A funny thing happened this summer. In June, a Jewish member of Israel’s Knesset brought up legislation that sought to change the country’s conversion law. One might have expected that the bill would result in yet another example of Jew vs. Jew in the United States, pitting the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox against one another. That has certainly happened before when questions of “who is a Jew” arose: In 1988, for example, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik—younger brother of the preeminent Modern Orthodox leader, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik—traveled to Israel in a wheelchair to urge its Orthodox parties to continue to press for an amendment to the Law of Return, limiting its application only to those who were converted under Orthodox auspices. “I am a stroke victim,” he told The New York Times at the time, “but I cannot remain silent.” Similar divisiveness was evident time and again in recent decades, whenever issues concerning the place of women and gays in Jewish life hit the front page—think, most recently, of the battles over the right of women to hold prayer services and read from the Torah at the Western Wall.
When the conversion bill was proposed, however, American Jews of all persuasions came together to voice an opinion that, while nuanced, was still unanimous: The bill was bad news. Even the Rabbinical Council of America, the leading organization of Orthodox rabbis, felt ill-at-ease to support the bill, publishing instead a tepid statement declaring that “as far as we are concerned there is certainly no unanimity, or even consensus, among American Jews on the matter of the current Knesset legislation.” The very fact that the council had to make this announcement reveals how hard dissenting voices were to hear.
For many observers, this unity was a most unexpected, if welcome, development. Remember all those frightening titles of yesteryear? Jew vs. Jew; A People Divided, Will There Be One Jewish People in the Year 2000? All now seem dated, as if American Jewry has moved on.
“The dire predictions of an internal Jewish schism have proven wrong,” wrote Jack Wertheimer in an important 2005 American Jewish Committee pamphlet titled All Quiet on the Religious Front? Jewish Unity, Denominationalism, and Postdenominationalism in the United States. “If anything, overt religious conflicts have either eased or have been pushed into the background.”
It’s a sea change worth pondering in depth. This Rosh Hashanah, as we are each urged to reflect and repent, we would do well to reflect on the myriad of processes that helped nudge the American Jewish community beyond bickering and division and toward a more harmonious existence. If we understand the causes of this newfound unity, we can strive to strengthen it.
First, we must acknowledge the role American Jewish religious movements play in focusing more on what unites Jews than what divides them. Communal concern over “continuity,” the reluctance of wealthy donors to support those who promote Jewish divisiveness, and a strong desire among young Jews to move beyond denominational labels have resulted in an increased focus on the importance of just getting along. A revealing indicator of this trend was the first-ever North American Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, a collaboration among Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and community day schools held earlier this year. Organizers cited it as proof “that working across ideologies is possible and desirable.”
Second—and perhaps not unrelated—the Israeli chief rabbinate, whom the conversion bill would have empowered, has become deeply unpopular in American Jewish circles, even among many Orthodox rabbis. The politicization of the chief rabbinate, its unwholesome ties to Israeli politics, and its unwelcome intrusion into American Jewish religious life, granting recognition to some rabbis and denying it to others, has cost the chief rabbinate dearly. American Jews have come to appreciate the wisdom of a religious free market, where religion is separated from the state, no chief rabbinate exists, and rabbis are free to make religious decisions based on their own best judgment and conscience. The vast majority of American Jews would not advocate for a chief rabbinate in the United States, and they are understandably disinclined to increase the chief rabbinate’s power in Israel.
Finally, the past decade’s focus on community-wide adult Jewish education has promoted much greater public unity among Jews. Transdenominational adult Jewish education programs, such as Melton Mini-School, Wexner Heritage, Me’ah, and now Limmud, as well as Orthodox educational outreach programs sponsored by Chabad, Aish HaTorah, and an array of so-called community kollelim, liberally extend the welcome mat to all self-identifying Jews, including, inevitably, non-Orthodox converts to Judaism and patrilineal Jews, whom the Reform and Reconstructionist movements recognize as Jews on the basis of their Jewish fathers and their identification with the Jewish religion. The results of these educational efforts, by all accounts, have been highly gratifying, introducing Jewish adults from different movements to one another and teaching them much that they did not know about their heritage. Nobody involved—not even the most fervently Orthodox—wants to risk alienating their new students, supporters, and constituents by reopening divisive questions.
Whether American Jewry’s recent spell of unity serves as a precedent remains to be seen. Still, when compared to the situation in Israel, where the gap between religious and secular Jews seems ever to be widening, the evidence from America offers a measure of hope. When American Jews stop fighting with one another and focus on their common interests, it is amazing how much they can accomplish.
Jonathan D. Sarna is Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. His book When Grant Expelled the Jews is forthcoming from Nextbook Press in 2011.