JFS saga has been a waste of communal time

Keeping a few children out of our schools is a distraction from the real challenges we face

By Jonathan Wittenberg, February 18, 2010

The passing weeks have afforded time for reflection on the Supreme Court judgment, the third, and hopefully final, legal round in the battle over the admissions criteria of JFS. I feel caught between shame and hope.

The shame is not about the result. To me, the key issue has always been inclusivity, the inclusion of every Jewish child within the educational provision of the community and the recognition of the status of converts, at least regarding access to Jewish schooling. I rejoice that doors have been opened. Challenges facing rabbis often boil down to the question: to include or not to include? In these times of attrition and assimilation, it's clear to me that we must not only open what doors we can, but do so with open arms.

The shame is because this case had to happen in the first place. The matter should have been resolved within our own leadership. It shouldn't have been necessary to squander time, money and repute in the secular courts.

If I were standing outside the Jewish community looking in, what impression would I have gained? What would I think of a religion seemingly preoccupied with keeping a few children out of its schools?

If I were a young Jew searching for vibrant spirituality and a passionate commitment to social values, seeking, in short, a living, relevant Torah, what would I think? It's not surprising that many turn to other sources of inspiration, or choose to create their own alternatives.

The existential issues couldn't be more urgent. The world faces environmental disaster; the Copenhagen conference largely failed and people are afraid. It's a year since the Gaza war; Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran maintain their threat and Israel remains implicated in vast Palestinian suffering. Can we talk to each other? How do we support those who do? In the diaspora we struggle to revive knowledge of the Torah and those rituals by which Judaism was for centuries transmitted from generation to generation through osmosis and with love.

The spiritual issues are equally pressing. Many people seek God, a relationship with that transcendent other which brings meaning and inner vitality, yet which appears to elude us in labyrinths of liturgy. Who and where is our God, after Darwin, after Auschwitz? Some embrace Dawkins's religion of radical atheism. Others turn to more evident forms of spirituality, forsaking hidden treasures at home.

These matters cry out for passionate engagement. They constitute our true communal agenda. And we've wasted time trying to keep a few children out of a Jewish school. My hope is that we've learnt from the JFS case. The most important lesson concerns leadership and how we work together across the community. There is, as Rabbis Harris and Brawer - vice-chairmen of the US Rabbinical Council - have courageously written, a new reality. It doesn't, and can't, require us to agree across our different denominations. But it does demand that we co-operate.

The issues before us are urgent and all-comprehending. They need all our energy, passion and commitment. We therefore need new and more inclusive kinds of conversation, co-operation and creativity. Otherwise we debase the Jewish present and betray the Jewish future.

Jonathan Wittenberg is senior rabbi at the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues

Last updated: 4:35pm, June 3 2010


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