The classic cliche of Jews arguing has recently been joined in with a new cliche of calls for dialogue and conversation. Too often these “conversations” turn into venting sessions for individuals to speak their mind for the indulgent purpose of “putting things out there” and rarely are participants interested in an exchange of ideas.
Given how these forums usually turn out, Sunday’s Town Hall meeting at Mt. Sinai was a welcome departure from the norm, largely due to the rational and emotional sincerity of all the participants.
Let’s start at the beginning. Over the past few months Mt. Sinai community had been confronting a new round of controversies with respect to women’s role in the synagogue. As the frustrations mounted, many people felt or were insulted, including disrespectful comments directed at R. Schnaidman.
Recognizing that there was a severe breakdown in communication, R. Schnaidman approached the ritual committee requesting a program to discuss the issues. Think about this for a moment: not only does a Rabbi acknowledge a communication problem between himself and his congregants, but proactively suggests a solution which potentially subjects himself to a potentially hostile audience. This degree of integrity is rarely matched by more prominent Rabbis in more prestigious positions.
In preparing for the event, it was essential to have clearly defined and realistic goals. The major purpose was to hold a dialogue, not a debate. Debates are confrontational where one party is forced to defend one’s position in the face of rebuttals. Dialogues are discussions meant for people to safely express their opinions. Furthermore, in order to have a constructive and effective dialogue there could not be the expectation of an immediate definitive resolution. While it could have been possible that R. Schnaidman would change his mind on the spot, people could not approach the discussion with this assumption – but only to know there was a forum for the expressing of opinions.
As far as the event itself, I was impressed with the candor, passion, and respect displayed by both the Rabbi and those critical of the shul’s existing policies. It helped that some questions were submitted beforehand which enabled an articulate starting point for the discussion. The exchanges were spirited, emotional, intense, occasionally humorous, and most importantly respectful.
Efforts were made to ensure that all questions were answered, and clarifications were requested when necessary. I’m certain some attendees may have been dissatisfied with some of the answers or that R. Schnaidman did not say what they wanted him to say. There was some points for which R. Schnaidman was intentionally evasive, and several for which he responded tzarich iyyun which may actually be a sign of a Hacham (M. Avot 5:6).
In the end the feedback on the whole was positive. Even if people may not have had all their issues addressed or resolved, there seemed to be a genuine appreciation for the discussion. While we are not certain of what practical changes will come of the discussion, I can say that those who would like to see changes made have certainly made a more favorable impression.
The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools Kohelet 9:17