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Jewish Journal

Common Ground

The General Assembly of Jewish federations produced a few surprises this year.

December 2, 1999 | 7:00 pm

If Aryeh Scheinberg were your typical Orthodox rabbi, the Jewish community of San Antonio would be engulfed right now in an ugly fight that would leave everyone a loser, most of all the children. But Scheinberg isn't typical, and the Jews of south Texas are at peace. Last August the community opened its spanking-new "campus," bringing the Jewish federation, family service, community center and San Antonio's sole Jewish day school under one $18 million roof. "It's an amazing place," says Pat Tonkin, who had become the day school's headmistress in July. "We're all in it together."

Tonkin credits much of the good feeling to Scheinberg, the Orthodox rabbi, whose Congregation Rodfei Sholom is about a mile from campus. "He unifies this community," she says.

Tonkin can rattle off a list of Scheinberg's qualities, but the most remarkable is probably the fact that he works with her at all. She was converted to Judaism by a Reform rabbi 14 years ago. By Orthodox standards she's not Jewish. Yet since she took over the school this summer, Scheinberg has accorded her every due respect. Tonkin isn't Scheinberg's only fan. Judy Koch, a Reform convert and administrator of the community campus, says Reform converts are "interwoven as Jews in this community in our professional and religious lives, and it's been his leadership that's helped make it possible."

Scheinberg says his approach to Reform converts isn't all that revolutionary. He decided several years ago that while they weren't Jews under traditional rabbinic law, it was hard to deny they'd become members of the Jewish community in some genuine sense. In effect, he's developed a sort of second category: Jewish in communal terms, but not religiously.

"If a convert wanted to come to my shul and be counted in a minyan, or get married, that would be problematic," Scheinberg says. "But if they were elected to the board of federation, they would be acknowledged as members of the Jewish community. No one is saying they're more than they are. Nor are they less than they are." Folks say Scheinberg's personality is the key. "You understand intellectually that as an Orthodox rabbi he might not recognize us religiously as Jews," says Judy Koch. "But personally you would never be aware of it, because he treats us with such respect."

Part of the credit belongs to the quarter-century friendship between Scheinberg and Rabbi Samuel Stahl of Temple Beth-El, the Reform congregation. They cooperate on everything from the day school to Israel Independence Day to co-officiating at weddings -- although, Stahl notes, "it has to follow his rules. He will take the halacha to its furthest point, but that's as far as he will go. It's the only way we can work together, and I understand."

Mutual compromise makes San Antonio Jewry a rare island of peace. A community of 10,000 in a city of 1 million, it boasts five congregations, one each from Reconstructionist through Lubavitch. The friendship between Scheinberg and Stahl, the community's acknowledged patriarchs, sets the tone for everyone. "It's a very unusual community," says federation director Mark Freedman.

Scheinberg, a cherubic, bearded man of 60, was raised in Brooklyn, ordained at a right-wing yeshiva and came to San Antonio 30 years ago. San Antonio Jewry has since doubled in size. His congregation has tripled.

Scheinberg denies he's sacrificed any Orthodox principle in seeking peace.

On the contrary, without bending rules he's won Orthodoxy new respect. Next year he's launching a kollel, an adult education institute run by four Orthodox scholars who will live in town and teach full-time, backed by all five congregations.

As for his own congregants, their piety grows steadily. Most Orthodox synagogues outside America's biggest cities have full parking lots every Saturday, with only a small core fully observant. Scheinberg's core is so strong that he moved his shul last year to a suburban enclave he had built, Shalom Drive, with a sanctuary surrounded by homes for families wanting to live in walking distance.

Scheinberg likens his stance on converts to a formula advanced by Israel's Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Riskin spoke of the "covenant of Abraham," which binds Jews as a family, and the "covenant of Sinai," which commits Jews to religious law. Orthodox Jews, Riskin said, should respect non-observant Jews for honoring the covenant of Abraham, even if they reject the Sinai covenant. Scheinberg simply extends the analogy to non-Orthodox converts.

He's never discussed it with Riskin, though. He's never discussed it with any Orthodox rabbis outside San Antonio -- "not that I wasn't interested in what they would have to say, but I felt it was in the best interests of our community not to discuss it." What he means is the opposition might be more than he could take.

Cooperation with Reform has become such a loaded issue among Orthodox rabbis that merely suggesting Reform converts aren't a threat brings instant condemnation. Just this week Rabbi Michael Melchior, Israel's Diaspora affairs minister, faced a firestorm of criticism after offering a much milder endorsement than Scheinberg's.

"We're reaching a point in all the movements where our ideologies have begun to trump our love of the Jewish people," says Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, which promotes intermovement dialogue. "What's happening in San Antonio seems unique. The question is, how much is because it's San Antonio, and how much is because two people were in a relationship that allowed each to understand the other's basic needs. That's genuine pluralism." Aryeh Scheinberg almost met the limits of his pluralism this summer, when Pat Tonkin was hired as San Antonio's day-school principal. Besides being a Reform convert, she's married to a non-Jew. She adopted Judaism as a divorced mother in Houston, drawn by conviction. During her conversion, she says, the rabbi somehow "never, ever said to me" that she was expected to marry a Jew. Since then she's acquired much more knowledge. She's also acquired a husband.

Scheinberg says Tonkin's combination of professional skills, personal qualities, plus Jewish learning and commitment, made her the obvious choice for principal. Still, close to one-third of the school's 115 pupils come from his congregation. How to educate against intermarriage, when their headmistress is herself intermarried, isn't simple.

Scheinberg "could have taken the easy way out," says Rabbi Sam Stahl, "by simply saying she's not Jewish, so it doesn't matter whom she marries. But he didn't do that. He chose to struggle with it." Scheinberg says he's not worried. "We'll find a solution," he says. He always has.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for the Jewish Journal.

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