The Reformim in the Conservative shul

I went to Kane Street Synagogue on Brooklyn for erev Sukot/Shabat services last night. It’s a Conservative shul, but they have a Friday night minyan that has the feel of being an indie minyan, though it is far from indie.  Rather, it is the Friday night service of this affiliated, mid-size Brooklyn shul. I’ve previously written about KSS here, during my month of NYC shul-hopping last winter.

While there, I ran into to other Reformim. One is a URJ employee and the other was an HUC student. Hm.

I ask the following without wishing to insinuating that there is some crisis where none exists. What does it mean for URJ Jews when Reform Jews, who, unlike me, continue to associate with the Union go to services regularly, but don’t go to URJ synagogues regularly?

Of course, it was just a good as I remembered it, though the crowd seemed a little smaller. Last time I went, I arrived a little late and was confounded by the cluster of people who all seemed to be kind of leading the service. This time, I was there early so I got see that at the beginning of the service, Joey, the leader, just invites up anyone who wants to (“Even if you have no idea what you’re doing”) come up and help lead. What a great minhag! It also introduces a low-level buzz of chaos to the service, which I love.

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27 Responses to The Reformim in the Conservative shul

  1. Rich October 3, 2009 at 9:58 pm #

    It means that shuls like KSS and Beth Jacob in Mendota Hts, MN (let me know if you’re ever in the area) offer services that observant Reformim want. Like daily minyans and services where half the davening doesn’t take place in either the stentorian prose of NUP or the Hallmark drivel of MT. Where a Jew can lay tefillin in the morning. Where the Torah actually gets read from time to time by someone other than a bar/t-mitzvah.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2009 at 10:01 am #

      I’m actually L.aughin O.ut L.oud right not. “The stentorian prose of NUP or the Hallmark drivel of MT.” That is perfect.

      Right. So if an organization’s goal should be to work with its members to create the programs and services the members want and need, why aren’t Reform synagogues doing these things? Clearly there are Reform Jews who want them.

      • jepaikin October 4, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

        That sounds familiar…

        • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

          Familiar. But not exactly what you were saying to me. Either way, you certainly gave me some food for thought.

          • jepaikin October 4, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

            Yeah, I need to get these thoughts a little more cogent before I put words on paper.

      • Randi October 4, 2009 at 7:48 pm #

        I’m not nearly so lucky as Rich… apparently fewer Reform-affiliated Jews in (my locale) want those things compared to MN.

        Our congregation started a parallel minyan last year that met with very limited success. There were as many people who objected strongly that we were “sending a bad message to the 13-year-olds by not supporting them,” as there were who came to the minyan.

        I still don’t understand their logic…isn’t the example of adult Jews actually using the skills that one learns in becoming a bar/t mitzvah more important than sitting passively in the service?

        So no more parallel minyan for us. Not only that, but the results of a survey-monkey-type-thing we sent to the congregation a couple of months ago suggested that the culture of our particular synagogue is one in which the preponderance of people want to hear only the professional clergy lead services.
        I guess they would find the Kane Street experience quite distasteful.

        If I think about it, I get profoundly depressed, because I really have no better options here. So I try not to think about it.
        I’m trying to let go of my desire for davening that is drawn from a profound respect for the liturgy and done with other Jews who strive to be knowledgeable in it….I haven’t yet had much success in sublimating my desires to my community standards though.

        • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2009 at 10:40 pm #

          Actually, the remarkable thing about Kane Street is that the minyan is THE Friday night service there, rather than a parallel. The senior Rabbi comes and makes a brief d’var for the small crowd, while the service is mostly led by Joey, the Music Enrichment Director.

        • Rich October 9, 2009 at 8:53 am #

          The major challenge most Reform Synagogues face is letting the Bar Mitzvah be the kid having the seventh Aliyah, then giving the parents the Aliyah for the maftir which the kid reads and then the haftorah. The problem is that Reform shuls in the US don’t believe that Reform Jews can be expected to sit still that long, or muster enough leiners to read the whole parsha.

          But the trick to this, I learned at Har El, an IMPJ shul in Jerusalem. Use a triennial cycle so each reading is fairly short, and you’ve got enough honors to hand out for the congregation and the family, and you can get the service done in a scoche over an hour.

          • David A.M. Wilensky October 9, 2009 at 12:19 pm #

            Good point. I don’t know if this is “THE major challenge,” but it’s certainly one challenge to be met.

            And as for Har El, it’s my fave Reform outfit in Israel. Also the most venerable.

      • Rich October 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm #

        Short answer? They’re too interested in seeking the philosopher’s stone that will engage the disinterested Jew to serve the actual consumers of their services.

        • ML October 22, 2009 at 10:56 am #

          Might the answer be that if they served the actual consumers of their services, disinterested Jews might respond?

  2. Randi October 4, 2009 at 8:28 pm #

    RE: HUC students and URJ employees praying at places that are not-Reform.

    1. In one sense I am really glad that there are people who might be leading the Reform movement getting some satisfying t’fillah and expanding their experiences beyond what they can get in the Reform movement.

    2. Another anecdotal story: when I was at Hadr’chah at Kutz in May, we had a couple of sessions with the rabbi who is now the “worship consultant” for the URJ. She urged us to find an experienced “spiritual guide” to help us develop our personal spirituality. She told us this person was probably not going to be a rabbi, or even Jewish, because they might not have adequate spiritual experience.
    (BTW–By spiritual experience, she means transcendental-meditation type practice.)

    Anyway, I found that very curious advice from someone salaried by the URJ–to seek one’s spiritual succor from not just outside of the movement, but outside of the tradition.

    • Rich October 4, 2009 at 10:15 pm #

      Good Heavens!

      “Spiritual Guide?” What, I’m supposed to hire Commander Chakotay from Star Trek Voyager to help me figure out that my Totem Animal is the Red-Backed vole?!?! That I should channel my energies through my appendix Chakra to ward off predatory spirits? Ooops, guess I’m out of luck, the appendix came out 14 months ago.

      • Randi October 5, 2009 at 7:40 am #

        LOL. I’m afraid though that Chakotay would have way too much masculine energy for the job of spiritual guide as was presented in our session.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 4, 2009 at 10:43 pm #

      Sue Levi Elwell is certainly a curious character within the URJ hierarchy. Not the ideologue or bureaucrat that many are or have become in their Union job.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 5, 2009 at 9:47 am #

      I suppose it’s especially odd in that it continues with the goofy assumption that Jewish prayer is not spiritual and that complete spiritual life requires meditation or yoga or whatever else. Not that those or bad things or that they’re incompatible with Judaism, but I’m perfectly satisfied with prayer.

  3. Larry Kaufman October 5, 2009 at 9:13 pm #

    When I read David’s original post, I decided to sit this one out, but after reading all the drivel above, I decided someone had to speak — not for the Establishment, but for the real world. (Not that I deny being part of the Establishment, but I am not its spokesman.)

    First, I think I would have enjoyed the Shabbat services at Kane Street. David talks about the two people he suggests shouldn’t have been there — he says nothing about the people who should have been there and weren’t — the members of the synagogue, who are members of a movement that does not “allow” its constituency to follow only those ritual practices that are meaningful to them. So it’s nice that they can fill out their minyan with seekers, shul-hoppers, and even a handful of people with Reform connections.

    Since you don’t identify the URJ employee who was at KSS, we can’t be sure that s/he is a Reform Jew. I know at least one Muslim who works for the Union, and at one time the daughter of one of the g’dolim of the Conservative movement worked there — if I remember right, a Schorsch. But even if this employee identifies as Reform, so what? There are three components to “movement” identification — ideology, liturgical preferences, and lifestyle — and not everyone follows in lock-step all the subsets across the board. (I’ve even heard about people who wear tzitzit but not kipot. Horrors!)

    As for the HUC student who was there, I would hope that all our rabbinical and cantorial students would expose themselves to as wide a variety of Jewish worship experiences as possible. If this student becomes a Reform rabbi, I hope that he or she will bring some of the KSS ruach and kavana into his or her pulpit — and that the congregation will have a critical mass that will accept it (as my Reform congregation would).

    I’m afraid that the “observant Reformim” who want to don t’filin and daven daily with a minyan are SOL, just as are the Classicists who want an English service except for the Shma and Kaddish. This has nothing to do with the URJ, which is not in the business of running services or writing liturgy — its mission is to provide help to congregations, hopefully the help the congregations want. Vox populi vox dei — the voice of the people is the voice of God — is paralleled by the famous t’shuva to go see what the people are doing. (Wish I could identify the source, but I neither travel nor read much in those circles.) If Sue Elwell is peddling TM these days, it’s because that’s what the people who pay the bills want. And as Randi well knows, there’s a whole lot of Jewish tradition (not just Reform) that represents a borrowing from other traditions.

    If Rich wants a Reform worship setting where he can lay tefillin and have lay people leyn Torah, all he needs to do is find nine other people who share his want. I’ll bet their congregation would find space for them rather than see them walk. The trouble is that he can’t find those other nine. The actual consumers of synagogue services are getting what most of them want — even if that’s not what one or two individuals want.

    As a participant in a “parallel minyan,” I’m sorry that Randi’s congregation couldn’t make it work. If I’m reading her account properly, this seems to have been a matter of competing values. There is something to be said for being part of a community of the whole, although I myself tilt towards the synaplex model and towards niche marketing. Incidentally, this is not just a Reform issue — there are several Traditional congregations in the Chicago area (Traditional is the Chicago term for Modern Orthodox with mixed seating) that have bowed to pressure and established mechitza minyans.

    I know how much David loves swipes at Mishkan T’filah — but Rich could avoid what he calls the Hallmark drivel if he just stuck to the right hand pages. Once again, as stated by the proud mama watching the Boy Scout parade, everybody is out of step except my Willie. MT has had greater acceptance (by rabbis, congregations, and Jews) than anyone expected, and will be the model for the new CCAR HHD machzor.

    In conclusion — David asks
    So if an organization’s goal should be to work with its members to create the programs and services the members want and need, why aren’t Reform synagogues doing these things? Clearly there are Reform Jews who want them.

    Yes, there certainly are. Maybe a couple hundred. Fifty thousand (SWAG) who are reasonably satisfied with what their congregations give them weekly, and a million and a half who are satisfied enough to keep paying the bills.

    This being Kohelet season, let’s remember that there is nothing new under the sun, and we’ve always had that Jew on the desert island with two synagogues, the one where he davens and the one he wouldn’t go into for a million dollars. Half the fun of going to indy minyans is thumbing your nose at the shul you walk past on the way.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 6, 2009 at 1:01 pm #

      Larry, you’ll recall my recent announcement that I’m still a Reform Jew, but not a URJ Jew. The URJ employee in question recently implied to me that opposite, that s/he is a URJ Jew, but not sure if s/he is still a Reform Jew. Funny.

      The HUC student is a friend of mine. I don’t know him/her too well, but I know him/her well enough to assume that this isn’t a one-time or even occasional attempt to be exposed to other kinds of Jews. This a real trend in the person’s like and s/he is likely to be seen at KSS and similar prayer communities again in the future.

      • Larry Kaufman October 6, 2009 at 2:26 pm #

        First of all, no one is a URJ Jew. The members of URJ are congregations, not individuals. Moreover, congregations begin with individuals, and typically somewhere in their life cycles the individuals who influence those congregations decide they need some of the support services that the national federation of congregations makes available. (Canadians, please forgive me for using national rather than North American – but it really works better in the context.)

        Although that national federation makes one ideological demand on applicant congregations, I don’t know of any congregation that identifies as Reform that asks its members what they believe — although a stated belief in Jesus as Messiah would likely create a membership barrier. People may affiliate with Reform congregations without self-identifying as Reform, and people may identify as Reform without affiliating with a Reform (or any other) congregation. Most URJ-affiliated congregations do require that one family member be Jewish as a condition of congregational membership, but they don’t stipulate Reform.

        I wish there were a way to prevent people from using Reform as a synonym for non-practicing, just as I’m sure you wish there were a way to prevent people from telling you that you’re not Reform because you wear tzitzit.

        I can only assume that your friend employed by URJ who isn’t sure about whether s/he is Reform means that s/he thinks URJ is doing good things for its member congregations but is unsure about liking the ideology or liturgical style of the typical Reform congregation.

        As for your HUC friend, I/m sure s/he has many classmates who are worshiping, for whatever reason, outside of Reform congregations. All of them will confront the moment of truth if they seek employment in the pulpit that their congregants will have certain “Reform” expectations — and the kind of worship they will be called upon to lead may not be what they would most prefer. Meanwhile, one might ask why your friend is at HUC rather than at JTS.

        As a side note, on a recent Shabbat morning at my Reform synagogue that the only man in the room not wearing a kipa was the rabbi!

        • David A.M. Wilensky October 6, 2009 at 3:06 pm #

          Right. Most people who are members of Reform synagogue either joined it because it’s the closest to their house or because they like the Rabbi better than they guy at the other place in their town. Or maybe they’ve always belonged to a Reform synagogue and never gave it much thought–that’s just what they do and where they go.

          This is not enough for me. And for many of the Jews that I choose to associate with, it is not enough.

          I cannot stand to be anything less than as conscientious and intellectually honest as I can when I engage with this stuff.

          When I say “URJ Jew” I do so with full knowledge of the fact that synagogues join the URJ, not people. But people do join URJ synagogues. And they get ordained at HUC. And they go to/grew up in NFTY. And they go to/send their kids to URJ camps. And representative of theirs set the agenda for the RAC.

          Being a member of a URJ synagogue means buying in, literally, by paying dues. When you join a URJ synagogue, you agree to financially support a whole host of affiliated organizations.

          So when I say that I’m not a URJ Jew anymore, I mean that I don’t want to have official ties to any of that constellation of Reform organizations any longer.

    • Randi October 6, 2009 at 1:36 pm #

      I’d like to point out, Larry, that at least half of my drivel from above makes your point about living in the real world. It is also not the first time that I’ve been scolded for not wanting to accept the status-quo regarding what happens in a Reform community.

      DAMW’s question is valid–it does not deserve to be dismissed. My observation is that those who practice our movement’s mandate of “lifelong learning” only find themselves feeling increasingly out-of-place in our synagogues. It’s a bit of cognitive dissonance that should be addressed: our synagogues really don’t want you to be a lifelong learner of Judaism unless you are a member of the clergy.

      Larry also writes:If Sue Elwell is peddling TM these days, it’s because that’s what the people who pay the bills want. Despite my personal dislike of meditation and yoga, I did not imply anything so cynical–I believe that Rabbi Levi Elwell, like most meditation practicioners, does it from a place of sincerity, and that there is place for it within Judaism. In fact, there is long history of Jewish meditation—I was perplexed that the Jewish sources of this practice weren’t mentioned in our sessions.

      Who is wise? One who learns from everyone….
      But, one can also acknowledge that we have been influenced by other traditions throughout our history while simultaneously being concerned about our boundaries and distinctiveness.

      • Larry Kaufman October 6, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

        Randi, I just plain don’t believe that our synagogues discourage lifelong learning for all except the clergy. My current congregation (where your rabbi grew up) is much more cerebral than my previous one, but even there high quality adult education was provided and encouraged. And I don’t know of a congregation in the Union where that is not the case.

        I’m not scolding you for being unhappy with the status quo, or for trying to change it. I just don’t think it’s fair to put the blame for the value system that may dominate a given synagogue on the Union. And based on the many rabbis I know, I have to believe it gnaws on their kishkes more than it does on those of us who take our Judaism seriously but where it is peripheral rather than basic to our life’s work.

        As to boundaries and distinctiveness — boundaries in Reform Judaism are fluid, and I think you’ll find more complaints in the typical congregation about those coming back that were once rejected than you will about those borrowings that haven’t found a point of compatibility with Jewish tradition. (Chanuka bush?) A worthy subject for study.

        • Randi October 6, 2009 at 5:36 pm #

          I have attended a URJ-sponsored Kallah, a regional biennial, and the Hadr’chah seminar. I have to admit that some of the classes that where taught by HUC faculty were something approaching rigorous, but even those could have been jumped-into after taking an Intro to Judaism course.

          These stuck-at-100-level courses do indeed keep the bar low and indirectly discourage learning. Even if my particular community is not a stellar example of an adult learning environment, what exposure I have had at the regional and national hasn’t been academically challenging.

      • David A.M. Wilensky October 6, 2009 at 3:11 pm #

        Randi, I don’t think that URJ synagogues discourage adult learning. I also don’t think that all of them go out of their way to encourage it. And even in the many that do encourage it, the real resistance is met by clergy when they find that not many members want to be adult learners.

        Part of my reason for wanting to get away from Reform organizations is the people. It’s not just that I don’t like things done and attitudes promoted by the URJ, but the people that the URJ attracts I find to be by-and-large uncommitted and boring.

        Before any one jumps down my throat here, that’s not to say that I don’t know any Reform Jews that I like. On the contrary, I know many. But it took me a long time to find them and meet them.

        • Randi October 6, 2009 at 5:44 pm #

          I really do like nearly everyone at my synagogue. There is alot of talent and energy focused on helping others, and many folks who humble me with their sheer chesed. That’s the one thing I hang on too–the gemilut chasadim that comes from the place, even if I can’t help but but find lacking the commitment to Torah and avodah….


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