Friday, April 8, 2011

Reflections on TBE @ 90: A Conservative Crossroads

Reflections on TBE @ 90: A Conservative Crossroads

Apologies for the length (but hey, no one's forcing you to read!)

Our 9oth anniversary, a year-long celebration, is coming to a climax, ironically during a week when our president, Eileen Rosner, announced to the congregation our departure from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. We are truly at a crossroads. That notion is supported by other parts of her email, discussing our new nursery school and the hiring of our new Director of Community Engagement, Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, currently a Rabbinic Fellow at B'nai Jeshurun of NY. Read more about her impressive background here.

If you look at our first TBE bulletin in 1922, you'll see how many things have not changed, what with appeals for greater service attendance and membership recruitment. There were junior services and Sisterhood meetings and, yes, a United Synagogue convention.

But the world has in fact changed radically since then, and over the past decade, that pace of change has intensified almost immeasurably. We have worked hard over the years to keep up with that pace, and, wherever possible, to be ahead of the curve. When it became clear that synagogues had to open their doors to a wide array of Shabbat programming, we were among the pilots to introduce Synaplex. We were at the cutting edge in our movement's drive to be more inclusive of people of all faith backgrounds and sexual orientations. Before informal education was all the rage, we were taking every grade on Shabbatons. While others were still offering boring, hear-a-pin-drop, custom-designed private Bar Mitzvah services, we were able to synthesize the individual needs of the family with the collective goals of community building. We were also a pilot community for Birthright Israel, the JTS Mitzvah Initiative and over the past few years we have led the way in the engagement of Young Professionals and, all along, the use of technology.

Sometimes we are too far ahead of the curve. But I appreciate the fact that our leadership - and the vast majority of the congregation - have bought into the fact that if we aren't constantly looking at what's around the bend, the next generation will suffer the consequences. Even at the risk of the occasional flop, it's always best to keep innovating. People often ask me whether I take flak for some of the "out there" positions I occasionally take. Maybe it's because you're so used to me that you've stopped listening...but I believe it has more to with the congregation's buying in to the vision that I've been articulating for so long, a vision that we constantly are refining together. We simply cannot afford to stagnate. Because we have kept up with the torrid pace of change, we are well situated as we move toward our centennial year.

Take synagogue music, for example - and read this excellent backgrounder on the dramatic transformations that have taken place. The role of cantor, as we once knew it, is now virtually nonexistent, both in the liberal and Orthodox communities. JTS is trying to figure out what to do with its cantorial school. The role is being reinvented as we speak, and few have done that better than Cantor Mordecai. A decade ago, we were among the first congregations to bring Craig Taubman's "Friday Night Live" to the east coast (the first in the New York area) and now, with Cantor Mordecai, we stand at the cutting edge of the next phase of this revolution that is giving Jewish spiritual expression a global beat, authentic, yet very new. This pulsating music was pioneered by B'nai Jeshurun in New York (read about them in that same article) and our deepening partnership with BJ reaches a new level with this Sunday's concert. It is the music that is fueling our growth.

BJ, by the way, has a close affinity with the philosophy of Conservative leaders like Abraham Joshua Heschel, but they long ago left the United Synagogue. The USCJ's new strategic plan, in fact, is designed to lure creative, sacred communities like B'nai Jeshurun back into the fold.

Unfortunately, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, to a large degree, has not kept up with that torrid pace of change. While we are living in a Facebook world, the USCJ still has the feel of our bulletin of 1922. For many years, I have stood behind our continued membership and it has been a lonely position to take at times, especially in an era of economic challenge. This year, we reached the breaking point. In order to pay the significant sums being asked of us, we would have had to abandon, to a degree, our pursuit of excellence. Were USCJ providing excellent service, that would not have mattered, but that has not been the case for some time.

The board's decision came as a last resort after repeated efforts to seek accommodation at a lower rate. A USCJ leader came here to present the organization's new strategic plan. The plan carries hope for significant reform, though many feel it does not go nearly far enough. Rabbis who helped to craft the plan have spoken publicly of their frustration that an opportunity to completely remake the movement was not seized. For the time being, the organization is in disarray, and our board felt that the considerable sums we are being asked to contribute in annual dues might better be invested in pursuing our goals here. There are lots of things we can do to strengthen Conservative Judaism. But what will help the most is what we can do best - be a role model of transformation, a magnet of energy and sanctity for all to see.

Meanwhile, we are still very much engaged with the Conservative movement through its many other arms, including J.T.S., where I serve on the Chancellor's Rabbinic Advisory Council, Masorti, Ramah, the Jewish Educator's Assembly, the Cantors' Assembly, Woman's League and the Rabbinical Assembly. One could say that part of the problem, in fact, is that there are so many avenues to connecting with the movement and no centralized address. But for now, it helps us. We are still most definitely a Conservative congregation in our attachments and philosophy. We are also working more closely with Conservative synagogues in Fairfield County and are planning joint activities for the coming year. Put Sunday, afternoon Sept. 18 on your calendar for the first such event.

A concern that I know others share is for our youth program. I grew up loving USY and long before this decision was made, was mourning the passing of its golden era. USY still does wonderful things, but, like its parent organization, it is a shadow of its former self (in contrast to the movement's other informal educational arm, Camp Ramah, which is independent of USCJ and is thriving). While regional USY affiliation has benefited many of our teens tremendously, including my own, I firmly believe that our youth program will become stronger over the coming year, even though we are now outside the USCJ orbit. Rabbi Dardashti, who will be youth director, comes to us with creative ideas and a desire to engage our teens to generate their own. And she currently serves a congregation that is unaffiliated.

My sense is that this period of disengagement will be relatively brief and I am hopeful that we'll soon be a part of a rejuvenated USCJ, a renaissance that, along with many other thriving Conservative communities, we'll help to inspire. Looking back at that 1922 bulletin, it is striking how the rabbi had to admonish young people to attend Friday night services more often. But that's the model we've come to accept. Jews everywhere think that going to services is like medicine. You gotta take it, but YUCKKK. We are building a new model here. In an era of what Arnold Eisen calls "The Sovereign Self," people pick and choose how to express their Jewish identities - or not. No one affiliates out of simple obligation. If it tastes like medicine, people will spit it out and flock for the exits. Everything we do needs to generate meaning, community and engagement. We need to connect with people of al types on all levels, intellectually and emotionally. I think we are most definitely on the right track.

As we continue to dream and reflect on what it means to build a sacred community, listen to this just-posted TED lecture by David Brooks: The Social Animal. Always insightful and humorous, Brooks offers ideas from his new book that are especially relevant to those whose lives are centered around groups designed to generate meaning, communities, like ours, that are built upon the power of connection and relationship. Let me know what you think.

I've had the honor of serving this congregation for a generation, and I have a great respect for what has come before. We stand on strong shoulders. But I also feel that our best days lie just up the road. In fact, we've reached them as we reach this crossroads. It is impossible to sway and sing at our Kabbalat Shabbat services each week and not think that this is the beginning of a an era where we will make a profound difference in the lives of all whom we touch.

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