By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko
Imagine a room full of students from across the United States — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — sitting with each other and discussing a given text from the Tanakh, the Bible. Sounds like a utopian goal? A scene from the ’60s when Jewish communities were not that divided? Sitting this month in the heart of Manhattan watching my students participate in the U.S. National Bible Contest showed me that, as divided as the world can be, there is always something that unites us all.
Students from Phoenix to Philadelphia, from Tallahassee to Teaneck, and from Dallas to Detroit, all gathered for the National Bible Contest in New York. The electrifying power of our oldest common denominator was visible as children and teens from vastly different locations and backgrounds connected in such a wholesome way.
This year, organizers decided to include a chavruta (studying partner) component to the event, giving students the opportunity to learn with students from other cities. This created a beautiful bond between students, transcending geographical and social differences.
As the winners were being announced, the tension could be felt in the air. Everyone wanted to know if it was someone from their school, synagogue or city who might have won. I, too, listened attentively to find out who the winners were. And then, when they announced different winners from different cities, a winner from a very Orthodox community and a winner representing her Reform temple, I knew that we all won. Seeing how the words of the Torah are bringing us together in such a beautiful way showed me that, despite the divisions that sometimes play louder than needed, we are one family.
In today’s deeply divided political climate, Jewish leaders and organizations struggle with the question of how it is that we can create a “big tent”; how it is that we can include radically different ideologues and ideologies under the same umbrella. Well, looking at what we just witnessed at the Chidon HaTanach, as the event is known in Hebrew, the answer is quite simple: Bring us a book and let us learn together. Focusing on the areas that bring us together rather than those that tear us apart has the power to heal the fractured world that we live in.
Learning that is stripped of any political or controversial element holds the key to uniting people from vastly different backgrounds. Nothing has the potential to strengthen Jewish identity as much as the core of Judaism: the engagement in learning. Known for thousands of years as the “the people of the book” and a “nation of philosophers,” our sacred texts have always been the veritable epicenter of who we are and remain exactly that to this day.
Jewish organizations who want to overcome the widely recognized divides among young Jewish Americans need to engage more people in more learning far more often. Barriers of background and particularities melt away in the face of common learning, reflection and focusing on our shared heritage.
Will there be differences in our approaches to learning, text and history? Sure. That is the kind of academic approach that enriches both arguing sides; each one gets to think of the academic matter in a unique way, something Jews always welcomed.
Last year, a study done at the University of Michigan found that hearing from our peers about the relevance of a topic is far more effective than when we hear of its relevance from teachers and professors. Simply put, learning is much more effective when we see how much our own peers value what is being learned. Giving young Jews the opportunity to engage in peer learning — specifically those which cross boundaries of place and class — has the powerful potential of reinforcing the importance of our shared heritage.
Sitting at the National Bible Contest surrounded by the vibrancy and joy of learning, I realized the power of learning to bring us together. There, I saw a text given in the desert more than 3,300 years ago alive and well — in the heart of Manhattan in the year 2018. I saw a people whose birth and life have been woven through the words of the text breathe and drink the words of that same text. And so, as we face ever growing differences and polarization, I look to that same text and see its profound power to reunite us as a people.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher and writer. He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.