This experiment, the first of its kind anywhere, was staged by the Bureau of Jewish Education through a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation. The unity conference, held on April 25, marked the culmination of a year in which 18 high school students from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform schools and youth groups met regularly as part of the new Teen Coalition for Clal Yisrael. Site of the conference was the Radisson Hotel in Sherman Oaks; the hotel's president, Sidney Caplan, was so moved by the group's mission that he donated use of his premises for the event.
The opening speech, by Dr. David Elcott of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, was hardly the usual keynote address. Bypassing such divisive topics as Jewish ritual and concepts of God, Elcott had his listeners imagine that Judaism was an open-ended journey on which they were setting forth. What would they take along? Some suggestions were wholly practical: deodorant and bug spray. Others were more emotional: a journal, a photo album, a prayer book. When the discussion turned to the choice of companions for a long, arduous journey, Elcott made his pitch for pluralism: "The least effective way to go on a trip is with someone who has the identical skills that you do." In diversity, he hinted, Jews find protection.
Following Elcott's session, the teens were divided into dialogue groups to meet one another and discover common ground. In each room, coalition members introduced formal "ground rules for dialogue" so as to help participants ensure civility when broaching touchy topics. One sample: "Share the Load -- No one person represents an entire group."
After introducing themselves and recalling aloud their fondest Jewish memories, those present were given sheets of paper that contained such phrases as "Orthodox Jews are...." The students were to fill in the blanks; leaders then used this input to spark lively but respectful discussions. Somebody's sense that Conservative Jews "might do one thing and say another" caused one kippah-wearing boy to protest this denigration of an entire group. An Orthodox girl challenged the Reform Jews' faith in personal choice, as she asked if, by extension, they would feel free to drive 100 miles per hour in a 30-mph zone. A Reform boy's assertion that Orthodoxy is like a painting that uses only one color, was answered by someone who pointed out Orthodox Judaism's diverse shadings.
Following a cookie break, the teens were free to choose among several workshops. One on ethics and values used discussions of what everyone sought in a future spouse to suggest that most teens think pretty much alike, no matter what their religious affiliation.
But a workshop led by a convert who had embraced Orthodoxy served to underscore some fundamental differences. This group was females-only, at the behest of a rabbi who would not permit his students to mix with teens of the opposite sex. Those who attended this session tended to be deeply observant, and their ingrained assumption that theirs was the only true Judaism drove the one Conservative Jew in the room to tears. That startled the Orthodox majority, forcing them into rethinking their attitudes, or at least the way they expressed them.
Said one afterward, "I learned a lot."
The conference ended with some good-hearted resolutions about mutual respect and the recognition that Jews are "one people with one history and one destiny." As everyone said goodbye, BJE organizers Arlene Agress and Lori Strauss were already thinking ahead to next year's conference.