Yeshiva University''s Zysman Hall
“Isn’t that the home of the famous Hebrew Union College?” a South African friend once remembered of my hometown. I stared at my friend for a few moments before realizing that I had never considered that place to be something important. Despite having grown up in the same city for over a dozen years, I hadn’t given thought to the fact that one of the largest institutions for Reform Judaism was but a few miles away.
Living in the medium-sized city of Cincinnati, I always believed my Jewish community to be relatively small. Most of my friends left the city to attend out-of-state Yeshivot (Jewish seminaries) for high school, because the city couldn’t – and still can’t – provide a sufficiently large student body to support an Orthodox high school of its own. In my community, the Orthodox Jews tend to stick together, and with the exception of a community center and a couple of Kiruv organizations here and there, our religious beliefs appear to keep us independent of the broader Jewish population. It wasn’t until my South African friend’s comment that I considered how our greater Jewish community could in fact be a lot bigger than I thought if we saw past our differences.
Although Orthodox and Reform Jews seem to have strong ideological differences, the hostility that often polarizes them is completely unnecessary. Each side repeatedly accuses the other of misbehavior, while a dearth of direct conversation between the two groups only increases the divisiveness.
When I came to New York’s Yeshiva University after studying in Israel, where I was surrounded by people who largely shared my religious beliefs, I was initially surprised by the variety of Jewish students I encountered. Some of my closest friends had enrolled directly from public schools (as opposed to first spending a customary gap year in Israel), and many of them were not Orthodox, let alone even remotely traditional. To this day, I have friends from there who identify as Reform, Reconstructionist, or Conservative, and I still find that we have a tremendous amount in common.
In one of my Jewish-themed classes at Yeshiva, I remember a professor’s first remarks that set the tone for the rest of the year. He told our religiously diverse class that despite each student’s unique perspective on religion, his class would force us to focus on the points of similarity, like our shared history and common sense of right and wrong. And despite knowing that some of the class did not observe the Sabbath, maintain a strictly kosher diet, or subscribe to a rigid set of Orthodox beliefs, we were able to forge meaningful relationships. Throughout the semester, we often discussed different current events involving the Jewish community and Israel and debated the issues together as friends who respected everyone equally. Together we managed to overcome our religious differences by engaging in open dialogue.
Each Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the spiritual days of judgment, I hear rabbis preach the need for Jewish unity because of the fact that we lack it. And every time I hear them, I too often interpret their words as bleak platitudes that have historically had little impact on the grave divisions facing our broader community. That there is so little correspondence between the Orthodox and Reform and Conservative leadership is a travesty for both our faith and our people.
When I go back to my hometown and pray in my family’s synagogue this year, I’ll think about that large Reform college a few miles away. While I have yet to meet the many members of that seemingly distant community, I know that beneath our differences there is a shared history and a set of common values, as I learned from my experience in YU. I pray that during these high holidays we can begin to realize that sometimes we are better off putting aside our differences in pursuit of a greater good, together representing every member of the Jewish people, each in his or her own way.