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).

Posted on December 18, 2006

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