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An evening with the STARs
Synagogue conference panel's remarks shock audience

Senior Editor
September 12, 2000

You couldn't have asked for a better scenario: 150 of the top synagogue and Jewish organizational professionals, gathered for a special invitation-only conference. An additional 100 people attended the evening panel featuring the conference's three leaders, Edgar Bronfman, Charles Schusterman, and Michael Steinhardt, Jewish philanthropists known around the world. Those not invited to the conference could take in the evening panel via webcast on this very website.

And then the synagogue representatives listened as Steinhardt said Reform and Conservative Judaism were accidents of history likely to be gone by the end of the century. Bronfman said he would prefer to make havdala, the ritual service that ends Shabbat, on Sunday night. And Schusterman essentially said that the answer to getting better salaries for Jewish professionals was to get better professionals.

The panel was part of a two-day conference held September 6-7 in Chicago and put together by a new organization named STAR, standing for Synagogue Transformation and Renewal. At the end of the conference, the philanthropists announced the big news, that they were donating $18 million over five years to help synagogues in areas such as funding, education, staffing, and holiday worship, as reported in The Chicago Tribune. (In the interests of disclosure, Zipple was not among the Jewish press invited to cover the daytime programs; only the evening panel is covered here.)

Through a multi-pronged program, STAR's stated mission is "to promote Jewish renewal by helping the North American synagogue find and implement innovative, collaborative, effective and transdenominational ways to meet the spiritual, educational and social needs of every member of the Jewish community."

In other words, synagogues are hurting, and many young people remain unaffiliated. In response, the philanthropists, all of which are active in the Jewish world, formed an organization. Bronfman is the chairman of the World Jewish Congress; Steinhardt founded the Birthright program that gives college students free trips to Israel; and Schusterman, president of STAR, is co-chair of the International Board of Hillel.

The evening session consisted of the panel and a private concert with Peter Himmelman. John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, moderated the panel.

Ruskay asked the three to describe their most profound Jewish experience. Steinhardt said it was being in Israel with the Birthright students, watching them develop their Jewish identities. Schusterman said it was when his three-year-old granddaughter insisted on singing Chanukah songs, saying the prayers, and lighting the candles before opening presents. "That is real Judaism," Schusterman said.

Bronfman spoke of how he was rebellious in his youth. "I was so in rebellion, that when I was 22…I remember eating ham on Yom Kippur," he said. Later in life, he was in Moscow on Simchat Torah, working to help free Soviet Jews. On the plane ride home, Israel Singer was studying daily Talmud. The combination of events inspired Bronfman to begin studying Torah.

But that's where the panel session took a nosedive. Ruskay asked the three participants to describe positive synagogue experiences. When Bronfman's turn came, he began with, "I'm not a synagogue goer and haven't been for a long time…," perhaps leading some in the audience to wonder exactly why, then, he was on the panel. He then said that he took his wife a few years ago to Drisha, an Orthodox service in New York City, and that he was "bored out of my [mind]."

Bronfman then referred to a friend who is a Conservative rabbi who "probably knows more about Talmud than [anybody here] but he happens to be a Conservative rabbi for his own reasons"-as if knowing Talmud and being a Conservative rabbi couldn't naturally go hand in hand. The remark prompted stunned laughter.

Bronfman also related that he spends Shabbat in Virginia, and that he told his rabbi that "In Virginia, I don't feel right doing the havdalah service Saturday night. My weekend doesn't end 'till Sunday. We come back from the country and we get to the city, and that's the transformation from the weekend to the weekday."

Bronfman said his rabbi gave him the OK to do havdalah Sunday night, when he gets back from the country. "That's the kind of thinking I want to try to get involved in STAR-let's not be so tied down about traditions. Let's make it work for us."

Ruskay then asked the panelists about ways to synthesize national and local efforts to help strengthen synagogues. In his response, Steinhardt said that the Reform and Conservative movements were "historical accidents," and that "by the end of the century, they will have both disappeared." When later questioned on the remark by an audience member, Steinhardt did not back down from his statement. He cited statistics that 10 percent of America's Jews are Orthodox, and that of the remaining 90 percent, only 20 percent of those belong to synagogues.

An audience member asked the panelists how they thought salaries could be raised for Jewish professionals to encourage more people to choose communal life for a profession. Schusterman agreed with the need, saying that "there's value there [in being a Jewish educator] and there's value in being a teacher in the public schools." But he concluded his response by saying that "a Jewish professional is entitled to their family, to live well…if we had good people, the money would flow." Intended or not, the comment suggested that the current communal professionals-including those in the room-weren't good enough to warrant higher salaries.

The mood among participants following the panel was shock but not surprise. Reform and Conservative Jews offended by Steinhardt's remark commented that they've heard similar rhetoric from him in the past. Still, they didn't hide their feelings.

"We were distressed," said Rabbi Shefa Gold, a proponent of Jewish meditational chant.

Rabbi Lavey Derby remarked that "It would have been more interesting for the panel to [explain] why they're interested in synagogue renewal, which hasn't been interesting to philanthropists for the last 100 years. I didn't hear that," said Derby, rabbi of the Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Mill Valley, California.

Derby added that the philanthropists are "enormously well-meaning," and that they have done something no other philanthropists have done, gathering "the best and the brightest of the Jewish world to talk about the future of synagogues." In that regard, Derby said, the conference was a success, giving rabbis and synagogue professionals a chance to share ideas. The organizers, he said, "are the conveners and not the visionaries."

Judith Halevy, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish center and Synagogue in California, said that there's merit to the discussion that came up during the panel about a post-denominational age, but that the discussion fell short. "I didn't feel that the connection to the essence of that question was raised. It isn't just about the demise [of denominations], but how we form a post-denominational world."

Derby summed up what many in the audience were likely thinking about some of the more extreme remarks. "Everyone's entitled to their own mistaken ideas," he said.

© 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission.


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