In one corner, the rabbi of the Marlboro Jewish Center, Michael Pont. At age 44, he has served as the religious leader to the congregation’s 620 families since July of 2011. A graduate of the University of Michigan and the Jewish Theological Seminary, he served as rabbi at Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen before moving to MJC.
Facing him on the Marlboro Jewish Center bima for four nights of debate and discussion on critical Jewish issues will be 71-year-old Allan Sugarman, an active congregant who has studied at JTS. Sugarman has been leading an alternative “Contemporary High Holy Day Service” since 1985, while a series of rabbis have conducted simultaneous traditional Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur rites.
A sort of synagogue version of Crossfire, the series will feature a back and forth on the recent Pew study of American Jews, the Mideast peace process, spirituality, and hot button status issues like intermarriage.
Both men told NJ Jewish News in separate interviews they expect to present a variation of viewpoints during the four Monday evening dialogues at 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 10, March 10, April 28, and May 12.
“There will be some disagreements with Allan,” said the rabbi. “We are from different generations and might see things differently. I went to JTS in the 1990s. When he went there it was a very different time. Those experiences shape your perception of what is going on in the world and what we need to do about it. We think healthy debate is really a good thing.”
Sugarman took courses at JTS while pursuing a master of education degree at Columbia University’s Teachers College, but did not become a rabbi. He worked instead with his wife, Joyce, running a special events production company out of their home in Morganville.
When Sugarman attended JTS — some 30 years before Pont — he helped found the New York Havura, a prayer group that gave a religious perspective to its members’ opposition to the war in Vietnam. “We prayed together, played football together, and protested together,” Sugarman said.
Their first discussion will focus on the Pew Research Center Survey of American Jews. “Because 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews marry out of the faith, if we as a Jewish community want to continue, we have to figure out what are we going to do with the fact that so many are marrying outside,” said Sugarman. “It affects support of UJA, support of Birthright, support of Super Sunday, support of all these things.”
Pont said the report “gives us a lot to talk about. If we just look at that 71 percent statistic and say, ‘OK,’ we are dead. But we are not willing to do that. I don’t look at the headline-grabbing statistics and say, ‘We’re done for.’ I see them as a challenge to traditional ways of thinking about what it means to be a Jew.”
‘The big tent’
The second evening, March 10, will be devoted to what the program describes as “Israel, Palestine, settlements, and one- or two-state solution.”
“We need an informed and honest conversation about what the future is going to bring,” the rabbi told NJJN. “We need all the facts on the table, and we need to clear up misperceptions in the media about how Israel conducts itself. We need to be able to advocate for Israel but we need to understand when Israel’s policies are difficult to accept.”
On April 28 the forum will focus on prayer and spirituality. “I believe in the separation of church and state but I think that it has made it so that any time I want to talk about prayer or God it’s like I am a Bible-thumper,” said Pont. “That is not the case at all. I want to talk about whether a Jew can be an atheist. My feeling is, yes, you can be a good Jew and be an atheist. I would try to convince you to not be an atheist. But we welcome having doubts.”
Finally, on May 12, the two men will consider the “big tent” of liberal Judaism and how big it should be. For example, they expect to consider whether non-Jewish spouses should be called to the Torah.
“Our community,” said Sugarman, “has to accept those modern Jews who still keep kosher and still keep Shabbat, but it has to accept [that] a wider group of people do not keep kosher and do not keep Shabbat and still want to be part of the Jewish community.
Sugarman said they also want to explore how to approach interfaith families: “Are they part of the tent or are we excluding them?”
For his part, Pont said, “I think it’s my job to nurture Jewish life where it can exist and thrive. When there is a bar or bat mitzva in an intermarried family, I have both parents come up to the bima. It is something to be celebrated. We need to stop seeing someone who is not Jewish who is married to someone who is Jewish as automatically a shonda, a terrible thing.”