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Rabbi Avi Weiss’s PORAT to Focus on Inclusivity Within Orthodoxy

If you could choose one attribute of contemporary Modern Orthodoxy to amplify, what would it be? Conversely, if you had the power to change one thing about contemporary Orthodoxy, what would it be and why?

How do we define and what are the implications of a truly Modern Orthodoxy with respect to rabbinic authority vs. freedom of conscience?

Have you experienced personal exclusion as a Modern Orthodox Jew?

People for Orthodox Renaissance and Torah, or PORAT, will hold an opening event discussing these questions and more beginning at 7 p.m., Sunday, May 15, at Kehilath Jeshurun at 125 E. 85th Street in New York.

Panelists for the meeting will include Rabbi Benny Lau, Blu Greenberg, Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, Ann Pava and Dr. Steven Bayme.

Earlier this year a group of Orthodox rabbis, community leaders and educators convened to form the nucleus of this new organization. On its poratonline.org website, PORAT claims its mission is to “advocate for a Modern Orthodoxy willing to engage diverse perspectives on issues relating to religious Zionism, gender equality, conversion to Judaism, agunah, the synthesis of secular culture and Jewish tradition, rabbinic authority, spirituality, relations with other denominations and faiths and the place of gay and lesbian individuals within our community.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss, the former head of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the founder of both Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat, told the Jewish Link that the mission of PORAT is “to demonstrate that there is a critical mass of Orthodox Jews who believe in inclusive Modern Orthodoxy. People should feel free to express themselves Jewishly without fear of being ostracized. PORAT is a call for civil discourse on many issues, and it’s not only critical that we discuss these issues within the Orthodox community, but it’s critical that we discuss these issues with the larger Jewish community as well.”

Weiss, who is also a co-founder of the International Rabbinical Fellowship, is one of many PORAT committee members including Harris Bak, Anat Barber, Dr. Steven Bayme, Shelley Cohen, Victoria Lindenbaum Feder, Rella Feldman, Dr. Michael Fishbane, Laura Shaw Frank, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Ari Hait, Rabbi David Kalb, Lawrence Krule, Atara Lindenbaum, Alan Pines, Dr. Kenneth Prager, Shuli Boxer Rieser, Leah Sarna, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, Rabbi Dan Smokler, Jordan Soffer and Sivya Twersky.

Dr. Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of contemporary Jewish life, wrote in a March JTA opinion piece why he felt PORAT was necessary.

“First, the voices of modern Orthodoxy, often silenced in recent years by an ascendant haredi community, have much to contribute. They insist that secular culture is both part of God’s creation and a vehicle to better understand Jewish text and tradition. They support gender equality within the parameters of halacha and cooperation with all Jewish religious movements for the collective enhancement of the Jewish people. They are committed to religious Zionism as an opportunity to demonstrate the meaning of a Jewish state and its compatibility with the principles of liberal democracy.”

Bayme also attributed a need to restore what he called an “ethos of open dialogue, inclusivity and receptivity to diverse views” due to the drift to the right of Orthodox Judaism.

Rabbi Weiss wants to see at least 10,000 people join in as holders of these values of inclusivity.

“My contention is that this philosophy of an inclusive Modern Orthodoxy goes well beyond the Maharat, Chovevei, IRF communities. I believe that there are many Orthodox Jews in Teaneck, in the Five Towns and all over the country who subscribe to this kind of philosophy. It’s our hope that now that PORAT has been created and discovered, people will come forward without fear of being ostracized.”

Rabbi Weiss said that it is PORAT’s intention to host meetings similar to the one this Sunday probably twice a year in different locations around the country. Those interested will be able, he said, to use the organization’s website to get involved. He added that a listserve will also be created to encourage participation in discussions.

“This is a union of individuals,” he said. “It’s a lay organization. Twenty years ago there was a decline in Modern Orthodoxy. But in 20 years much has happened with the growth of the IRF, JOFA (Jewish Orthodox Feminists Alliance), Maharat and Chovevei. The goal of PORAT is not to duplicate anything that is already in place. We need a lay organization which represents tens of thousands of members who say in a very real way that they support the values of an inclusive Modern Orthodoxy.

“Unfortunately,” he continued, “too many individuals or Orthodox rabbis have been pushed aside by their congregations, and we’re arguing it shouldn’t be this way.”

Jewish Educator Laura Shaw Frank came face to face with the very exclusion PORAT wants to change.

She told the Jewish Link that at a synagogue that she and her family attended while residing in Baltimore, it was the custom of women to dance with a Torah as part of Simchat Torah. That custom would become prohibited at the very same shul.

What she experienced at Simchat Torah is a sample of the very disillusionment or unanswered question she said that a Jewish woman or man could experience.

PORAT, she said, “wants to serve as a support for communities or for individuals who are trying to grapple with issues of modernity and want to see a different direction for Modern Orthodoxy.”

Shaw Frank sees PORAT as an entry point for Jews who feel alone with respect to issues of modernity and Orthodoxy. “We need an organization that is going to offer support with Orthodox Jews who are feeling disaffected from their community.”

PORAT, she said, is that one overarching organization with a goal of uniting the Orthodox community.

“We don’t want people to feel alone,” she said. “There are lots of people out there who might feel this way. But in the Modern Orthodox community, we are the critical mass, and with education and community building, things can change.”

Of course, not everyone agrees with the need for PORAT.

Rabbi Shalom Baum, the spiritual leader of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, and president of the Rabbinical Council of America, wrote an opinion piece in the March 22 New York Jewish Week where he challenged the idea of PORAT. He wrote that the Orthodox community is “saturated with organizations,” and that while promising to fill a void in the community, many groups can often even unintentionally cause further “fragmentation.” He took further issue with the statement that the Modern Orthodox community isn’t already inclusive.

“The goal and practice of inclusion is not the aberration in the Modern Orthodox community,” he wrote.

Where he did agree was when he wrote that everyone needs to do a better job of letting family and friends know that “our love for them as Jews is unconditional. This is an area where all segments of the Orthodox community could collaborate and dialogue for even better results.”

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, has written and blogged extensively on issues presented by PORAT.

He said there is a “tension” within Modern Orthodoxy. It is a responsibility of the Modern Orthodox to enfranchise as many Jews as possible as long as the Orthodoxy “remains true to its roots and the process and continuity that ensures my Judaism would be recognizable to my grandparents and my grandchildren’s Judaism in the same way would be recognizable to me.”

“We believe we’ve been playing the role of trying to maintain a big tent open to evolution and change, but in a way that doesn’t create division and upheaval,” said Rabbi Goldin. “We seek a way of enfranchising Jews by approaching issues through the lens of Jewish tradition and practice. And we believe that is exactly what we’re doing. Rabbi Weiss believes that it [change] is not happening fast enough, and it’s not going far enough. We believe that they have changed the facts on the ground and are blaming us for not agreeing with them. What I see PORAT doing…they are on the offensive attacking the RCA. To me, it’s going to create a looming split in the Modern Orthodox Community.”

Rabbi Weiss, who resigned from the RCA, said he doesn’t pay much attention to the criticisms that have been written about PORAT or inclusivity.

“Rabbi Baum,” he said, “is a wonderful person and I have had a respectful disagreement with him on this issue. Still, we’ve gotten an enormous response. We want to change the facts on the ground by enlisting new members of PORAT, an inclusive Modern Orthodox community.

“Modern Orthodoxy is facing a serious challenge,” he concluded. “There are those who concentrate on boundaries and a lot of time is spent locking people out and declaring who is outside of the macheneh (camp). We are about creating welcoming spaces and enhancing what Orthodoxy should be.”

By Phil Jacobs

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