When the laity just sit there and flail…

The congregation in this anecdote will remain anonymous. Suffice it to say that it is URJ-affiliated and around 700 families. I promise it’s a true story that I heard recently from a source in a position to know.

After years of tweaking Friday night service times at least annually, the synagogue settled, seemingly happily, on services at 6:30 p.m. every Shabbat evening.

This went along fine for a while, but a few vociferous folks, 20 or 30 people, complained that they couldn’t make it to services if they were that early.

The Ritual Committee felt that since no time would work for everyone, they wouldn’t go out of their way to accommodate this handful of people.

The President of the congregation felt differently and demanded that the Ritual Committee and the Rabbis create a once a month 8 p.m. service for the people who can’t make it to the 6:30 p.m. service.

Hardly anyone comes, but the service goes on.

Immediately, I thought, why not create an 8 p.m. monthly lay-led service. The people who can only come late would love it and a whole other crop of people who prefer lay-led services and like to lead them would latch onto it also.

So I asked the guy telling me this story if they considered a lay-led service. Yes, he told me, they had. It was the first thing that the Ritual Committee thought of.

They floated this idea around to the people who wanted the 8 p.m. service. No good, these people said. We want a “real” service led by the professionals with a real sermon and real music.

God forbid anyone should take responsibility for their own Jewish needs. Make sure you get the professionals to take care of it.

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23 Responses to When the laity just sit there and flail…

  1. BZ March 11, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    Why not have a lay-led 6 pm service on the weeks when the 8 pm service is happening, so there’s a 6 pm service every week but the professionals don’t have to work a double shift?

  2. REK March 11, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    On the other hand, what if this group’s religious need is for a more performative worship experience, led by trained professionals? What if that’s how they connect best to Judaism/prayer/God/whatever they get out of it? Is it fair to them to not serve their needs, as well (even if those needs don’t match with our own)?

    Just playing devil’s advocate (you know how I do love that game).

    • David A.M. Wilensky March 12, 2010 at 9:10 am #

      Fair enough.

      But it’s my opinion that no one will ever be perfectly happy. My point is merely how frustrating the attitude is.

  3. Randi March 11, 2010 at 11:09 pm #

    You can’t really believe that those who prefer 8:00 PM Friday night services would ever go for the lay-led idea.

    I think every Reform congregation of this side deals with this issue: Most people prefer the earlier 6:00 or 6:30 services and vote with their feet. A smaller core group of folks who have been long-time members prefer the classical tradition of having services at 8:00, and understandably are vocal in the grief that things have changed.

    My gut tells me that those folks would also be very happy if the UPB was used at that service, and that there should be a professional choir. They don’t have the skill-set needed to lead prayers, and don’t think that they should ever learn it either–they view that as the rabbi earning his/her salary. It was like that for decades in their life as members of the congregation.

    It’s a tough balance for a congregation to strike–but I think that it’s wrong to shut the door completely on these folks.

    BZ’s idea is more workable, although still somewhat problematic.

  4. Jason Rosenberg March 12, 2010 at 8:30 am #

    What, exactly, is problematic about BZ’s suggestion? It seems to honor the fact that not everyone in a congregation will want to pray the same way. By being monthly, rather than more often, it doesn’t put too much of a burden on the majority of the congregation. And, by being on the same Shabbat as a lay-led early service, it avoids being too much of a hardship on the clergy, and also teaches the value/importance of a lay-led service. Just for that last part alone, it might be worth doing!

    • Randi March 12, 2010 at 10:05 am #

      I don’t disagree at all, Jason, about the importance/value of a lay-led service. I’m just jaded by personal experience, which is that most Reform congregants desire face time with their rabbi during services. That, and when we tried splitting services we were met with concerns about “dividing the community.” We actually did a survey that showed the preponderance of our community was only in favor of the paid professionals and adolescents ever leading services.
      You guys give me hope that this reticence to accept lay-led service is a local phenomenon, and perhaps it could change.

      • Jason Rosenberg March 12, 2010 at 11:23 am #

        Randi, I agree – many (probably) most congregants want face time with the clergy during services. And, as one of those clergy (I’m a Rabbi) I think that a big part of my job is to try to change that attitude. I try to make it clear that the idea that a Rabbi and/or Cantor must lead services or, even worse, that prayers mean more/work better when offered by a Rabbi is a theologically dangerous idea. If I’m doing my job, then I’m empowering my congregants to lead Jewish lives, not to be Jewish vicariously through me!

        But, it ain’t easy – there is plenty of resistance, as you say.

  5. David A.M. Wilensky March 12, 2010 at 9:12 am #

    By the way, to add to facts about the congregation in question, this is a congregation with a long tradition of lay leadership on Shabbat mornings.

  6. larrykaufman March 12, 2010 at 12:51 pm #

    Before I get into the substance — the pilpul:
    1. As I think perhaps some of the earlier comments show, your anonymous congregation is called Beth B’chol Makom – this could be, and is, everywhere.
    2. Randi, 8 PM (give or take fifteen minutes) was the mainstream Reform Shabbat service time until fairly recently — Classical Reform did what they often called a vespers service at 5:45, and the marquee service was Sunday morning. I don’t think UPB or choir are necessarily part of the equation.
    3. All the logistical suggestions about balancing the preference for early vs. late don’t touch David’s main issue: the reluctance of the Jews in the pews to have anyone other than ordained/invested clergy on the bimah on Friday night. (As David notes, the Shabbat morning crowd tends to be more open to lay service leaders.)

    So what about that reluctance? Part of it is wanting value to be received for money paid out — the rabbi gets a salary, where the hell is s/he. (Not saying this attitude is reasonable, only that it exists.) Part of it is quality control — my congregation is accepting of the absence of clergy, as long as the quality of the service leadership is maintained — extending to the music, the handling of the liturgy, the leyning, and the d’var Torah.

    Randi notes that her congregation is accepting of adolescent-led services, but part of that is making allowances in the interest of Jewish continuity. And part of it may be that the teens project a comfort level that many of their seniors do not.

    I also see an undercurrent of the expectation that the rabbi is role-modeling appropriate Jewish behavior, so if the rabbi doesn’t have to be here tonight (for whatever reason), why should I be here?

    I do know of one large, multi-clergy congregation, that for a long time ran two services. While the early service drew many “new” people, the aggregate attendance at the two was less than had been the attendance when there was a late service only. Leads me to wonder if people had been coming out of a sense that they were expected to be there, but now had an “out” on the grounds that the people whose opinion they were worried about would (hopefully) assume they had been at the other service.

    Incidentally, when my congregation switched to 6:30, Torah reading was initially omitted. Over time, and with various fine-tunings including once-a-month double headers, the current minhag is once a month 8 PM with Torah, and once a month the 6:30 includes Torah. The Torah service is very abbreviated, but the hakafa remains. As a non-toucher, non-kisser, I marvel at the magical power people invest in the physical scroll!

    • Rich March 14, 2010 at 12:22 am #

      The Torah service is very abbreviated, but the hakafa remains. As a non-toucher, non-kisser, I marvel at the magical power people invest in the physical scroll!

      As a toucher, kisser, and leyner, I would like to share a few thoughts on this, some are old, and some come from the new-to-me experience of carrying the Torah on hakafah.

      There is no inherent magic in a physical scroll. What there is, is a culmination of a tradition reaching back to the time of Ezra, executed by a scribe steeped in that tradition to create an artifact which becomes the nexus of a community – not just those standing here today but both those who have preceeded and those who will follow. It is in both a literal and figurative sense, the “touchstone” par-excellence of Judaism.

      I feel this most powerfully when I leyn, when I let my eyes my brain and my breath become a conduit for something thousands of years old and brand new with every hearing. But carrying the Torah through the synagogue through a gantlet of tzitzit and siddurim belonging to people all wishing to connect to that experience brings home the fact that it is not about any magical properties of the Sefer Torah, but rather a kind of communion, the Torah Scroll serving as a conduit by which the discrete members are unified into a community.

      • larrykaufman March 14, 2010 at 10:02 am #

        I just read a remarkable book, American Catholic, by James Carroll — former priest, devout Roman Catholic, very anti-church-hierarchy, very philo-Semitic. Carroll made me understand, for the 1st time, the idea of the crucifix as symbol rather than as idol. Your eloquent analysis of the role of the Scroll is analogous to his presentation. And while I can understand it, I can’t really internalize it. But, then, I’m a Litvak in almost all ways except actual descent.

        • David A.M. Wilensky March 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

          I’m ok with Torah or Cross as symbol. It’s the image of a guy on the cross that strikes me as problematic.

          • larrykaufman March 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

            Carroll in effect said, if I read him right, that the guy is what makes the difference between the Catholics and the Protestants.

            • David A.M. Wilensky March 14, 2010 at 4:10 pm #

              THE difference? It’s certainly A difference.

              • larrykaufman March 14, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

                I keep forgetting that in your other life you’re an editor. Yes, A is better than THE.

                • David A.M. Wilensky March 15, 2010 at 8:09 am #

                  Yes. Best not to forget about my secret identity as editor of a newspaper.

        • Rich March 14, 2010 at 12:56 pm #

          Mom was Litvak. Dad was Galitziana. And I’m a gemini.

        • Jason Rosenberg March 16, 2010 at 9:16 am #

          I think that the dividing line between a symbol and an idol is a very interesting and important one, and probably exists more on the personal, internal level than anywhere else. What I mean is that one person’s symbol is another person’s idol, and there’s probably no way to reliably tell, from the outside, which one it is. But, it seems pretty clear to me that 1) many people cross the line, and turn a symbol into an idol and 2) it really is a big deal! Knowing the difference, and why it’s so bad to turn any object into an idol, should be a primary focus of religion.

          By sheer coincidence, this morning I was writing what I thought was a quick, meaningless blog entry about the Pledge of Allegiance, and it turned into a slightly more substantial piece on this very issue. If anyone’s interested, it’s at http://cbatampa.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-exactly-am-i-pledging-allegiance.html.

    • BZ March 16, 2010 at 11:41 pm #

      Randi notes that her congregation is accepting of adolescent-led services, but part of that is making allowances in the interest of Jewish continuity. And part of it may be that the teens project a comfort level that many of their seniors do not.

      I had assumed that by “adolescents”, Randi was referring specifically to bar/bat mitzvah services.

  7. Monica March 15, 2010 at 7:01 am #

    Interesting post. Thank you.

    I don’t think the time issue and the aversion to lay-led services are necessarily linked. In my congregation almost no one wants a “classical Reform” service any more (except for the high holy days); the tension is between those who want a fulfilling service with words of torah versus those want to bring their young kids to something lightweight before dinner and bed-time. So there can be lots of reasons for the timing issue.

    I think most people who object to lay-led services reason that they paid (via dues) for a professional who should be available to them on a regular basis, and why should they settle for Ploni here, who doesn’t even have any sort of real education in this and will probably not give a good performance? I wrote more about this (some time ago) in this blog entry:
    http://cellio.livejournal.com/186656.html .

    I wish we could get more people to take personal responsibility for their own needs, and that we could get more people to accept non-professionals in leadership roles. It *should* be possible in that we’re fighting against less than 200 years of Reform thinking, not 3000 years of Jewish tradition, but it sure feels like a hard challenge sometimes.

    • David A.M. Wilensky March 15, 2010 at 8:10 am #

      “I don’t think the time issue and the aversion to lay-led services are necessarily linked.”

      They’re probably not linked. I just thought both parts of the story were interesting.

    • larrykaufman March 15, 2010 at 4:11 pm #

      The wide-spread congregational acceptance of cantorial soloists throughout the Reform movement helps to corroborate my theory that the issue is not one of professionalism as demonstrated by a certificate of ordination/investiture so much as it is professionalism as demonstrated by performance. As long as the service is nicely sung and smoothly led and read, people will accept volunteer leadership.

      The congregation that instituted the monthly 8 PM service that David told about had it led by their professionals, but it was not supported by the people who presumably asked for it, nor by the liturgy committee that pushed for it. One lesson that decision-makers in synagogues need to absorb is they are obligated to support the things they vote for, and sometimes even the things they voted against. But in coming to decisions, they have to weigh whether “Many people are complaining about….” really means “Somebody has complained.”

      In the congregation of David’s anecdote, there were apparently at least two rabbis — he doesn’t mention cantors or soloists or other musicians. So why not an early and a late erev Shabbat service every week?

      At one stage in my life, I changed congregations in part because there was no pattern to the schedule — some weeks 1 service, which might be early or might be late, some weeks 2 services. I can deal with either, but not with not knowing, even though there’s probably an app for that. At Anshe Anecdote, one possible problem with the restored 8 PM service was that it was no longer part of people’s routine. Checking my BlackBerry to see when to go to shul is not part of my routine.