Tucson rabbis’ panel stresses similarities among Jews

Rabbi Robert Eisen speaks at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging on April 10, as panelists Rabbi Yossie Shemtov (center) and Rabbi Thomas Louchheim look on. (Nanci Levy/Handmaker)

Three Tucson rabbis representing the Orthodox, Reform and Conservative branches of Judaism presented their basic beliefs at a panel discussion at Handmaker Jewish Services for the Aging on April 10. About 100 people, including Handmaker residents and members of the Tucson community, discovered more about the similarities rather than the differences between Jews.

“Every Jew wants to be connected to G-d,” said Rabbi Yossie Shemtov of Congregation Young Israel/Chabad Tucson. “We cannot separate ourselves from G-d. This is part of why Jews have been willing to give up their lives for their beliefs. If someone said to the Jewish people, we don’t like this about Jews, all Jews get upset and get up in arms. It reaches into our kishkes (guts).”

Shemtov focused on the idea that the home builds the Jewish community. The haimish (warm or homey) things that everyone can do at home, such as beautiful Shabbat traditions, are what Orthodox Judaism is really about, more so than the shul (synagogue), he said.

Rabbi Thomas Louchheim of Congregation Or Chadash said that his family history is connected to his involvement with Reform Judaism. In 1852, his great-great-grandfather came to Philadelphia from Germany, where the Reform movement got its start in the early 19th century.

“This is part of my family’s heritage,” he said. “My parents helped to found a synagogue, and identified themselves as Americans first, and Judaism as their religion. Judaism guides us in our morals and values.”

In the 1800s the Jews of France, England and Germany left the ghettos to become secularized, but they still wanted to stay connected to Judaism, he explained. He told a story about his great-grandfather, who lived in Philadelphia and had politicians come to him for financial support. One politician wanted to take him to a private club where Jews were not allowed, saying that he would be allowed to come in as his guest. But his great-grandfather refused to enter the club, even with this invitation.

“I believe that taking care of family is one of my most important legacies,” Louchheim said. “But I also strive to be a good American and a good Jew.”

Rabbi Robert Eisen of Congregation Anshei Israel said that people tend to judge values by the outcome. “I believe in G-d and trying to do the right thing,” he said. “G-d wants us to do what has to be done, whatever the outcome, and we always strive to be better. We are here for a reason, we have a mission, vision and values. We have a responsibility to the community and to ourselves.”

When asked about changes in the Jewish community, the rabbis agreed that Jewish participation is down. Eisen said that when he came to Tucson, there was a core of Jews that enabled this community to survive and thrive, but this core has begun to collapse. “I see a lot of drifting,” Eisen said. “People don’t seem to have the same priorities. They can tell you all about sports, but can’t … remember when they last went to shul.”

The rabbis were also asked to talk about heaven, hell and the messiah.

“I believe in the world to come, but I don’t know what the details are,” Eisen said, “As to heaven and hell, well, I don’t think anyone’s come back to tell us about it.”

Moshiach is very real,” said Shemtov, using the Hebrew term for the messiah or “anointed one.” “Moshiach will not ‘be here’ until everyone knows he’s here. We will all know at the same time.”

“Our job is to instill within our community the values to make all our lives better and we can make the world better with what we do right now,” said Louchheim. “I believe that when I die I will be caught up in the embrace of the divine.”

As to keeping teens engaged with Judaism after their bar or bat mitzvah, the rabbis explained that it is the parents’ responsibility to keep Judaism alive at home. Eisen said that he gives a survey to Anshei Israel’s confirmation classes, and students all have fond memories of family traditions such as building a sukkah, baking hamentaschen and making charoset. Louchheim spoke of building family traditions such as hiding stacks of pennies before the Passover seder so that even the children who don’t find the afikomen will find some reward.

“We have to get involved,” said Shemtov. “We really have to bring passion back to Judaism. Look at what is going on today. Young people want passion. Let’s give them a true good Jewish message. That’s what they want.”