There is no event in American Jewish history more notorious, more iconic, than the Trefa Banquet (recently recreated in a TB 2.0). The story is usually told roughly as follows: For the first graduating class of rabbis at the Hebrew Union College, the first rabbinical seminary in the United States, the leaders of the nascent movement consciously chose to serve the most treyf food they could find. Pork, shellfish, milk and meat–the works! A louder assertion of separation could not have been made. To some, the menu represented a Declaration of Independence, while others doubtless saw it as a bill of apostasy, a latter-day Sabbateanism.
What really happened, not surprisingly, is more complicated, and a story rarely told. As recounted in a recent article by Jonathan Sarna, doyen of American Jewish historical scholarship, the menu was largely the result of poor event planning. The original vision of HUC was for an institution that would unite all of the rabbis in America under one auspices, including “reformers” and “traditionalists.” For the graduation, they hired a local caterer used to catering events for Jews at his club. The standard of their community at the time (1883) was that abstaining from pork was sufficient, and his menu he offered was a fancy version of this standard. When the traditionalists arrived, they were outraged, eventually leading them to create a separate institution at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Etc, etc.
Among many lessons we might draw from this incident is that how we remember history is more important than the historical events themselves. What was the “Trefa Banquet,” and what is its significance? Does it mark an occasion when one group of Jews decided to take an ideological stand against certain traditional Jewish practices? Or instead, does it provide us with a paradigm regarding tensions and divisions in the Jewish community? What significance do we read into the incident today?
Perhaps Sarna’s revision of our understanding can serve as an object lesson worth pondering and discussing in the context of day schools. Day schools are places that unite a range of Jews–sometimes quite a wide range. How do day schools keep their students and families, all with some range of Jewish beliefs and practices, not to mention different and sometimes opposing political views on the US and Israel, united in the face of forces of division? What are the forces that unite us, and what forces divide? What weight and space do we give voices for all these forces–what is the recipe for keeping the tensions productive without tearing the fabric?