This piece was first published here.
One of the most exciting things to me about becoming a Jewish professional is having the opportunity to leave my small mark on a community that I love, specifically by increasing our ability to relate to our fellow Jews, and especially about deeply held disagreements. Acknowledging from the outset that this is a herculean task (or maybe Samsonian?) both leaves me knowing that the Jewish world will only change with the concerted effort of countless committed leaders, and also allows me the space to experiment.
As the interfaith world has amply shown, the necessary first step is simply to spend time living with and around those who are not outwardly like you. Like any other complex culture, Jews have myriad ways to distinguish ourselves from each other — it is stereotypically true that you can tell a lot about a (male) Jew’s level of religious observance by the kippah he is wearing. There is no doubt that this is where any hope for respectful dialogue must start, but we also must remember that it is just that, a start.
I recently was honored to be a guest at an intrafaith wedding — intrafaith in the sense that my relationship to the wedding was an intrafaith experience. Besides being a joyous occasion on a personal level, it opened my eyes to another critical step towards any serious intrafaith engagement. We must make the compromises needed to ensure that we can laugh and cry together. I mean this literally and figuratively: we must become comfortable enough in each other’s worlds to attend each other’s funerals and weddings. We also must learn to inhabit different worlds to such an extent that we can cry and laugh along with our fellow Jews. In this case it is true that the insider is the only one who can be a social critic.
Just as the interfaith movement has taught us, this type of engagement will only serve to deepen our connections to our particular link with Judaism. By being forced to articulate why you believe and practice as you do, you will learn more about yourself, and strive to inhabit a religious world that allows you to grow in a vibrant conversation with other engaged Jews.
I think that the similarities with the interfaith movement may end there, however, as it is undeniably harder to unearth the skeletons in your own families closet, as opposed to meeting a new friend down the street. We ultimately share so much history that it can be especially painful to come together knowing that we fiercely disagree with each other about how we are containing the Jewish tradition. With so little, ideologically, that Jews agree on, it can sometimes appear that intra-Jewish peace is as intractable as Middle East peace. Just as the conflict there necessitates one-on-one connections, building from the ground up by dismantling long-held stereotypical views of the other, so too here the only way to break the barriers we have erected is by making one new friend at a time.
The process will be slow, rocky, and deeply uncomfortable, but I trust that it will be rewarding for each brave individual who steps outside their comfort zone as well as for the Jewish community as a whole. My Mashiach (Messiah) is one who can return a sense of Ahavat Yisrael (Love of the People Israel) to the Jewish world.