Tag Archives | South Orange New Jersey

Contest: What should my Beth El machzor bookplate say?

I can’t join a Conservative shul in good conscience. However, I also see it as wrong to behave like a member of a synagogue with a financial contribution membership model without making a financial contribution.

(We’ve talked about this around here before. Briefly, the issue is that paying dues at an affiliated synagogue also means paying part of the synagogue’s dues to the larger organization with which it is affiliated. Since I am not a Conservative Jew, paying dues to Beth El is not something I want to do.)

My solution, when it comes to Beth El, is this: bookplates. Beth El is buying more copies of Mahzor Lev Shalem, which I’m a big fan of. To help fund this, they’re selling bookplates. So I’m going to make a contribution to Beth El in the form of a Lev Shalem bookplate or two. (I don’t know how much they cost, so I don’t know how many I’m buying yet.)

So, dear readers, what should the bookplate(s) say?

Read full story · Comments { 13 }

Kippot and my commute, part II; New Jersey Jewish News, part II

Kippot and my commute, part I

New Jersey Jewish News, part I

This morning, as I emerged in Penn Station from my New Jersey Transit train from South Orange, a woman and her grown son stopped me and said, “Excuse me, are you the guy from the New Jersey Jewish News?”

“That’s me,” I said.

We had a rambling conversation while I was on my way into the bowels of Penn Station to hop on the subway. At one point, the woman told me that she’s a scout leader and that she was recently leading an all-Jewish troop on a trip at some camp. At the same time they were at she was there with her all-Jewish troop, there was also a group of Messianic Jews Jews for Jesus Christians at the camp. Some of them wore tzitzit, but no kippah. As I do. And as the article in the New Jersey Jewish News described. She had to explain who these weirdos were to her scouts.

Yesterday, she told me, they saw me on the train and wondered if I was another such person. Later that day, however, they saw the NJJN and figured it out.

Read full story · Comments { 4 }

A post about me, Beth El, this blog and Trotsky

After services this morning, as people were milling around, in the aisles and generally preventing everyone who wanted to get out of the sanctuary from doing so, Rabbi Roston introduced me to someone who said, “Oh,” in a knowing fashion. The rabbi turned to me and said, “She’s read your blog.”

“Is there anyone left here who hasn’t?” I asked. She said a few older people probably haven’t. “So people who don’t know how to use a mouse?” I asked. She laughed. She also said she read the post about the old family siddurim and liked it.

Then, once I was at kiddush, a guy called Avram (or Avrum or Abram–I’m not sure of the spelling) introduced himself to me and asked if I was the Reform Shuckle guy. He’s been reading for about a year (hi!) and he also reads Jewschool and New Voices.

He said he likes the reviews and was looking forward to what I would say about services this morning. But I told him (as per my ongoing battle with foot-in-mouth disease) that I’m trying to avoid detailed posts about Beth El. Of course, then I went off and wrote this post, so we can all see how well that’s working out.

On a more random note, I also met Beth El Rabbi Emeritus Jehiel Orenstein this morning. He told me about how his father was a Romanian who worked for Trotsky, touring Russia by train with a film that was used to recruit men when they were creating the Red Army. So that was insteresting.

Shabbat Shalom.

P.S.– So that whole Week of Things I Like idea didn’t totally pan out. I trust you’ll all live.

Read full story · Comments { 2 }

A Week of Things I Like, Day 2-ish: Beth El

On Sunday, I said this week was gonna be A Week of Things I Like on this blog, that I would only say positive things all week and that I would post once a day this week.

Here we are on day three and I already missed the second day’s post. And, as regular commenter Larry Kaufman points out, I was also unduly self-critical in the first post.

Anyway, I like Beth El, my new shul here in South Orange. Here are some of the things I like about it:

  • I like that, as I pointed out in my first post about Beth El, their spirit of welcoming is great.
  • I like that they make extensive use of lay leaders in all their services. Initially, based on a sample size of only two weeks, I assumed that Shabbat mornings were more lay-led and and Friday nights less so, but they’ve already got me signed up to lead a Friday night service in August.
  • On a related note, I like how well-trained their lay leaders are. They all really know their stuff and they come from a broad range of ages, which, if I had to guess, is indicative of a great religious school.
  • I like Rabbi Francine Roston and Cantor Perry Fine. By the end of the first Shabbat morning I spent there, Rabbi Roston had reached out to me and asked if I wanted to help lead services ever. By the end of my second Friday night at Beth El, Cantor Fine had also asked.
  • I like that, according to this JTA article that I can’t seem to find anywhere other than at the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, when Rabbi Roston was hired in 2005, Beth El became the largest Conservative shul ever to hire a female as their senior rabbi. (According to the article, Beth El had 575 member families at the time.)
  • I like that, according to Google Maps, it’s a four-minute walk from my apartment–if that.
  • I like that there are a number of rabbis in the congregation. As I’ve previously mentioned, the head of ARZA is a member. Beth El’s rabbi emeritus is also in regular attendance every week and so is the provost of JTS.
  • To continue my reportage on my chronic case of Foot-in-Mouth disease, I like that a number of them seem to have found this blog and have called me out on things I’ve said here. Most recently, one member of a group of men I previously identified as “the peanut gallery” jokingly informed me that I had assessed them incorrectly. Actually, he told me, they are “the judges panel.” I like that too!
  • I like that I’m feeling challenged by Beth El. It’s good to feel comfortable within a routine at a synagogue, but it’s also good to feel a little challenged. So, to turn my whinging about wearing a kippah on its head, it’s good that going to Beth El is forcing me to wear one because it’s challenging.
  • I like that going to Beth El is forcing me to confront the fact that there are things that I like about Conservative Judaism… which may make a whole post of its own later this week.

To make up for my laziness yesterday, I’m gonna do another post tonight for day three of A Week of Things I Like.

Read full story · Comments { 1 }

If I stick my foot in my mouth and there is no one around, do I still make an ass out of myself?

Last week, in the first of what is quickly becoming a lot of posts about Beth El of South Orange, NJ, I incorrectly identified one of the service leaders as “Abigail, who I’m guessing is like 15 years old.”

She pointed out to me during services yesterday that she is not Abigail, but Sharon. And that she is 20, not 15. For a 22-year-old who still doesn’t need to shave every single day to look clean-shaven, that’s quite an idiotic assumption on my part.

I apologized to Sharon when she pointed it out to me and then made fun of myself a little bit. I thought I’d go ahead and do that here too. I’ve also corrected the original post.

The good news is that I didn’t pull the name Abigail totally out of my ass. Sharon’s younger sister is named Abigail and she is–you guessed it–actually 15. She’s also, like her sisters, an accomplished Torah reader.

In other news, I’m on a train to Baltimore right now. From there, it’s on to whatever The Conversation NY is. While I’m there, I hope to figure out why something called The Conversation NY is being held in a place that is decidedly not New York.

I’m back in Jersey on the 14th. The next day, it’s off to Austin for about 10 days.

Shavua tov.

Read full story · Comments { 4 }

Stowing my pen and covering my head

If you’re a regular reader, you know two things: First, that I hate putting on a kippah and, second, that I like to take notes in my siddur during services.

It has become increasingly clear to me that these preferences of mine are not well received in some communities. As the range of places I’m willing to daven has expanded–or drifted to the ritual right, as it might be more accurately put–I’ve had to deal with this issue more and more.

My first attempts at dealing with this involved complaining about it to people I know a lot and complaining about it even more here on this blogOne such blogged complaint in particular didn’t turn out so well. That blog post turned into a minor fiasco–which was, in the end, entirely of my own making.

Then I started trying this thing where I’d walk into a place where I suspected they’d want me to wear a kippah with my head uncovered and wait for someone to correct me. I’ve only ever met with success using this method. Either no one tells me to put one on or they do. It’s not like I’ve ever been ejected for this. (It hasn’t even cause a blog post fiasco. Yet.)

While I was using the better-to-ask-for-forgiveness-later-than-permission-now approach to covering my head, I was using a similar approach to note-taking. I’d keep the pen in my pocket and try to take notes really discretely. Now that I’m actually writing this down, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually had bad luck with this method either, though I’ve only tried it in pew seating situations where it has some chance of success.

The risk associated with taking notes during services is that it has become compulsive. If I have a pen on me, I will make note of every little thing–when they switch leaders, what tunes they do for everything, liturgical oddities, the presence of other people I happen to know, the date, various architectural features of the space, etc. I could go on. It is this compulsion that has made posts like this exhaustive catalog of the minhag of one community possible.

Which means, as many–Rabbi David Ingber of Romemu, most prominently–have pointed out to me, that I risk not noticing the forest because I’m taking a rubbing of the bark of every damn tree. I’m like those hordes of Japanese tourists that can’t possibly have seen one inch of Europe until they go through their photos once the vacation is over. I have pretended that this problem doesn’t bother me, but it has begun to–though this is certainly the first I’ve mentioned it here.

Now I’ve moved to South Orange and I’ve found Beth El, a nice shul that makes me want to stick around. I’m fairly mortified to find myself on the verge of considering the possibility of maybe eventually inquiring about membership at a *gasp* Conservative shul. And I want these people to refrain from ejecting me from the premises.

Which means that I have been leaving my pen at home and putting on my kippah before I go in. Of course, I wait until I’m at the door to put it on. And as soon as I’m out the door, I take it back off. But still.

(“If that’s the case,” you’re wondering, “how did he produce this blog post about services at Beth El?” My new method is to fold over the corner of any page in the siddur on which I want to remind myself that something of note happened. So far, it’s seems to be working.)

I feel, on the one hand, like this is all probably pretty good for my problems with ego and humility. On the other hand, I feel like I’m losing some battle. Being that asshole who takes notes in services has become and identity issue for me.

And, just as an aside–and maybe as a last word of protest on the issue–I have noticed that Beth El refers to itself as a Conservative egalitarian congregation. If that’s the case, why don’t the women have to cover their heads? I have noticed that many women, probably more than usual, do cover their heads, but the sign on the bin-o-kippot does say “all males” must cover their heads.

And, just as a final complaint on the topic in general, I don’t know why it matters to anyone else what is or is not on my head. I have to wonder what would happen if I went to Beth El for shacharit and failed to put on a talit. Would that matter? Or only on the bimah? Would anyone chastise me if I showed up on a weekday and didn’t wrap tefilin? Why is everyone so bizarrely attached to this one little minhag?

Alright. That’s all. I meant for this post not to turn into a rant, but it’s only been like a week so far. I’m still working on being over this stuff.

Read full story · Comments { 18 }

Turning the welcoming up to 11–A review of two services at Beth El in South Orange, NJ

Yesterday, I was at the UJA Federation building in Manhattan for a conference. There, I was introduced to Rabbi Danny Allen, the head of ARZA. As it turns out, he lives right here in South Orange, NJ, my new stomping grounds. As soon as he found out where I lived, he whipped out a business card, wrote his home phone number on the back and told me to call him if I needed anything. It turns out that he’s also a member of Beth El, the Conservative shul around the corner from me. I asked if he’d be there that night and he said no, but that he would be there in the morning.

So, all alone, I made the five minute walk there at 6:15 last night for services. As soon as I got there, I ran into someone who looked very familiar. She turned out to be Rabbi Francine Roston, who I had met a few months ago at a conference at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah. And that’s when the overwhelming welcoming began.

I’ll now move into the bullet point format that’s been working for these reviews lately and then I’ll do the ballpoint pen rating at the end.

Erev Shabbat

  • The hatless rabbi: After figuring out who I was, we went in and Roston muttered something about needing a kippah. I figured she meant me. Luckily I came prepared. I pulled one out of my back pocket and pinned it on. Then, I noticed that she was the one without a kippah! She fiddled around in the bin-o-kippot by the door and got one out for herself.
  • Fruits of remodeling: Tomorrow, Beth El will dedicate their “Ochs Campus,” which is actually the same location they’ve always been at, but with a major face-lift from the Ochs family, whose name the local day school also bears.
  • Nice Western light: The small chapel where we did Kabbat Shabbat was lovely. It looks like a totally new addition to the building, with seating on three side facing a shtender in the middle, which the rabbi led from. The back wall is stained glass and faces West, an inspired choice for a Conservative shul, where Friday night is likely to be a small service. The light was great as the sun began to sink low.
  • Service times: Though the light was great, the sun didn’t set by the time we were done. Their services start at 6:15 through the end of June and then move to 8 something beginning in July.
  • Making the minyan: At 6:15, there were about 6 people, including myself, the rabbi and one mourner. So Roston was out in the lobby on her cell trying to get a minyan. By the time it mattered, we had a minyan and by the time we were done, there were 15 or so people.
  • Musically boring, but not bad: Beth El has a cantor, but the cantor was not present. Roston’s voice is good enough for me, but nothing special. Kabbalat Shabbat was done in a typical nusach/Carlebach sort of way, but she opted for the most boring option at every turn. With only a couple of exceptions, she did the chant-the-first-and-last-lines thing.
  • Lecha Dodi: So musically uninteresting were her choices that we only used one tune for LD. In shuls that sing the full piyyut, they almost always switch tunes in the middle and I’ve started to be surprised when I find them not doing it. It’s a better solution to the monotony of the length of the piyyut than the Reform solution, which is truncation.
  • Good participation: Despite the small crowd, the singing was decently participatory when we actually did sing something, like LD.
  • Welcoming mourners: There is this line, “Hamakom yenachem…/May God comfort you…” that every siddur prints after LD with the explanation that it is to be said to the congregation’s mourners. I’ve never actually seen it done, but Roston actually forgot to do it and apologized, flipping back a page and turning to face the mourner. She had everyone read it together to him. It was pretty jarring to me.
  • Chatzi Kaddish nusach slip-up: Roston did CK to the wrong nusach–an accident to which I’m often susceptible–and then smirked to a guy sitting behind me. I later learned that he’s a past president of the Beth El. She muttered something to him about getting it wrong and he chuckled.
  • Magein Avot (v’Imahot): Beth El calls itself and egalitarian Conservative congregation. So it was noteworthy, though not surprising that Roston does the mamas and papas, which I discovered when we got to Magen Avot. More on gender roles at Beth El later.
  • Correct Kaddish Shalem nusach: Sometimes, once you fall off the nusach horse, it’s real hard to get back on. There was an odd pause before Kaddish Shalem as I noticed Roston glance at the same guy from before. He muttered the first couple words of KS to the correct nusach and she was able to get going.

Shabbat Morning

I arrived at 9:25 and the service started quite promptly at 9:30. I don’t know whether to add or subtract points for that. Roston and I were the first into the room, a larger sanctuary that looks like it’s a dramatic recent remodel of an existing sanctuary. It was quite nice, remarkable, given that I rarely like modernist sanctuaries. Luckily, I chose to sit one row behind a group of three older men who arrived a little after I did. It turns out they’re the peanut gallery. It’s good to spot your own kind in an unfamiliar place. One of them is also the provost of JTS, who had just led the Torah study before services.

  • Birchot Hashachar: Roston began with the daily blessings on p. 65 of Siddur Sim Shalom, that little section that Gates of Prayer called Nisim B’chol Yom. As with the service the previous night, almost everything was done in a very minimal chant-the-first-and-last-lines sort of way.
  • Skipping ahead: We continued in that fashion until p. 67 “…mekadeish at shimcha barabim” when we skipped ahead to p. 81 for Ps. 30. That means that we skipped the selection of texts that SSS replaces Korbanot with, Kaddish D’Rabbanan and Ps. 92 (the daily psalm). We then did Kaddish Yatom and moved on to…
  • Pesukei Dezimra: This section proceeded in what was quickly becoming a boring fashion, the familiar first and last line shtick.
  • A brief excerpt from a long list of things we did not sing: We managed not to sing even Ps. 136 (the one with the “ki le’olam chasdo” refrain. We also did not chant Ashrei, though we certainly didn’t skip it.
  • A brief, though complete list, of things we did sing: Luckily, Ps. 150 is too musically themed to keep even this crowd from singing it, though the melody was unfamiliar to me. In Shirat Hayam, I was surprised to find us singing “Ozi vezimrat Yah vayehi li lishuah” to that Shefa Gold tune.
  • Shochein Ad leader switch: At Shochein Ad, a very young-looking leader replaced Roston at the shtender. Her style was similar Roston’s. I later learned she is Evelyn, who just graduated from Rutgers. More on her later.
  • The ladies of Beth El: I will point out at this point that the entire service was lead by women, with exception of the Torah Service, which had a male reader and gabbai.
  • El Adon: Evelyn gave us a thankful reprieve from the usual when we got to this portion of Yotzer Or. I’m pretty sure there’s a law these days requiring El Adon to be sung.
  • Amidah: There was a silent Amidah and a reader’s repetition. It is worth noting here that we did a Heiche Kedushah (first three blessings of the Amidah together, the rest silently) in Musaf.
  • Welcoming gone wild: On Friday night, Roston introduced me to everybody twice, once at the beginning of the service and once at the end. This morning about a half dozen past presidents introduced themselves or were introduced to me during the service. One gave me an Aliyah. While sitting on the bimah during the fifth aliyah, waiting for my turn at the sixth, Roston asked if I read Torah. I told her no. She asked if I can lead davening. I said yes. There were about a dozen handshakes and full name introductions on my way back to my seat after the Aliyah.
  • Korens and Evelyn: By this point, I had relocated to sit with Danny (the rabbi from the very beginning of the post), who was sitting right behind Evelyn and her family. I was introduced to Evelyn, who was using the Koren Sacks, which I commended her on. She told me that she had asked for it as a birthday present. My kind of person. There were two other Korens in the congregation as well.
  • Mi Shebeirach gone wild: I know that we all have to join the cult of intercessory healing prayers know, but Beth El’s version is the most odious I’ve yet seen. People, like 20 of them, lined up on the ramp to the bimah while the rest of them hummed or something and they came up one-by-one to grab the Torah and say a special prayer from someone in need of healing. Danny, correctly perceiving my expression as one of incredulity, seemed not to think too much of it either. “It’s not a theological decision,” he said. “It is,” I said, “it’s just not being made for theological reasons.” Then, a little later, they wanted everyone who had gone up to the Torah to stand up for a special prayer. I stayed in my seat.
  • Musaf: As noted, Musaf was done as a Heiche Kedushah. Word on the street is that Roston wants to do away with Musaf. Oh dear. It seems I’ve found a shul with a liturgical debate worth wading into.
    • Abigail’s Sharon’s more diverse musical tastes: Musaf was led by Evelyn’s younger sister, Abigail Sharon (I think I thought, but turned out to be wrong). This was interesting because Abigail’s Sharon’s musical choices and the congregation’s acceptance of them is a sign that the music doesn’t always have to be as boring as it was.
    • A-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-Adonai… I don’t actually like doing this verison of “Adonai sefatai tiftach…” but the fact that Abigail Sharon chose to was a good sign, given what I said in the previous bullet point.
  • Aleinu: Abigail Sharon went with your standard Camp Ramah-style Aleinu, with lots of singing and stomping and so forth.
  • After the service, I could scarcely walk two feet without being intercepted for lengthy introductions. Which was bad because I wanted a bagel. But it was good because now I think I’ve met everybody in the world, including one lesbian mother of three who told me that she’s the unofficial matchmaker at Beth El and that she’d start thinking about finding someone for me. Welcome to South Orange, apparently.

    The Five Ballpoint Pen Rating (The rating system is explained here.)

    Music and Ruach: Three Ballpoint Pens

    The congregation was engaged and participated, but not particularly loudly. The leading was all competent, through and through, but of three service leaders I experienced across two services, only one (Abigail, who I’m guessing is 20 like 15 years old) did anything particularly interesting with her moment at the shtender. On its own, the congregation’s participation would probably pull a three and a half, while the music on its own would probably be a two and a half. As always, keep in mind that this is only a rating of the two services I attended this week and that neither involved Beth El’s cantor.

    The Chaos Quotient: Three Ballpoint Pens

    Beth El was pretty light on the chaos, but I felt totally at home nonetheless. There was a solid low-level hum of chaos surrounding distribution of honors, especially the Torah service, but nothing too special. The only thing keeping this from being two and a half is the nusach issues I saw on Friday night.

    Liturgical Health: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens

    There were, as far as I saw, three other people who brought their own siddur, each one a Koren Sacks. (I brought the Sim Shalom commentary, Or Hadash.) In an ordinary shul, that’s something, I guess–even if one of them turned out to be the provost of JTS! There was a good level of lay-leading throughout the service, as I discussed above. What keeps this rating from being a three is the questionable and totally bizarre Mi Shebeirach situation.

    Welcoming Community: Five Ballpoint Pens

    This might actually be the first time I’ve rated anything as a five since I started using the ballpoint pen scale. And it should be obvious from everything I said above why. These people welcome you like it’s their job.

    Overall Rating: Four Ballpoint Pens

    Not much left to say, except that, for maybe the first time, the warmth of the community elevated the rating past the solid three I would have given based on the other categories.

    Read full story · Comments { 20 }