“Fiddler on the Roof” fans and anyone who can hold their own playing “Name that Tune” can tell you the importance of tradition. But Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman has a different take on this age-old idea: “Jews have inherited a 3,000-year-old tradition, but all that does is put you in a museum. It isn’t a good reason why someone would choose to be Jewish today.”
Like the beloved character, Tevye, Rabbi Hartman contemplates Jewish traditions and the role they play in Jewish life. But the President of the Jerusalem-based Shalom Hartman Institute understands that for many Jews today, the pull of tradition is no guarantee of a Jewish future.
“Every Jew is supposed to see themselves as if they came out of Egypt,” he explains. But he also realizes that in an age when people see their identity as multifaceted and choose which identity-based communities to be a part of, shared history and collective memory may not be enough for someone to stay Jewish. As a result, Rabbi Hartman and the Shalom Hartman Institute, created in 1971 by his visionary father, Rabbi David Hartman, seek to shape the Jewish future by creating a Judaism of deep meaning and value that inspires people to identify and participate.
Stirred by his father’s vision to create a center where Judaic Studies scholars would address critical contemporary challenges facing the Jewish people, the Hartman Institute has become a leading center of Jewish thought focused on strengthening Jewish peoplehood, identity, and pluralism; enhancing the Jewish and democratic character of Israel; and ensuring that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.
For Rabbi Hartman, an enthusiastic teacher, popular author, tireless blogger, insatiable researcher, and internationally renowned lecturer, the mission may have been preordained. “When I was little, all the other kids wanted to be firemen. By the age of five, the only career I wanted was a Rabbi,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Growing up, he was equal parts son and student to his illustrious father. At age three, the young Hartman was given a seat on the pulpit at his father’s synagogue. “I was raised in a 17th century environment,” he reminiscences. Rather than rebelling against his destiny, he embraced his father’s legacy as motivation for his own work. “It was both heavy and inspiring.”
Through a childhood infused with lessons from the pulpit and at the dinner table, his morality and beliefs took shape. He still calls on his own personal history to inform his work at The Shalom Hartman Institute and around the world today.
Connecting our shared history to an engaged future is the foundation of the Hartman Institute’s iEngage program and underlies Rabbi Hartman’s forthcoming visit to Orange County in December. iEngage, one of many Hartman Institute initiatives, seeks to imbue Jews with skills to engage civilly with each other on the issues that divide us the most.
“It’s too easy to walk away from each other these days because of faith or religion or politics,” Rabbi Hartman admits. “We don’t often go deeper than what divides us to get to what connects us. In most places, people don’t talk about [politically charged] issues because we can’t talk about them. We go into our echo chambers, only sharing our ideas with people who feel the same way. We don’t sit down and really engage in these difficult but essential questions.”
Rabbi Hartman and his international team of researchers designed iEngage as a way to help participants go beyond political and partisan divides, empowering entire Jewish communities to have constructive, productive conversations about Judaism and Israel grounded in shared Jewish values. Without these conversations and skills, our ability to be in community with those with whom we disagree is threatened and our critical, collective enterprise of Jewish peoplehood is jeopardized.
The discussions sparked by iEngage are not about reaffirming individual opinions or convincing others to change their views. In his vision of the program, “It’s about an honest, serious conversation. People want that. We are educated and serious about other subjects; why shouldn’t we be educated and serious in our conversations about Judaism and Israel?” But these subjects have many layers, each one more complicated than the next. To give guidance, the Hartman Institute developed iEngage curricula on specific topics such as “Israel’s Milestones and Their Meaning,” “Tribes of Israel: A Shared Homeland for a Divided People,” “Engaging Israel: Foundations for a New Relationship,” and “Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
To connect the program to Jewish communities throughout North America, the Hartman Institute relies on the insight and collaborative support of partner organizations. “Almost nothing we do regionally in North America these days is done without a serious local partner who in many ways is the leader of the program. Our job is to provide the content, which they navigate into their communities in ways that they feel are best. Without that, you can give a sermon on the mount but nobody’s listening,” Rabbi Hartman admits.
Enter the Rose Project of Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS). Conceived as a way to address some of the biggest challenges facing Jewish Orange County, the JFFS Rose Project uses the power of educated engagement as a way to solve problems and build community. In doing so, it has leveraged strategic relationships in order to bring the most innovative Jewish learning opportunities to Orange County.
After a year of fellowship studies focused on iEngage curricula at the Hartman Institute, Rose Project Director Lisa Armony sought to bring the program to her home community. In Fall 2018, “iEngage: Jewish Values and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” was introduced to Orange County through a partnership between the JFFS Rose Project, the Hartman Institute, and 12 local congregations.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stirs up so much passion and emotion for Jews in our community, and it is precisely for that reason that our disagreements can be so polarizing,” says Armony. “iEngage is a powerful tool to help us understand the political views of those with whom we disagree. That allows us to be in dialogue from a place of shared values while staying in community with each other. For our rabbis and educators, it has been a powerful platform from which to engage in conversations about Israel with congregants of differing political views.”
OC iEngage has already inspired more than 200 individuals to take part in guided learning at local synagogues and Jewish organizations. Rabbi Hartman calls Orange County’s adoption of iEngage “a perfect example of how to use the program collectively as a community: different individuals, different institutions, different rabbis, different organizations.” He firmly believes that when we study something together we are creating foundations for a relationship with each other.
“In Orange County we now have more than 200 ambassadors who sat together and studied and dealt with some of the most difficult and contentious issues in modern Jewish life,” says Rabbi Hartman, who considers what impact the program will have on the future of Jewish connectedness. “These 200 representatives are now capable of talking to people across cultures and ages about the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in terms that reach beyond ‘are you my enemy or are you not my enemy’.” Across North America, tens of thousands of people are taking part in iEngage. Now they can all help create a lasting bond where belonging together is more important than those distinctions.
This fall, more OC congregations and cohorts will study the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict curriculum, and one congregation, Temple Beth Sholom, will teach the “Tribes of Israel” curriculum. A new Hartman Institute program will launch in 2020 in Orange County.
“At the end of the day it’s not about any of our institutions; none of us are an ends. We are a means to creating a life of value,” Rabbi Hartman says.
You can join in the conversation on Tuesday, December 3, 7-9 p.m., when Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman presents “Israel and the Challenges and Responsibilities of Jewish Nationalism.” The program, sponsored by the JFFS Rose Project, will be held at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach. It is free and open to the community. For more information about iEngage and Rabbi Hartman’s upcoming lecture, visit JewishOC.org/iEngage.
Jennifer Frank is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.