A Chat With Former NYT's Religion Correspondent Ari Goldman
I speak by phone 1/8/03 with Journalism Professor Ari Goldman of the Columbia School of Journalism. A longtime religion writer for the New York Times, Goldman published two books on Jewish life - The Search For God At Harvard and Jewish Practice.
Luke: "I loved Stephen Fried's book. I think there is a lack of fascinating Jewish journalism like he has done. And that's what I wanted to explore."
Ari: "Ok. I've just finished the book too. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a brilliant piece of reporting. He really gets into people's lives and tells about a community in crisis. It's an exciting book to read. My one criticism of it is that he hurts a lot of people along the way. While it's good journalism, it's not always good from an ethical point of view. I know some of the people he writes about and a lot of people are going to have to live down a bad sermon, a slip of the tongue, some other embarrassing moment in their life. It's fair game if you're writing about politicians but I don't know that rabbis are politicians in the same way."
Luke: "You sympathize with the critics and the Perry Ranks?"
Ari: "Yes. I read the article in the Forward. I've heard some of the criticism. I think the same good reporting could've been done while protecting people. One of the people interviewed for the book was blindsided by the final product, saying, 'He told me he was writing a profile of Gerald Wolpe and instead...'"
Luke: "Rabbi Ackerman?"
Ari: "No. That chapter Waiting For Ackerman is one of my favorite chapters. He's a good writer and a fine reporter and I'm impressed how much he learned about the observant Conservative community."
Luke chuckles: "Which is very small."
Ari: "It is small. But he's knowledgeable. I like the way he relates this to his own life and his father's death and the kaddish. I think it's a successful book, I just feel bad for some of the people who get caught up in the story and who are really bit players, not major figures, and are suddenly thrust into the limelight in sometimes embarrassing positions."
Luke: "If you ever do any good journalism, you are going to be hurting people's feelings right, left and center."
Ari: "I don't think that's necessary. I think you could tell the same story and manage to protect people's dignity."
Luke: "Is that something you were concerned with when you were working for the New York Times?"
Ari: "Of course. I write books and I'm conscious of that when I write, the effect of what I say could damage someone's reputation, could embarrass them. Lately I've been writing a lot of obituaries for the New York Times. What's great about that is that you are only embarrassing dead people."
[Luke finds little embarrassing in American obituaries. They tend to be much tamer and more dull than their British counterparts. Fewer stories about crazy things done while drunk, etc.]
Ari: "You worry a little bit about the survivors but in an obituary you can say nice things. In every other kind of journalism, they press you to find something bad to say.
"I teach journalism."
Luke: "You teach preserving human dignity."
Ari: "Let's say a student is writing a profile. And I'll say, 'Go talk to a critic. Go show this guy's failings.' These profiles aren't believable unless you can see the human frailty. In my journalism, I don't shy away from being critical. You do it for balance and when it's relevant, but there's a sense in [Fried's] book that a lot of this is just gossip. Here's some juicy gossip."
Luke moans: "It's delicious dish."
Ari: "It is delicious dish. The whole Leonid Feldman..."
Luke explodes: "Oh, I loved that. Yummy!"
Ari: "There was nothing new in there. It was all in the Palm Beach Post."
Luke: "I never knew of it. I was like, wow! This is great!"
Ari: "But it was irrelevant to Har Zion."
Luke: "But it was fun as hell to read. I was telling my friends at my Orthodox shul and it just confirmed all our worst suspicions about the Conservative movement. I told my rabbi friend at shul and he loved it because he hates the Conservative movement."
Ari: "You should give the movement its dignity too. This basketball game with the rabbis after shul on shabbos. It's not the Judaism I grew up with.
"Now let's get to your premise. Is there a dearth of good Jewish journalism?"
Luke: "This sort of dish."
Ari: "I don't know. Look at Gary Rosenblatt and the Baruch Lanner story."
Luke: "The Orthodox rabbi molesting kids at NCSY [National Council of Synagogue Youth]. That was a rare story. Normally Jewish journalists are lapdogs."
Ari: "Yes. That was courageous. Did that story hurt people? Absolutely. There's an example of a case that was necessary. Yes he hurt people and yes he got people fired and he got somebody who ended up in jail. You can make a good argument that that needed to be told. Whether Perry Rank is bald and where he wears his yarmulke on his head. It was a good story but it could've been told anonymously."
Luke: "But it would've lost its punch."
Ari: "In some regards but I don't think it would've been totally denuded. Also, there's the problem of Stephen Fried. I like him. I know him. I had breakfast with him two weeks ago before I read the book. He gets into the mind of the selection committee. This is what they were thinking. Number one, he wasn't even in the room. He got this from his sources. Was that the most outstanding characteristic [of Perry Rank]? His preaching on Bob Dylan and his crooked yarmulke? It seems gratuitous.
"I like [Fried] and I like what he did but I wouldn't paint him as the paradigm of reporting in the Jewish community. I don't know that we need more reporting like that. We need more examination of issues that make us uncomfortable - dissent on the Israel question, the question of gays in the synagogue and pulpit, intermarriage. I think there are tough questions to explore but gossip is not one of them."
Luke: "You sound like the admonition that great people talk about ideas and lower people talk about people."
Ari: "Right. I don't want to sound haughty."
Luke: "It's ok to sound haughty. Orthodox Judaism is a haughty religion. This book for me is one of the few things I read in Jewish journalism that comports with how I experience my religion. This has got all the love and hate and angst and human frailty that I experience when I go to shul and I never read that in the Jewish press. All these Federation papers, the softballing product of fundraising organizations. They seem to have all the journalists in their pocket and does not reflect the love and rage and hatred I experience when I go to shul. This is one of the few books where I could say, 'Ahhh, this is human, warts and all. This is Phillip Roth.' I have to go to fiction to find the Jewish life I experience. I know Phillip Roth got his head handed to him in the sixties by the Jewish community. Is there something about Jewish communal life that stifles good writing about Jewish communal life? You just say lashon hara and you shut everybody up."
Ari: "There's stuff worth exposing and then there's stuff better left anonymous. You should question at every turn, do I need to embarrass this person? Is it worth it?"
Luke: "Would you criteria be different if your subject were a non-Jew?"
Ari: "That's an interesting question. If you look at Fried's earlier books, he's written about the fashion and pharmaceutical industries. He's bringing the skills that he developed writing secular books to the Jewish story and applying the same standards. To an extent, I think that's fair and admirable. We should be able to withstand that kind of grownup journalism.
"I'm not against [Fried's] book as a whole. Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe went in with his eyes open. Jacob Herber cooperated."
Luke: "Poor man."
Ari: "Those central characters, you had to use their names. But whether Ackerman's wife's mother got cheated out of a house because of a selfish congregation, I don't know. I hear that people [in that allegedly selfish congregation] are saying, 'How embarrassing!' When he starts getting into the cousin's mother's uncle's son... He opens up the pot with all the garbage in it and flings it around."
Luke: "How did you feel about him going into synagogue and taking notes and evaluating whether the rabbi gave a good sermon or not?"
Ari: "If you want to get to the sleazy line, when Herber catches him taking notes, he says, 'You can't do that. It's wrong.' He comes on Rosh Hashanah with a tape recorder [in his tallit bag]... Here's a guy who opens up to you and is honest and is your friend. He's screwing him left and right."
Luke: "That's what journalists do. That's quintessential journalism, it just so happens to take place in our sacred spaces. If it was any other goyishe situation, we'd say, 'Wow, look at [Fried's] spunk.' But he's violating God's Law."
Ari: "I'm uncomfortable with a lot of that. He successfully captures [Rabbi Gerald] Wolpe, the congregation's inability to replace a leader of that magnitude, the only one they know. It's an impossible task. Nobody can replace that kind of leader who's developed relationships with people at life cycle events over the generations. There's some powerful stuff in there."
Luke: "Where do you find compelling writing on Jewish life as lived as you experienced it?"
Ari, ten second pause: "I could start with my own books."
Luke: "You got some stiff criticism for your memoir, The Search For God At Harvard."
Ari: "I did go outside the bounds [of Orthodox Judaism]. I was criticized by the Orthodox community and embarrassed some people. I'm not so holy here. I just wonder about the limits of it.
"Sam Freedman in Jew vs Jew applies the same sort of journalistic techniques that he learned in writing about schools and politics and the black church. Sam and I work together. I know his method. Before he publishes a book, he shows it to the people he wrote about. If he did a chapter on Luke Ford, he would run it by you and say, 'You're not my censor, I want to make sure that I got this right. I want to make sure that I'm not hurting you. I want to make sure I didn't do anything under false pretences.' Now, that's not common journalistic practice."
Luke: "You're right that's not common journalistic practice. We wouldn't do that with the goyim."
Ari: "But he did it with the goyim. He did it on his church book and on his education book. Not for approval, but he didn't want to say something in book form that was inaccurate."
Luke: "Fried checked his facts. They hold up. He just went for the same details in synagogue that he'd use in the fashion industry."
Ari: "I think you put it well. This is our sacred space. I think it has to be treated a little more respectfully. I think the tape recorder is a good example of violating a trust.
"I teach my students that when you do an interview or write an article, you go into a relationship with someone. You trust that they are giving you good information. They trust you that you will be accurate, fair and kind, and not trash them and get something over at their expense. I think he does that. I read it to the last page but it left me feeling guilty. I didn't want to see all these people humiliated but it is so much fun."
Luke: "So many of the rabbi I know are control freaks and used to controlling not only their own shul but with their image generally and I found this book refreshing that they had to deal with the same type of scrutiny as any other public figure. Do you think rabbis are public figures and accountable to the same sort of scrutiny we'd give other public figures?"
Ari: "Yes, I think rabbis are public figures. Once you take that job, you live a public life. I've participated here on academic searches to bring in new professors and new deans and new presidents of the university. Confidentiality of that process is sacred. Ninety nine out of 100 people you talk to are not going to get the job and that they are looking for a job could hurt them in their current position. You have to be sensitive in who you are talking to about who's good at the interview and who's bad... For all this to be made public, I'm not sure of the benefit of saying that this rabbi couldn't say a d'var Torah (teach a passage from the Bible) off the cuff or this rabbi was having a bad day.
"I don't think anything would've been lost if he had protected a few people. I say that with a lot of admiration for him as a journalist but I think that maybe it is time for him to turn his attention away from the Jewish community. Maybe the Catholic Church could use a Stephen Fried."
Luke: "Where does this concern for not hurting people come from? Is it primarily a Jewish thing or an American thing? I know British and Australian journalists don't have that compunction."
Ari: "In my life, and I've hurt people, it comes out of my Jewish education. In our secular society, it comes more out of our libel laws. You don't want to get sued. For me, it's an ethical issue. I remember years ago, I wrote an article about a major Reform Jewish leader. In the eighties, there was a lot of discussion about denominations getting along better. There were Orthodox and Reform rabbis talking. I did an article about the difficulties of bridging the gap.
"I quoted a Reform rabbi who made an off-the-cuff comment to me after dinner one night. I didn't have my notebook out. He said to me, 'I'd give up eating lobster if sometimes they didn't wear a yarmulke.' I wrote this news analysis and then my kicker quote was from this rabbi. A few days later, I get a note from the Reform rabbi and all it says is, 'Ari, how could you?' He was indignant. No rabbi wants to be known as the lobster-eating rabbi in the New York Times. Did I really need to name him? Could I have fudged it? Could I have said something else? I was young. I don't think he really ate lobster."
Luke: "That's a delicious quote. I love it."
Ari: "I can tell which side of the debate you're on. Every journalist has to ask, is it worth the laugh for someone's reputation. What did he really mean? Rabbi Herber talks too much about the [New York] Islanders [hockey team]. I don't know."
Luke: "Were you prepared for the hostility you got for your memoir from the Orthodox community?"
Ari: "Yes, I think I was prepared for it. I'm a product of that community and I know how vicious it can be. What surprised me even more was the sympathy and support I got. Many Orthodox Jews said [to me], 'I cut corners too. I don't talk about it. But behind closed doors, I do the things you did and you were courageous for making them public and struggling with them.'"
Luke: "People put tremendous effort in the Orthodox community into maintaining appearances."
Ari: "I felt that if I was going to be a journalist and write honestly about other people, I would have to apply the same standard to myself. I don't know that Stephen Fried did that."
Luke: "Apply the same scrutiny to himself? He doesn't reveal anything too embarrassing about himself."
Ari: "I'm not sure he applied the same level of scrutiny to himself that he does to everyone else. He emerges one-dimensional as a character in his return to Judaism. He left it for 20 years. What was that like? How honest is he in now saying I'm back, I'm a member of the club, I can judge everyone else. I think he needed to acknowledge that he left the club and he's not quite in the position to judge these rabbis who, flawed as they are, are in positions because of their scholarship and talent and their ability to work with people. You have to apply that critical standard to yourself as well as to the people you write about and he doesn't seem to be terribly self-critical."
Luke: "What did you think of Paul Wilkes' book And They Shall Be My People?"
Ari: "That book's a little too soft, a little too loving, a little too positive. Wilkes is somebody I know and admire. I use his other book, the one on the priest, in my teaching. I remember there was a problem with his wife..."
Luke: "She was bitter about the community monopolizing her husband's time and energy."
Ari: "I don't remember it being anywhere near as juicy as this one."
Luke: "And Paul still got his head handed to him by the Conservative rabbis. Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum and his wife were very hurt by it. There's no pleasing these people [Conservative rabbis, apparently, with anything other than adulation]. That Wilkes book was softball. It was gentle, loving, positive about Rabbi Rosenbaum yet he won't give me an interview about it. He was wounded by the book and his wife is angry about it and JTS shunned Wilkes."
Ari: "I remember him speaking over at JTS."
Luke: "And he was slotted in to 12-minutes over lunch and no one wanted to listen to him and they dissed him and they want nothing to do with him, is his impression. And I thought he wrote a love poem. I loved the book and thought it was similar to Fried's."
Ari: "Fried picks a much more interesting time in a rabbi's life. This transition time. The other is just a profile."
Luke: "Fried says that because Wilkes is not Jewish..."
Ari: "It insulates [Wilkes] from the kind of criticism that Fried's vulnerable to. In a way, [Fried] took advantage of Wolpe's relationship with his family. I admire what Fried did but something made me uneasy about reading this book."
Luke: "Does one need to be Jewish to capture the dynamics of Jewish life?"
Ari: "I don't think so. It would be wrong for me to say that because I've written a lot about the Catholic Church. It takes a while to get that insider-feel."
Luke: "Wilkes felt like he got a negative reaction from many Jews that he Wilkes, as a non-Jew, would dare to write about such things?"
Ari: "I certainly don't feel that way."
Luke: "Did you get accused of lashon hara with your memoir?"
Ari: "Not really, more in my journalism writing for the [New York] Times. I didn't name names in my memoir. I see lashon hara as directed more towards an individual.
"I don't mean to sound haughty, but the person who the most lashon hara is told about in my memoir is myself. I talk about having premarital sex, eating non-kosher food and desecrating the shabbos. I'm the victim."
Luke: "Isn't there a prohibition against that as well? You're not supposed to lashon hara yourself."
Ari: "I've never heard of that."
I have and I've been convicted of it.
Ari: "I violate a lot of other laws. Mares eyin. When people see you doing something and then conclude it's OK If Ari Goldman can eat trafe... I'm setting a bad example. I was certainly accused of setting a bad example. Who am I to bend the laws with using a pencil on shabbos?"
Luke: "They are not so upset that you did it but that you admitted it publicly."
"I don't think Fried does the kind of soul-searching and self-criticism necessary before you go attack others. I'll keep saying this. I like him. He's a friend of mine. But something made me uneasy about that book."
Luke: "Is part of the reason you quit the Times because of the hassle you got in shul about the paper?"
Ari: "Yes, it was a major reason. I had to answer not only for my sins but for the whole New York Times. It wasn't just, 'I didn't like your article', it was, 'I didn't like Tom Friedman's article.' I had to answer for the whole newspaper as well as criticisms of what I wrote, or why didn't I write, or could I come and write about this? That got to me after a while."
Luke: "Oh yeah, I understand. It's hard in Orthodox Jewish life to step outside the circle and just be a responsible journalist, particularly with Jewish issues. The community exerts tremendous pressure on you. Your second book was much more gentle than your first."
Ari: "There too I bend the rules a bit and talk about different approaches to halacha (Jewish Law) and the different ways people practice, as if everything they do is kosher. I got some criticism for that. The worst thing for any author is to be ignored and I didn't get attacked enough [for that book]. I should've been sharper.
"It's been almost ten years since I left, and people still come up to me and say, 'That New York Times.' There's no escape."
Rejected Again By The Rabbeim
I wanted to discuss Stephen Fried's new book The New Rabbi and the state of Jewish journalism with various esteemed leaders of the Conservative movement and they've all broken my heart.
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum writes: "Dear Luke, I appreciate your asking for my opinion, but I'm regretfully have to decline. I learned quite alot from working with Paul [Wilkes] and from the publication of the book. But, there were also some hard feelings created that took a long time to heal. Time to move on."
Rabbis David Ackerman, Joel Meyers, Elliot Dorff, Perry Netter, and Perry Rank did not answer my email requests for an interview.
Another Conservative Rabbi Complains About Author Stephen Fried's New Book
In an otherwise complimentary review, Rabbi Gerald L. Zelizer of Conservative Congregation Neve Shalom, in Metuchen, New Jersey, writes in the 12/30/02 Jerusalem Report magazine:
Luke says: Rabbi Zelizer knows less about journalism than Fried knows about Judaism. Since when do writers need to get permission from their subjects to reveal unfavorable personal information? For once these rabbis have to face up to some real journalism, not just the typically tame Jewish press.
An informed observer tells Luke: "It's my hunch that many of the rabbi in Fried's book didn't understand they were dealing with an investigative journalist who was going to paint a warts-and-all portrait of them. They were used to softball Jewish press. It became confusing for them because they came to see Fried as a friend more than a journalist."
Congregation's search, and an author's
In 1998, Har Zion, a Jewish congregation in Penn Valley, on the Main Line, set out to find a new rabbi. A book focusing solely on that search would be limited, with niche appeal.
But that's not what Stephen Fried has written, even if the subtitle is "A Congregation Searches for Its Leader." Fried, an author and magazine writer who edited Philadelphia Magazine for 21 months while he was writing the book, was mourning the loss of his father when his research began. The death of a parent was - as it is frequently for sons and daughters - the pivotal event that turned Fried, in mourning, back to his religious roots.
So two things were happening to the author at once. He was chronicling the exit of one of America's most prominent rabbis, Gerald Wolpe, who for a stellar 30 years had guided the spiritual life of one of America's most powerful synagogues, a place where there are enough machers - Yiddish for big-deal people, and sort of rhymes with hawker - to even have a macher pecking order. While Wolpe was going through the unsettling process of stepping out, Fried was experiencing the comforting and magnetizing dynamic of stepping in; he was becoming Jewish in a way he had never been as an adult. He was attending services each day to say Kaddish, the mourners' prayer for the dead, which is, in translation, not a prayer for the dead but an affirmation of belief in God. He was studying Jewish texts. He was, in a sense, rediscovering his faith.
And then he did a brave thing. He wrote a book that blended the two themes. The New Rabbi is about two sorts of searches, the frustrating search for someone to follow the act of a genuine rabbinical icon whose sermonizing was, among his many strengths, the major draw at his synagogue. And a mourner's search for his new self. The seamless way that Fried (he pronounces it freed) weaves the two searches is remarkable; the challenges of the synagogue committee charged with finding and naming the new rabbi complement Fried's own discoveries.
He tells his two stories like a novelist and, in fact, his book has the feel of a good piece of fiction, although it is carefully reported. But the tension is there, and so are the many well-drawn characters who happen to be real. (Only in a few cases did Fried change names, and he makes sure to tell us when he does.)
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Review: An award-winning investigative reporter goes inside the process of hiring a new rabbi in a gripping, multilayered account that will resonate with anyone concerned about the state of organized religion today. Reviewed by Neal Karlen
The dramatic stakes could have been exceptionally low in this tale of how one religious congregation chooses its new torchbearer -- especially since said religion encompasses only 3 percent of the U.S. population. Yet Stephen Fried makes the reader care in "The New Rabbi," his multilayered chronicle of postmillennial organized religion, leaps of faith, tempestuous family biography and the political dybbuks creating mayhem behind most spiritual lecterns.
His book should keep both Jews and non-Jews turning pages to find out who gets the prize pulpit at Philadelphia's venerable Har Zion -- and who is still conversing over the pews after this bruising contest of will, theology and personal temperament.
An investigative reporter and winner of a National Magazine Award, Fried cracked the dark sides of the modeling world in "Thing of Beauty" and the drug industry in "Bitter Pills." Here, however, he makes clear his new effort is about faith and God, not Woodward and Bernstein.
"I needed comfort," he says, "and the synagogue happened to be a place where I found it."
Yet while sheathing his journalistic knives in a surprisingly emotional quest, Fried comes up with his most revelatory work. "I'm about to turn 40 and I just lost my father," Fried writes. "I have reached the point in life when all answers turn back into questions."
Thankfully, he finds humor in his bewilderment. For strength, Fried begins listening again to the rabbi of his youth, the nationally known scholar Gerald Wolpe, 70, who will shortly be retiring after 30 years as leader of the 1,400-family-strong Har Zion. It's time to go, Wolpe jokes to Fried, because he is slipping into his "anecdotage."
Fried pulls no punches in using the total access he was granted to Wolpe, his family, the synagogue's selection committee and Conservative Judaism's New York-based Rabbinical Assembly that helps place candidates. To Wolpe, it's what has become part of "the retail business of religion" -- any religion -- that has come to swallow up young rabbis like his publicity-hungry son, David.
The intrafamily drama crackles. Monica Lewinsky's father belongs to David Wolpe's Los Angeles synagogue, and when the rabbi sermonizes against former President Bill Clinton's relationship with her, he is besieged by the press as "Monica's rabbi." He quickly appears on two network newscasts, is quoted by the Associated Press and agrees to go on CNN and the "Today" show.
"I told him to shut it down immediately," the elder Wolpe says.
Jim Remsen, staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, writes: The rabbi of one of the region's largest and most prominent synagogues, Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, has resigned amid turmoil.Rabbi Jacob Herber is the subject of a new book, The New Rabbi, which chronicled the Main Line congregation's torturous search for a rabbi, which led to Herber's appointment two years ago.In a farewell letter that reached the congregation's 1,400 families this week, Rabbi Herber said he was stepping down "to heal the fissures within..."
Stephen Fried Chews Gum, Chats With Rabbi David Wolpe
I meet author Stephen Fried 1/29/03 at Temple Sinai in Westwood. I've brought along my non-Jewish friend Tiffany Stone for the dialogue between Fried and Rabbi David Wolpe, a subject of Fried's book The New Rabbi.
Fried chews gum and doesn't wear a yarmulke. He chats with people until the program starts. At 7:35PM, as he prepares to go onstage, he says, "Oh, I better put on a yarmulke."
Fried chews gum throughout the evening's discussion. Not a big deal you say. Well, I was brought up that one doesn't do this in a formal setting. It's not respectful. Rabbi Wolpe thinks the same way. I heard him once say from the pulpit that it is not appropriate to chew gum in synagogue.
It's not unusual for men in a Conservative synagogue to not wear a yarmulke (it's unheard of in an Orthodox shul), unless they are in the sanctuary, where it is mandatory.
Fried is bigger and beefier than I imagined. He handles Wolpe's questions well. Sometimes he goes on too long and the rabbi interrupts him. The rabbi is friendly, but is not afraid to raise the criticisms his colleagues made of the book. Tiffany finds the discussion interesting. She too is surprised that Fried chews gum.
Rabbi David Wolpe' first question: "Before coming here, I was at a shiva house where I met a rabbi who said I could quote him by name, [University of Judaism rosh yeshiva] Brad Artson. I said to him, 'What should I ask Steve Fried?' [Rabbi Artson replied] 'If you believed in a God and a Final Judgement, would you have written the book the same way?'"
Stephen, taken aback: "Wow. That's the first question? When people are upset about a book and they come to talk to you, they expect that the point you brought up is one you totally haven't thought of. It doesn't occur to them that you might have thought of it, carefully considered it, and still made the same decision. I've been doing [journalism] for 20 years. I spent four years researching the book and I had a lot of time to think about what I could and couldn't do... I think that some of the people upset with the book are under the impression that this was done off the top of the head. It wasn't.
"There are a group of rabbis with specific concerns about [the book]. I hear from a lot of people who have a warm response, some of whom are surprised to hear about what the rabbis are upset about. I don't think the issues that the rabbis have focused on would be in most people's top ten [list of concerns with the book]."
Rabbi Wolpe: "When you first contacted me about what you were planning to do, I thought, 'This is a book that will interest few people.' I couldn't imagine that change of leadership in a synagogue would be a big topic."
Stephen: "I owe David and his family a great deal of gratitude. They were patient with me. I'm not sure that they understood what the book was going to be. Neither of us did."
Rabbi: "It's like the blind people and the elephant. You give everybody their slice but you are not going to go over the whole book with anyone, which makes sense."
Stephen: "The process that I set out to watch, and the people in it, changed so much over time that I don't think any of us could have expected many of the things that happened that the book ended up being about.
"You guys left when your father changed jobs [when Fried was eleven years old] and left our congregation in Harrisburg, [New Jersey]. When you are eleven years old and your synagogue changes rabbis and people are talking about it for years, you remember that.
"The book was always a combination of me dealing with my own spirituality and being back in a synagogue, and your father announced his retirement and said I could follow the life of the synagogue. I'm not sure he knew what that meant. The rabbi search was supposed to be a contained thing. The retirement was supposed to be a contained thing. Certain types of books grow organically.
"You never know how a book will sell and I really don't care. The best thing about books is that you get paid in advance for them."
Rabbi Wolpe: "I've had several rabbis say to me that what they want every member of their board to read it."
Stephen: "I have this deep belief that a lot of things happen in life because people communicate badly. Every family would like a guy like me to come in and ask all the questions that they never got to ask so they can stop being upset about things... I started my career doing an investigative piece about a series of teenage suicides in a small town where the parents still didn't know anything about what their kids had gone through. It became my job to recreate the kids' lives and figure out what had gone wrong.
"Most people don't know the basic processes of synagogue. And when there's a rabbi search, they find out afterwards many of the things they didn't know. What Har Zion did was right and wrong."
Rabbi Wolpe mentions a comment he made to Fried that he asked Fried to not put in the book. Fried agreed. The rabbi wondered if it was because Fried was Jewish and not just an observer of Jewish life.
Stephen: "In all big investigative projects...you've been around so long, you've become kinda an insider. I'm Jewish but I'm not a rabbi. I tried to let the reader in on any possible bias, on times when I'm sitting in synagogue and I'm wondering - am I a journalist or am I praying? If people make a reasonable request to not include a comment, then [Fried tries to accommodate them].
"Investigative reporting is my strange way of becoming part of a community. It's easier for me than to just go in and hope that people will be nice to me."
Rabbi David Wolpe: "My father said he personally had no complaints but had he known the synagogue was going to fall apart, I wouldn't have agreed [to cooperate with Fried] because it is painful for me to see this place fall apart and have it all documented so that everybody could read it. He thought it was going to be a nice graceful exit and a nice graceful entrance and everything would be fine.
"A rabbi [say Perry Rank] goes in for an interview that he assumes will be confidential, and what he says or doesn't say, or his deficiencies are there for thousands of people to read. Is it a legitimate journalistic undertaking to violate by proxy someone's confidence because someone on the committee says something to you?"
Stephen: "Using the term 'violate by proxy' gives me some idea where you stand on the issue. I understand. Part of the book was to follow the rabbi search. The search committee did not allow me to sit in on their meetings but this committee, like every other committee in a synagogue, is a sieve. And I don't think there is anything wrong with...letting the rest of the community know what is going on in the committee. I have been through a number of rabbi searches in different congregations and I have never known one to be secretive. As soon as a rabbi candidate leaves, people ask people on the committe, what was the rabbi like? What did you like about him and what did you not like about him?
"In this case, there were many rabbis who did not get an interview and were angry about it. Some of the rabbis who were angry about the book...felt badly treated by Har Zion. And then to see it in a book was even worse.
"I talk about a lot of different rabbis in the book. Some of them I sat down with and interviewed them about their interviews. The ones who are referred to in anything more than a paragraph or two fall into that category. The rabbis they considered heavily, I spent time with.
"One of the complaints that people have made is that rabbis should be different from everybody else who is hired in America. This is no different journalistically than covering who will be the next schoolboard president or the next president of a major corporation. The process has value. Following the process has value. I stand by it journalistically and Jewishly.
"One of the things the rabbis are claiming is baloney - that the search committees are private. Many synagogues put the pictures of the rabbi candidates in the bulletin. They come in and speak.
"I tried to be careful to deal with rabbis by the rules they lived by. I wasn't trying to trick rabbis into thinking I wasn't a journalist. When I talked to them, I always had a tape recorder or laptop. I was never trying to lull anybody into thinking I was just their pal and wasn't going to write a book.
"Some of [the rabbi critics] have had revisionist moments about whether they talked to me. I've heard people who [gave me] things to put in the book and then I hear from their colleagues that they are mad that it is in there. I don't blame them for that. It is a weird thing to be a character in a book."
Rabbi Wolpe: "For anybody who has ever been quoted on anything, your words on a page always feel different from the words coming out of your mouth, so there's an initial shock, particularly for people who have not seen themselves quoted before."
Stephen: "Part of the problem here is that the Jewish press ignores rabbis except to write your commentaries."
Rabbi Wolpe: "There's no reporting on them."
Stephen: "Because synagogue life is ignored by the Jewish press, rabbis are not used to the normal give and take than anybody else would have. Every rabbi I know is a voracious reader of the media. And when it comes to Israel, they are happy to see this level of journalism pushed to the Nth degree. I've had rabbis write that I needed their permission to print true things about them. Even public things about them, such as what their previous jobs were. This is a fantasy. Rabbis are public figures.
"One of the rabbis who has been the most voracious attacker of my book, who wrote a letter to one of the major Jewish newspapers that reading the book was immoral, is one of the people I took something out that he begged me to take out."
Rabbi Wolpe: "There's a human desire to have your activities known, but not in a bad way. I read through the book. I thought it was fine. Yet, if you think that everything that was negative about [Wolpe's family] didn't strike me with a special force..."
Question: "So what happened at Har Zion?"
Stephen: "The process got out of everybody's control. They are still piecing it together. Har Zion made a deal with the Rabbinical Assembly [union for Conservative rabbis] that once Rabbi [Jacob] Herber had been a rabbi for six years, they could install him as senior rabbi. By the time his six years had come up, there was internal stuff going on in the synagogue, so the synagogue announced they were postponing his installation. They believed that would allow everybody to take a deep breath, have a reality check, and make the situation better. Instead, it made everybody lawyer-up and be scared and it was no big surprise when four months later, people were discussing offering Rabbi Herber a buy-out of his contract. Word got around the congregation and people went nuts because they felt something was happening behind their backs that they didn't know about.
"This led to a raucous congregation meeting that 600 people came to. Rabbi Herber decided to resign."
Rabbi David Wolpe: "My father was in the forefront of the egalitarian movement in Conservative Judaism. He hired the first female rabbi ordained [at Jewish Theological Seminary] Amy Eilberg. When [Rabbi Gerald Wolpe] came, it was a very traditional synagogue. I remember that when he interviewed there, he was asked, 'How do you feel about coming to such a traditional place?' And he said, 'How do you feel about hiring such a radical rabbi?' They hired him. There was a meeting where they were going to take a vote over whether could have aliyot and read from the Torah and I really wanted to go. I knew it would be a huge meeting. I knew some of the players. He wouldn't let me go. He said to me, 'I don't know what people will say about me and I don't think you should be here to hear it.'"
It reminds me of when my mother brought me to Glacier View in the summer of 1980 to see a week-long conference about my father's heretical views. Many people said many nasty things about my father and it upset me tremendously, even though I had promised my mother that I wouldnt' get upset.
Rabbi Wolpe: "The thing I resent most about the book is nothing that is in the book but it makes people come up to me and put their arm on their shoulder and say, 'Now I understand you...' And I just think, 'What page are they thinking of?'"
Stephen: "The thirst for information about the rabbi [in congregations] is unbelievable."
Rabbi Wolpe: "The hardest part of being a rabbi is the inevitability of disappointing people all the time. If I went to every life cycle event, it would be all that I do. Yet it's that family's only Bar Mitzvah."
I was in an Orthodox shul this morning and I ran into a strange creature - a Conservative rabbi.
Luke: "What did you think of THE NEW RABBI?"
Rabbi: "I couldn't finish it. I read the part about my friend Rabbi Rank and it was too painful..."
I thought he was about to cry. I asked him about AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE. The rabbi said it made him want to go home, take a nice warm bath, and open up a vein.
A Chat With Rabbi Michael Resnick
One of my favorite Los Angeles rabbis is Michael Resnick of the Westside Conservative synagogue Adat Shalom.
In the 12/5/97 edition of the Jewish Journal, Robert Eshman wrote: A native of Sepulveda, he attended Har Zion Synagogue (it has since merged with Temple Ramat Zion) but stopped his Jewish education at age 13. After graduating from Cal State Northridge, he embarked on a career in advertising. But a visit to Israel during the Gulf War inspired him to change course. He attended the Pardes Institute there, then returned to the States to study and receive his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He took the pulpit of Adat Shalom in August, replacing the recently retired Rabbi Morton Wallach, who served there for 24 years.
Demographic shifts had been tough on the 50-year-old Conservative shul, whose modern structure sits on a prime block of Westside real estate across from Trader Joe's market on National Boulevard. Adat Shalom has been losing members for the past six years. About 250 families and individuals belong to the congregation now, down from a peak of 450. The decline also plunged the shul into a series of financial crises.
I spoke by phone with Rabbi Resnick 2/12/03 about Stephen Fried's book, The New Rabbi.
Rabbi Resnick: "I started reading it but I ran out of patience with it. I'm hesitent to tell you what I really think."
The rabbi pauses for about five seconds. "I think being a rabbi is a really tough job. Replacing a beloved rabbi is really really difficult. Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe is clearly beloved by his congregation. At the same time, I think congregations begin to overestimate their own importance and their sense of who's good enough to serve in their congregation. I think there's a reason [Har Zion in Philadelphia] is still looking for a rabbi. Get over it. Hire someone to lead the congregation and move on."
Luke: "What about the book and its painful details about various rabbis?"
Rabbi Resnick: "I never got to painful details about anybody. I'm still at the part where Rabbi Wolpe was giving one of his farewell sermons during the High Holidays. At that point, I just got sick of it and put it down.
"The last thing I want to do as a rabbi is hear about the nonsense that goes on in congregations. If I'm going to have some free time to read, I'm going to read Tolstoy or Chekhov and not read about the business that I'm in that I find sometimes to be unhealthy."
Luke: "Was the book painful?"
Rabbi Resnick: "No. It was annoying. The congregation and the search committee and the different personalities and what they're looking for and ahh... The more I read it, the more I felt, who needs this? So I put it down. It strikes too close to home sometimes. In my free time, I'd rather not remind myself of the politics of a shul and enrich myself in other ways."
Luke: "What sentiments are you picking up from your rabbinic colleagues about the book?"
Rabbi Resnick: "I've not spoken to any rabbis about it. My congregants are suggesting that I read it. I'm having people say to me, 'Have you read this book, The New Rabb?' I was not aware that there were insulting details about other rabbis."
Luke: "Not insulting, just painful to some of the rabbis concerned, and their friends. The details were accurate."
Rabbi Resnick: "A colleague of mine is mentioned, a guy I went to rabbinical school with and graduated with, Jacob Herber. I was upset to hear Rabbi Schoenberg say, 'Jacob is not just up to it. He's not quite ready for a synagogue this size.' Jacob was a wonderful sensitive caring intelligent rabbi and I'm sure he's only grown since. It annoyed me to hear Elliott making judgments about what his capabilities are. Sometimes people rise to the occasion."
Luke: "Do you believe that rabbis are public figures and deserve to be held to the same sort of scrutiny we give leaders in other fields such as business and sports?"
Rabbi Resnick: "No. He's a figure within his own community. He or she gets enough scrutiny from the congregants. And the scrutiny is inevitably skewed. Nobody knows how your manner is at the bedside of somebody who is dying. No one knows your sensitivity and kindness. And to hold you up to public scrutiny for the quality of a sermon or your personal life or your intellectual skills is just wrong. There is so much of a rabbi beyond the eyes of the public and to only focus on public issues is misleading for what a rabbi does."
Luke: "I remember the panel you were on about sex and dating."
Rabbi Resnick: "We were up there representing tradition and people didn't like it. God forbid I say you shouldn't marry a non-Jew. Forgive me, go marry one, just don't expect me to agree with it. It's an interesting business but to read about the trials and tribulations and the process that goes on in a synagogue... Synagogues can be dysfunctional families. Sometimes they can be functional families."
Luke: "Are you looking forward to the Rabbinical Assembly conference this year?"
Rabbi Resnick: "It's always great to get together with colleagues in a way that's not just kvetching [complaining]. It's good to share ideas and look for ways to bring people closer to God and the love of Judaism into peoples' lives. I did not find that this book had any kind of ultimate benefit towards doing that."
Luke: "This RA meeting could be ripped apart over the debate about ordaining homosexuals? It could be bitter?"
Rabbi Resnick: "It has the potential for it but it won't be the first time they've wrestled with complicated issues. A good debate is good. 'An argument for the sake of heaven' is a concept in Judaism. Let it rock n'roll."
Luke: "You don't think it will tear Conservative Judaism in two?"
Rabbi Resnick: "No. Conservative Judaism has an identity crisis. It's easier to be a Reform Jew or an Orthodox Jew because you know much clearer who you are. Conservative Judaism is a huge gamut. There are Conservative Jews who share an ideology with Orthodoxy and are observant like Orthodox Jews and there are Conservative Jews who would be incredibly comfortable in a Reform synagogue and living a Reform lifestyle. So what's Conservative?"
A book published last year, Stephen Fried's The New Rabbi (2), usefully chronicles the tribulations of one particular congregation, an affluent and well-established Conservative synagogue in the suburbs of Philadelphia that was seeking to replace its retiring rabbi after 30 years of service. After a national search that lasted over a year and failed to accomplish its goal, the synagogue settled on the rabbi's assistant, a man just a few years out of rabbinical school. As the book indirectly attests, what had stymied the congregation was not only a dearth of candidates but also its own uncertainty about what it was looking for. Some congregants, Fried reports, were enamored of the departing rabbi's "muscular and musical [voice], with an accent that sounded vaguely British." One was intent on finding a candidate who could match the powerful sermon given by the departing rabbi on the Sabbath after JFK's assassination in November 1963. (Or so this congregant remembered; as Fried notes, the rabbi had not actually joined the congregation until 1969.) For still others, the search was for someone who would make the synagogue "great" for their children, or would meet their own needs in middle age and beyond.
In short, the congregation wanted a rabbi who had it all, and would do it all. And this is thoroughly typical. Fried cites a placement executive at a rabbinic organization: "Congregations all want... someone who attends every meeting and is at his desk working until midnight, someone who is twenty-eight years old but has preached for thirty years, someone who has a burning desire to work with teenagers but spends all his time with senior citizens, basically someone who does everything well and will stay with the congregation forever."
Several other developments contributed to the erosion of the rabbis' status. One was the society-wide assault on authority, of which many rabbis were simultaneously victims and initiators (3). Catering to the newly modish disdain for formality, rabbis refashioned themselves, trading in their suits for leisure wear, abandoning the tide "Rabbi Cohen" for "Rabbi Bob," and dropping formal sermons in favor of free-flowing discussion that might include an exchange of views with congregants. More critically still, many relinquished their roles as authorities in matters of Jewish religious law; to quote Daniel Jeremy Silver again, by the mid-1980's, rabbis were making "a virtue of being nonjudgmental."
The decades-long erosion of authority, and of authority figures, in American culture at large has translated into an all-out assault upon "hierarchy" within the synagogue. As I noted earlier, the assault has been led partly from within. Thus, David Teutsch, the former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, warned his colleagues several years ago to avoid "maximiz[ing] the more dramatic, awe-inspiring aspect of their role...rather than the more consultative, personal aspect."
Feminists have fueled this deprecation of "hierarchical" models of leadership, in some cases seeking to substitute a new and distinctly "female" approach to the rabbinate. "Women's center of focus is on people rather than principles," writes one female Reconstructionist rabbi approvingly; their goal is not "to move up, to be alone at the top, but rather... to connect with others, to be together at the center." Others are less sure about this--"some of us [women] are nurturing, others are not," as one puts it--but quite a few seem to agree that the very exercise of religious authority borders on the psychopathological. Here is the feminist critic Rachel Adler: "The congregation agrees to invest the rabbi with unqualified, unique power and knowledge. The rabbi agrees to impersonate the ideal parent of childhood fantasy, who nurtures selflessly and magically ensures safety and well-being. The pact offers the rabbi a grandiose and inflated self-image. It gives the congregation an amulet to ward off personal and communal evil."
And so forth. The same anti-clerical spirit, informed by the same vastly inflated estimate of the rabbi's "unqualified, unique power," inhabits other sectors of the Jewish world as well. One journalist, for instance, and has asserted that today's rabbis are at "war" with the Jews they serve and has issued a call to arms under the tide, "Taking on Our Rabbis." The past president of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, has urged any congregation dissatisfied with its rabbi's teachings to rise up and "fire the rabbi and get one who will do its bidding." One would hardly know from any of this that the days of the rabbi as orator and high priest are long gone, orthat, when it comes to congregants' religious practice, most rabbis are, if anything, accommodating to a fault.
Imbalanced and Toxic?
I asked the head of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ), Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, to participate in a UJ panel on Jewish journalism. I directed him to my discussion of Stephen Fried's book The New Rabbi. This book symbolizes to me great Jewish journalism.
Rabbi Artson replies, copying the email to Gady Levy, head of adult education at UJ: "Dear Mr. Ford; I did review your website, and find it imbalanced and toxic, particularly toward rabbis and Conservative Judaism. I am not willing to participate in your panel."
Rabbi Artson happily expounds at length in private with his peers on how horrible The New Rabbi is and how un-Jewish and unethical it is, but I've yet to see him stand and deliver his thoughts publicly. How Jewish and ethical is that? Slam the book privately, challenge whether the author Stephen Fried believes in God and a Final Judgment, but when asked to publicly justify his harsh sentiments, Rabbi Artson refuses.
That so many Conservative rabbis, particularly Conservative leaders like Rabbi Artson, don't want to publicly discuss this book, The New Rabbi, makes it seem to many of us that they are thin-skinned control freaks who expect only deferential treatment from journalists. Unlike leaders in other spheres of life, such rabbis expect to not be challenged and held accountable by the news media. What's amusing is that they've always been able to get away with this stance due to the timid and deferential approach of Jewish newspapers such as the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.
I asked Rabbi Artson many months ago for comment on this book. I referred him to the dozen or so interviews I've done on the topic with rabbis, Jewish journalists, and authors of respected Jewish books. I got no reply.
I will keep asking Conservative leaders to comment on the book and I will keep noting when they wimp out.
An assistant rabbi at Temple Sinai said The New Rabbi was filled with lashon hara. He hated the book.
I call author Stephen Fried Sunday afternoon, February 22, 2004.
Luke: "Have you noticed any arc in reactions to your book The New Rabbi?"
Stephen: "More people have read it now, so the reactions are to the book and not to the idea of the book. I give a lot more talks now so a lot more people can have a dialogue with me. I speak to a lot of Jewish congregations and book fairs."
Luke: "Rabbi Jacob Herber, the young rabbi who took over Har Zion and then left?"
Stephen: "He stopped talking to me before the book was published. He was generous with me with his time for years. And then, in a scene I wrote about in the new afterword to the book, he told me that if I wanted to talk to him any further about the book, I should talk to his lawyer. It was at an Oneg Shabbat. The book was done. I had no interest in that. I was only interested in talking to him personally. In his defense, at that time, things at the synagogue had gotten very difficult. The atmosphere was harsh.
"Rabbi Herber is now at a synagogue in Milwaukee. I hear he is doing excellently there. He's at the synagogue that Rabbi Lee Buckman left (one of the candidates for the original Har Zion job)."
Luke: "How's Har Zion?"
Stephen: "I haven't been there. They have a new rabbi who just started, Jay Stein. They hired him last Spring, but because of a contractual snafu, his congregation wouldn't let him leave until the late fall. There was an interim rabbi through the high holidays. I spoke to him briefly before the book came out. He comes from a rabbinic family. His dad is well known in Connecticut and is well known in the RA [Rabbinic Assembly, rabbinic union for Conservative rabbis, the centrist movement in American Judaism].
"As a new rabbi, one of the first things you have to do is get up to speed on a congregation -- it's history, internal DNA, the high points and low points. Unlike most cases where you only get the anniversary book (pictures of who gave what from the big luncheons), now he has a solid history of the synagogue.
"The more I speak at synagogues and look at rabbi searches, I realize that understanding a synagogue's past is something that people don't take seriously enough. A lot of people in synagogues haven't belonged to them for that long. The things that people assume everyone knows, in fact, many people don't know. It's valuable to retell and reinvestigate its history. A lot of things that have happened are going to happen again. I don't think a lot of people at Har Zion knew that Har Zion had had a contentious rabbi search before. They didn't know that the search that led to the hiring of Rabbi [Gerald] Wolpe was every bit as difficult as this one was.
"A lot of synagogues doing rabbi searches do focus groups to find out from their congregants what they want in a rabbi. I've suggested they need some process whereby congregants can also discuss what has been happening at the synagogue in the past weeks, years, and decades, to clear the air. I was amazed by the number of old Har Zionites who had the most incredible disinformation about the history of their own synagogue. They had made decisions about who they liked and hated based on information that I could prove to them was wrong. Synagogues are bad at disseminating information unless it is news about somebody giving money."
Luke: "Have there been any changes in Jewish journalism as a result of your book?"
Stephen: "I'm sure a lot of people at Jewish newspapers look at the reporting in the book and ask themselves if there is a way to go further in what they do without having the world fall off its axis. Different papers are different in their level of access and bravery. I spoke at the Gralla Program at Brandeis University this past summer. It brings together Jewish journalists. There's a wide disparity in Jewish newspapers. Some papers aren't allowed to report anything but the party line; others are relatively free. None of them can be as aggressive as The Forward. I get interviewed by a lot of these journalists and I get the feeling that they want to try to get behind the scenes at what is happening in various synagogues and other Jewish organizations. There's always the danger that somebody is going to criticize what you print claiming that they did not give you permission to print it—as if a journalist needs their permission—or that your reporting constitutes lashon hara [Hebrew term for evil gossip]. It was clear that the journalists I spoke to at Brandeis had been through such accusations before. We talked about whether we can create an idea of lashon hara that is also based upon rules of journalism. I do believe there is a Jewish way of doing journalism. I've had this conversation with Ari Goldman and Sam Freedman (authors and professors at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism).
"The quashing of people's legitimate desire to know more about their communities by saying it is lashon hara is bad. I've never met a rabbi that didn't gossip like crazy, although I don't think it is more gossipy than any other profession. I think they need to make some peace with journalism. American clergy are incredibly reliant upon journalism. They are voracious readers of The New York Times. They are some of the greatest readers I know. I just wish they would have a more open-minded view of the goals of journalism."
Luke: "Anyone come to you and say, 'I was wrong about your book. I initially had an emotional reaction against what you were doing but now that I've come to think about it, I was wrong.'"
Stephen: "I've had a number of rabbi come up to me after I give talks (not the rabbis who invited me) who said that they now felt differently about the book having heard me talk about it. They saw how I answered their questions, and saw that a lot of their preconceived ideas of who I was, and why I wrote this, weren’t accurate.
"I think much of the laity is baffled about why their rabbis are upset over the book. To them, The New Rabbi romanticizes the challenges of being in the American clergy. When they heard there was upset from the Rabbinical Assembly, I think they were confused because the book pretty much makes the RA out to be a smart bunch who predicted all the things that would happen at the synagogue.
"Jack Wertheimer, provost at JTS (Jewish Theological Seminary), wrote nice things about the book in Commentary magazine. I did have a meeting with Rabbis Meyers and Schoenberg, the professional leaders of the RA. I can't go into the details. I'm teaching at Columbia University and so I'm in the neighborhood. My goal at this point is to have a dialogue with everyone who is still really angry so we can discuss the issues.
"I get around to a lot more synagogues (two dozen in the past year, from Miami to Seattle, San Diego to Detroit, as many Reform synagogues as Conservative) than most rabbis do. I think they're curious about what I hear out there.
"As soon as a synagogue has a rabbi search, people read the book. I hear from as many Reform rabbis as Conservative."
Luke: "Did you make any significant corrections to the paperback edition?"
Stephen: "I heard from a number of Reform rabbis who felt that some of the passing rhetoric about the Reform movement, which they understood came to me from my sources in the Conservative movement, was unfair and harsh. They urged me to look at certain things I'd said about the Reform movement. I ended up changing a number of words about Reform practice. I think my observations are fairer now.
"I heard from a number of different sources that certain things could be better and I tried to quietly make them better. I love that process."
Luke: "Did you make any change to that most controversial sentence in your book? From page 93: 'In Judaism, belief in God is optional...'"
Stephen: "It was the most controversial sentence in the book to you."
Luke: "No, you said it was the most controversial sentence."
On 1/5/03, Fried told me: "Those seven words have had more discussion than any other seven words in the book."
Stephen: "As time has gone on, the most controversial stuff that I hear is from the handful of rabbis who are really mad about a few sentences about them. I talked about that [God sentence] with people and I didn’t change it. I thought about it. When I was going back over things, what I was really looking at were the sections in the book where I heard from people. That's why it is important that if people are mad about something, they should let the author know.
"For the paperback edition, I added a 16-page afterword. When I went back to Har Zion, things were rough. I hadn't been there. It was difficult to recreate what had happened. Most of the people at the synagogue didn't know. They knew [Rabbi Herber] was gone and the president had resigned but they didn't understand what had happened."
Luke: "Any changes in the way Conservative and Reform go about searching for a rabbi because of this book?"
Stephen: "United Synagogue (organization of Conservative synagogues) has wanted to play a greater role advocating on behalf of congregations [instead of the current situation where the rabbi’s union, the Rabbinical Assembly, is the main source of advice and information for both rabbis and the congregations that employ them]. Currently, synagogue leaders and members of rabbinic search committees go primarily to the RA for counsel. The congregations, I think, would like United Synagogue to be a little more independent and a little more helpful to them.
"The new United Synagogue leader for Eastern Pennsylvania is none other than Lew Grafman, who was president of Har Zion during the search that led to the hiring of Rabbi Herber. So people with different kinds of congregational experience seem to be getting involved with United Synagogue, which is good.
"The movements are organized differently. The Reform movement is more congregationalist. The Conservative movement has traditionally been driven by the rabbis. Even though the United Synagogue is its own entity, it still takes its lead from the Rabbinical Assembly. Reform rabbis are taught more about management and community relations, and I think Reform congregations get a little more support from the central office.
"But things are changing in the Reform movement. New rabbis in the Reform movement are generally more observant. Some are finding themselves in difficult situations, such as they come to a synagogue where the previous rabbi would perform intermarriages. While the movement leaves that decision to the rabbi’s discretion, a younger Reform rabbi is less likely to perform an intermarriage than the rabbis of the last generation."
Luke: "Are you more or less optimistic about the future of Jewish community in North America as opposed to our first conversation over a year ago?"
Stephen: "I'm more optimistic. The enthusiasm that people have about their communities and synagogues is infectious. The difficulties that many rabbis describe in the Conservative movement seem to me more troubling to the clergy than the congregants. As opposed to the great intellectual debates that make Conservative rabbis long for the good ol' days of the movement, when you go to a Conservative synagogue today, I think Conservative Judaism makes perfect sense to the people in the synagogue. The idea of a pluralistic movement on the traditional side is not as difficult for people to deal with as some of the intellectual questions the rabbis are wringing their hands over.
"I've always felt there was a disconnect between the clergy and the congregants. That's true across American religion. The good news is that the situation in congregations might be better than people think while the situation for rabbis may be worse than people realize. The pressures on rabbis are growing and worse than ever."
Luke: "According to the old saw, Conservative rabbis practice like Orthodox rabbis while their congregants barely practice at all."
Stephen: "I don't agree."
Luke: "Isn't practice of Judaism the biggest disconnect between Conservative rabbis and congregants? Most Conservative rabbis are shomer shabbat and won't drive on Shabbos."
Stephen: "No. Many Conservative rabbis drive on Shabbos. Out here in the suburbs, most of them drive. They may not be happy about it, but they do.
"It is time for us to realize that in Jewish America, when it comes to religious observance, there is disconnect between clergy and laity across the board."
Luke: "But not in Orthodoxy."
Stephen: "It is in Orthodoxy. You have many Modern Orthodox congregations that can not find Modern Orthodox rabbis and end up having Chabad rabbis who are more observant than them. People used to assume that having a rabbi more observant than the congregation was more of a Conservative problem, when the Conservative movement was the only pluralistic movement. But now this is true of all American Judaism.
"The younger Reform and Conservative rabbis are more observant than their congregants. The younger hardcore Orthodox rabbis are more observant than their Modern Orthodox congregants. The ability to find a rabbi who prays with his or her people at the same level of observance is more difficult than ever. Every rabbi would probably find it easier to pray to a congregation where the majority of the people in the congregation were practicing Judaism the same way they were. This is an issue that now exists in every American congregation except for ultra-Orthodox congregations where everybody is on the same page.
"When I go to these synagogues, I am pleasantly surprised to see that the regular Shabbat group that does stuff together is not three people. Sometimes it is several dozen people of different ages. You see families getting their kids into it because it is their lifestyle.
"One of the disconnects between the clergy and the laity is the disconnect between the employee and the employed. Some of these are management and community issues, not Jewish issues. The disconnect between the observance of the rabbi and the congregation mostly comes up in situations where a prominent member of the synagogue is intermarried or something, so the rabbi must make a ruling about whether somebody can get an aliyah (an honorary call to the Torah before the congregation)."
Luke: "That's only in Reform, right?"
Stephen: "No. Conservative rabbis are certainly asked to bend or ignore the rules quite often..."
Luke: "Allow non-Jews to have an aliyah?"
Stephen: "People often want the rabbi to bend the rules for them. And, you know, it's not as if when they call you to the Torah, everybody in the congregation questions if you're Jewish. The issue is often a quiet one that speaks loudly. Just because the main office in New York says this is Conservative practice doesn’t mean that’s always what happens. In every movement, we have rules for what Jews are supposed to do, and then we have wide variations in how Jews, even 'observant' Jews, actually live...
"In many ways, I think more important to a community than observance issues should be issues like--if somebody in need, do they get help? That's much higher up in the needs of a true loving community than some of these religious issues. These matters come down to Jewish Law, but also the realities of history, money, and timing and health. Health makes an impact on many decisions. There's a lot of human drama going on that the Torah is there to inform and help people with. It's not always a perfect solution or explanation."
Luke: "How have the Orthodox reacted to your book?"
Stephen: "I don't live much in the Orthodox community so I don't know their reaction as well. I haven't seen anybody speak to the press about it. I’ve heard from some Orthodox readers who loved the book. And I’ve heard from others who say the book reinforces to them what is wrong with Conservative Judaism. You even said that to me. And I guess what I would say to the latter group is this: you’re lucky I did not come do the book about your Orthodox congregation because I believe there would be just as wide a variation in observance there as at Har Zion. We have to get out of our heads what really went on during those 'good old days' of American congregations. There might've been more attendance, but I’m not so sure about observance."
Luke: "Did you find that people read the book you wrote?"
Stephen: "Yes, for the first time in my career, actually. The reviews of the book have all been of the book and not the subject."
Luke: "Have you been harassed or had any death threats?"
Stephen: "I’ve had some heated discussions at public appearances, but nothing I thought was harassment or dangerous in any way. I welcome the arguments about the book. There’s nothing wrong with a little drama at a Jewish book event. I spoke at the Miami Jewish Book Fair and Leonid Feldman—whose dramatic departure from a Palm Beach pulpit (he punched his synagogue president in the mouth) is covered in the book—showed up. I had never met him, and did not know he was there. He got up in the middle of the Q&A and started going off. People at the book fair were mortified but I thought it was great. During the book signing, the children of the synagogue president who was punched by Rabbi Feldman talked to me."
Luke: "What did Rabbi Feldman say?"
Stephen: "I think he just wanted to complain. Afterwards, he sat next to me while I was signing books and we talked for about 15 minutes. He seemed fine. He let me know what happened. He has an ongoing thing with the RA."
Luke: "How's Rabbi Gerald Wolpe?"
Stephen: "It's been a challenging period for the Wolpes, primarily because of health issues. While I think many people know that David had brain surgery in the fall of 2003—and, thank god it was successful—many are aren’t aware that when it happened, Elaine Wolpe was still recovering from brain surgery she had needed seven month’s before David got ill. Rabbi Wolpe has had some health issues, too—although he and his son Paul were recently involved with a terrific medical ethics conference here in Philadelphia. And I know he is pleased that the new rabbi at Har Zion, Rabbi Jay Stein, seems to be doing quite well."