Why I Love Conferences (or, the end of day one)

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I’ve been in panels all day — four, including my own. And one lunchtime meeting that was really interesting (it was about audiences and who you write for when you write — an interesting-ish question for an academic/public intellectual/newbie blogger). And, despite my general cynicism, I love what I do, and I have deep respect for the people with whom I get to do what I do.

Short story: This stuff is really important – it’s not just eggheads sitting around either stroking or crushing one another’s egos. There are conversations here that are critical and vital to Jewish life and Jewish people, and they’re not happening elsewhere.

Longer Story: 4:15 – 6:00. This is one of the “heavy hitters� panel. The closest you might get to a kind of “all-star team� of cultural/historical/academic types. A kind of lollapalooza of inter and trans-denominational leaders and thinkers. Some of the smartest, most well-informed, committed, thoughtful people from Reform and Conservative Judiasm (no Orthodox, no Reconstructionist here – I don’t’ know why) weighing in on the issue.

But first, a preface: this whole issue of denominationalism and its post is certainly one of the most important conversations going on in American Jewish life today. The growth of independent minyanim, the looser connections between people in terms of civic commitments, and the generally weak desire to join anything (let alone anything ideologically based) – this is the whole “Bowling Alone� thesis…..

Many people deride Academic conferences (and I do, too, on occasion) for their irrelevance – there are few other venues where conversations like this can and do take place. And it is important. And exciting. And aggravating. And vital, vibrant, and engaging.

Unlike our current president, I want to talk to the people who are going to ask hard questions, who are deeply informed, and who can articulate complexity and vision, who can weigh the hard facts and play creatively with theory. This conversation (while it still needs to be translated back into policy, action, institutional or behavioral changes), is important because it brings together leaders of two rabbinic seminaries (Arnie Eisen from JTS and David Ellenson from HUC) three of the most insightful scholars of contemporary American life (Steven M Cohen from HUC, Jack Werthheimer of JTS, and Riv-Ellen Prell from the University of Minnesota), along with one self-identified “outsider,� Don Miller (a liberal Episcopalian who is also the director of the Center for Religion and Culture at USC).

Conversations like this do not happen anywhere else. And they need to happen more often, and in other circles and circumstances. And they don’t. People all over the place get their knickers in a twist over denominations and their posts, and here are people trying honestly to figure out what’s going on, articulate what they think should be going on, and to fill in the spaces in between.

Moments like this one make me happy to be part of this Jewish scholarly world and to learn from people like this in situations like this. Would that more people could participate. Would that there were more opportunities for “practitioners� and “scholars� (I don’t know where that leaves our panelists, exactly) to sit down, talk, and in the words of Leonard Cohen, get down to a Jew’s business.

Posted on December 18, 2006

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2 thoughts on “Why I Love Conferences (or, the end of day one)

  1. Reb Yudel

    I’d be very interested in hearing what Wertheimer has to say — and even more interested in a future panel analyzing Wertheimer himself.

    How can someone who evidently believes that the problem with American Judaism is that the the rabbinate is insufficiently judgmental — that is, someone who believes a top-down model of Jewish behavior is applicable to contemporary America — be taken seriously as a social scientist?

    He should have been laughed off the stage for trying to force the developments of the ’80s and ’90s he reports in A People Divided into the (naive? romantic?) 1950s model of “tradition vs change.”

  2. Ari Y Kelman Post author

    Yudel –
    1. Take Werthheimer seriously because he’s a good scholar, and while you might disagree with him, he knows of what he speaks.
    2. Disagreement is important, and one of the things I really appreciate about Werthheimer is the way that he can present an idea that he knows is unpopular but he presents it unapologetically and without hesitation.
    3. “Laugh him off the stage???” please. people, lots of people have wrong ideas, and we can still learn from them, particualrly when they’re as smart as Jack is.
    4. Take him seriously. Or, alternatively, take the common project of Jewish life seriously and take yourself less seriously.

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