Friendship Before Philosophy: The Formula For Winning the Unity Prize

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This week marked the fourth yahrzeit of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali, the three boys tragically kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2014.  Their disappearance and subsequent deaths united our people, not only in Israel, but around the world.  Jews in communities across the globe felt connected, bound by a shared history and destiny.

For eighteen days, our differences and disagreements didn’t matter, our diverse opinions and interests didn’t divide us.  For a short time, Jews of various backgrounds, philosophies and denominations felt as one, all pained by the episode and all invested in what this meant for our people, our country, and our future.  None of us will ever forget the experience of being glued to the news, desperate for an update in the search for the boys and holding out hope for good news.  When the news arrived and it was the worst possible outcome, we remained united in grieving, mourning and in our outpouring of support for the people of Israel and members of the IDF defending them.


In an effort to capture the feelings from that summer, and to perpetuate them going forward, the three families collaborated with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and the organization Gesher, instituting the Jerusalem Unity Prize and inaugurating the observance of Unity Day.


While unfortunately most of the Jewish world has since returned to the disunity that characterized the days before the summer of 2014, the Unity Prize seeks to recognize those that maintain a commitment to Jewish unity and work to spread the values and practice of Jewish peoplehood.


This year, we are immeasurably proud and honored that the Boca Raton Jewish community has been awarded the 2018 Jerusalem Unity Prize. An interdenominational delegation of rabbis and community leaders will travel to Israel this week to receive the award at the home of Israel’s President, Ruvi Rivlin.  While I truly wish I could travel among them, the ceremony conflicts with my daughter’s high school graduation and the father prize comes first.


Why has our community of South Palm Beach County been singled out for this distinction?  Matt Levin and his team at our Jewish Federation and Rabbi Broide and his amazing work at the Deborah and Larry D. Silver Center for Jewish Engagement have played a critical role in bringing our diverse communities together to collaborate on projects, participate in dialogue, and work together.


There is no question there are critically important, foundational, and fundamental issues we disagree about.  Torah, halacha and mesorah are immutable; they are non-negotiable.  A fidelity to our tradition demands that we reject the legitimacy of distortions or misrepresentations of it.


So how do we maintain our beliefs and stay true to our principles and at the same time practice unity and peoplehood?  The answer is rather simple and straightforward.


In 2003, as a young Assistant Rabbi at BRS, I served as one of the rabbis on the March of the Living, a teen trip to Poland and Israel.  At the time, I didn’t have relationships with rabbis of the other denominations in Boca and hadn’t worked with them on any projects.  The foundation and formation of my connection with them came from a shared experience, a profound journey through the darkest period of our people’s history.  Following the emotional march from Auschwitz to Birkenau with thousands of teenagers, we took a three-hour train ride to Warsaw.  I found myself sitting with Rabbi David Steinhardt of Bnai Torah, Rabbi Bob Silvers of Bnai Israel, and Rabbi Broide.  Though exhausted, we spent the entire time in deep conversation.  We reflected on the experience we had just shared, we spoke about our families and backgrounds, we compared our interests and hobbies and we formed a friendship that has only grown in the years since .


When I became Senior Rabbi at BRS, working with them did not come from my seeking an intentional exercise of unity with other denominations, and it didn’t take work or effort, it was just natural to want to connect with friends on common causes that didn’t compromise any of our core values.  Over the years, I have formed similar friendships with many other colleagues with whom I have gone out for coffee, met for lunch, or played a round of golf.  The common denominator of all these interactions was that the agenda was not debating the origin of the Torah or the nature of halacha.  The sole agenda was to develop a relationship, to form a friendship.


This past year at AIPAC policy conference, I participated on a panel with Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner and Rabbi Denise Eger, conservative and reform rabbis with whom I traveled to Israel on the Leffel Fellowship trip.  When we finished the panel and went behind the stage, a very high-ranking Member of Knesset remarked, I wish the rabbis in Israel could get along like the three of you.  I told him we get along because our relationship didn’t start with having to work together or trying to solve intractable issues together, it began with a shared experience and a good time.


I believe the key to Jewish unity is to focus on friendship, not philosophy, especially while forming a relationship. Love fellow Jews as members of the same family, not as counterparts or colleagues.  When you have someone in your family with whom you disagree about politics or sports or religion, in an effort to remain unified and loving, you avoid those topics and instead connect through things you have in common and that you both care about.  There is no greater concern you share then your family’s well-being, safety and security.  The same is true for our Jewish family.  Unity begins not with debating or seeking to resolve differences, but with a shared experience, a cup of coffee, or a round of golf.  Unity blossoms when we work together on protecting our shared family, our homeland and the values we have in common that are near and dear to our hearts.


If the foundation of the relationship is strong, then when issues of conflict arise, which inevitably they do, the person who sees things differently or advocates for different policy is not just “the other,” a faceless adversary whom you speak about vociferously and insensitively, but they are a friend, a member of the family whose feelings you care about, even while you differ with their opinion or behavior and advocate for an alternative to their position.


This formula for unity—first friendship and only then philosophy—is not only true for the rabbinate, it is critical to many arenas of our increasingly polarized world.  Imagine if members of Congress from opposite sides of the aisle got together more often for drinks, a meal, a softball game, or a Bible study. How much more productive would they be and how much more could be accomplished if they knew each other’s families and cared about one another as people.  Not only would they find more ways to work together, but even when they couldn’t they wouldn’t demonize one another, call each other names or model the very behavior we tell our toddlers is reprehensible.


Our Parsha includes the command to Aharon to light the Menorah, the candelabra in the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.  The many branches of the Menorah and its base were fashioned out of one single piece of gold.  The commentators point out that the vehicle for light, the instrument of illuminating the world, had to be unified, united and made from one.  It isn’t a coincidence that it was Aharon who kindled that light.  The Mishna in Avos instructs us to be students of Aharon – to love all people and bring them close to Torah.  Aharon, the person of ahavas Yisroel, loving all Jews, lit the Menorah, the utensil that lit the world and dispelled the darkness.


I don’t know if we can ever recapture the feelings Jews around the globe had for those 18 days.  Even while a hundred rockets rained down on our brothers and sisters this week, Jewish disunity continued.  I hope and pray we can develop the friendships and feeling of family that can form the foundation of a relationship that can transcend our differences and enable us to navigate our important divides.


Applaud your Rabbi for his relationships across denominations and encourage him to have more.  I promise you the trickle-down impact on the total community will be felt and celebrated.  Ask your elected officials to connect with those on the other side of the aisle and to care about them.  Our entire nation will benefit as a result.


On the one hand, our South Palm Beach community can be and should be proud of being awarded the unity prize.  We have worked hard to overcome differences, to develop friendships and to focus on peoplehood and we have more work to do.  On the other hand, we have done nothing special, practiced nothing extraordinary.  We have simply acted like a family, sometimes with disagreements or debates, but ultimately, always with loyalty and love.  We long for the ultimately prize for Jewish unity, the arrival of Moshiach, speedily in our days!


Mazel tov!