On a night packed with events ranging from the second game of the Yankees-Red Sox series to the final presidential debate, more than 100 students, professors and New Haven residents filled the Yale Law School auditorium Wednesday evening for a panel delving into the future of Judaism in the United States.
During the panel, leaders from each of the four major Jewish denominations reflected on the 350th anniversary of Judaism in the United States and offered their vision for its future. To highlight broad themes, they each incorporated aspects of Jewish history as well as their own experiences and academic endeavors into their comments on the panel, which was sponsored by the Judaic Studies Program and the Slifka Center.
Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, represented the Reform Judaism perspective, focusing on the steady acclimation of Jews into America’s culture. Describing the progress that Jews have made recently in America, Ellenson referred to his father, an Orthodox Jew, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1948.
“If he had worn a yarmulke publicly, that would have meant that he didn’t want a job in the law world,” Ellenson said.
While Judaism in America “has never been healthier,” Ellenson said, there is still a significant percentage of Jews — particularly in areas with smaller Jewish populations — who are not as engaged in the Jewish community as they could be.
Communicating the Orthodox perspective, Rabbi Yosef Blau, director of religious guidance at Yeshiva University, stressed the perseverance of Orthodox Jews as the national culture has evolved.
“One hundred-fifty years ago, no one would have predicted that there would have been an Orthodox member on this panel,” Blau said.
Blau said the nation’s tolerance of Orthodox practices has grown, citing recent increases in the number of Jewish day schools around the country.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, who spoke about Conservative Judaism, said he sees promising signs for the religion, such as an increasing “hunger” among students to study Torah. Delivering what he referred to as “a paradigmatic analysis,” Schorsch said Jews tend to identify closely with liberal ideals, citing their revolutionary history.
“Jews support the forces of society that opened up doors for [their] acceptance,” Schorsch said. “Jews identified with religious forces that sought to create new order that would tolerate religious freedom.”
Shifting discussion away from American Judaism, Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said Jews face a “great challenge” to act quickly in order to remain a permanent force in Israel despite violence in the region.
“We have to remain a force for good and find a way to meet the challenge,” Ehrenkrantz said. “Leaders have to bring past into present.”
Rena Cheskis-Gold, a former Yale employee who currently works as a demographic consultant, said she thinks all audience members, regardless of their denominations, could relate to the panel because it was more about building a sense of community across the country than about preaching specific religious doctrines.
“This is a historic event,” Cheskis-Gold said.
Ben Siegel ’07 said he was excited to hear Jewish academic luminaries discuss different facets of the religion.
“[They] steered away from talking about any issues of contention between the various denominations,” Siegel said.