiring memorial for the victims of the Mumbai attack, including Rabbi Potash’s yeshiva classmate, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg. Our discussions consistently spilled over the allotted class time, from 7 to 9 p.m., and students regularly elected to study together into the late hours of the night. We learned that contact and exchange does not only lead to quarrel, but also can be utilized toward understanding and connection as well.

The finale of the eight-session series was Dec. 29, but the series was so successful, we are thinking about doing another one later this year.

We recognize that our experience is somewhat unique. There are few places in the world where Orthodox and progressive Jews study together, much less Chabad and Reform. In Israel and even on the East Coast, such an exchange is virtually unheard of.

But if we refuse to speak with one another, we ultimately suffer from our own insulation. If Torah is truly not in the heavens, but rather in our mouths and hearts, then we find completion only in engaging the Torah found in the other.

And so we present this tale as an example of collaboration, in the spirit of the psalmist: Behold, how good and pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to come together in unity.

We look forward to continuing our effort to live up this lofty promise of achdut, a connected peoplehood.


Rabbi Gedalia Potash is the director of San Francisco’s Chabad of Noe Valley, a position he has held since 2000.

Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe is an assistant rabbi at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, a position he has held for 18 months.

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