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Rabbis and Friends in Conversation

Livingston–On the surface one might not think that a Modern Orthodox rabbi and a Reform rabbi would have much in common. After all, conventional wisdom would suggest that their denominations alone show they must be far apart on, well, pretty much everything.

But Rabbis Elie Mischel and Greg Litcofsky set out to prove that they have much in common on a personal level–both are parents of young children, both live in Livingston, both have joined their respective congregations within the last few years–and that it is possible to be friends with and engage with someone whose Jewish practice differs from your own.

“The Jewish community needs to come together around the things that unite us” even if people don’t always agree, said Reform Rabbi Litcofsky of Temple Emanu-el of West Essex, located in Livingston.

Comparing the Jewish people to a family–a large family that has fundamental disagreements–Modern Orthodox Rabbi Mischel of the Congregation of the Suburban Torah, also in Livingston, said that at the end of the day “families transcend shared views and beliefs. Families have to come together.”

More than 125 people–representing a mix of members from both congregations–came out for the December 14 program called “Rabbis (and Friends) in Conversation,” which touched on a wide array of topics from work-life balance to how they relate to God to their thoughts on the major challenges facing Judaism today.

The discussion was moderated by Dov Ben-Shimon, the executive vice president/CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, who noted that “this kind of program is extremely rare.”

According to Rabbi Mischel, historically, Jews of different denominations tended to keep themselves separate.

“But now, as the Jews are under threat and anti-Semitism is growing around the world, we should be able to come together,” he said. “There’s an urgency in Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel] to come together at this time.”

It’s an idea that Litcofsky echoed. “We may disagree and have different practices, but we are on the same page of Jewish life together. … So even when we disagree, we have to be able to come together and engage respectfully in conversation.”

“It’s interesting and refreshing to be around people who don’t agree with you, but with whom you still get along,” said Mischel. “I have a lot of strong opinions, but I can see where the other person is coming from.”

Addressing what he believes to be one of the major challenges facing the Jewish community today, Rabbi Mischel noted that though his father was raised as a Conservative Jew, he knew how to read Hebrew, prayed at synagogue weekly and was very connected to his Judaism.

But, he said, “that level of connectedness and engagement has dropped tremendously” and the “fluency in Judaism has been lost in today’s Jewish community. The question is how do we get over that hurdle.”

Litcofsky noted that too many generations of Jews have grown up believing that once “they leave the synagogue they leave Judaism behind.”

The challenge, he said, is to break down the synagogue walls and recognize that our Jewish life extends everywhere. “Judaism is all-encompassing. … It’s not just when you daven or are in the sanctuary.”

The rabbis’ messages resonated with the crowd, many of whom left the program praising what they’d heard and wanting to know what comes next. For their part, the rabbis are discussing the possibility of future programs.

“In my daily life, I don’t come in contact with Orthodox people very frequently,” said Lynn Sternstein of Temple Emanu-el. “But I think it was really interesting to listen to Rabbi Mischel and hear things I wouldn’t have expected from an Orthodox rabbi. “

“It was a terrific morning and great investment of time and I hope to see a lot more of this,” said Debbie Fine, a member of Suburban Torah. “It was a great beginning.”

By Faygie Levy

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