Tuesday, December 26, 2023

In This Moment: A Time for Embracing; Defining Ourselves as a Conservative Congregation


In This Moment

click for pdf of Jpost front page.

As you can see, six more IDF soldiers were killed today.

Marc Schulman reports that things are also heating up in the north, and there is no end in sight.

A Time for Embracing

The news from Israel could not be more depressing right now. High casualties on both sides and slogging battles amidst the wreckage and in Hamas tunnels. While it appears that Israel is making progress in degrading Hamas, it is hard to measure it, much less understand whether it brings Israelis any closer to safety - and the release of the hostages.

For a people of words, there are no words right now. And that, perhaps, is how it should be.

Ecclesiastes wrote that there is a time to speak and a time for silence. This is a moment when very little that we say can be helpful. All we can do is extend our arms and embrace. This is a time for embracing.

In "normal" circumstances, we would already be beyond the time when a ceasefire would be in order. But despite the enormous death toll in Gaza, the fact that Hamas embeds itself among civilians makes almost any response justifiable until Hamas relinquishes control of Gaza and returns the hostages. And we are not close to that yet, it seems.

And even if "justifiable" does not equal "justified," and even if we now have every reason to believe that Netanyahu is acting more for political survival than military or moral considerations, there is still nothing we can say that would seem right at this moment. We can't pressure Israelis, even if we feel a proposal, like the one currently being circulated, reportedly, by the Saudis, makes some sense, given the trauma they are still experiencing every waking moment. We can only hug them, as President Biden has continued to do, at least in public.

As I was driving today, a song randomly came on my playlist. It was a version of a popular Israeli hit from a few years ago, Yihye B'Seder, "It will be OK," sung by the mixed Israeli-Palestinian Youth Choir based in Jerusalem's YMCA. I've spoken about them before. It was perfect - just what the doctor ordered.

But then I wondered: Are Israelis still saying B'Seder at all? it was the classic response to any dilemma, any hard time. It will be OK. Not only that - but it will be Sababa! Things will be great!

I swear, Israelis used to be born saying b'seder. If they happened to say Abba or Ima first, it was an anomaly. Now not even cabdrivers are saying it.

I'll venture to guess that no one in Israel is saying Sababa much these days, either. But how can Israel be Israel without B'Seder?

Listen to the Arabic-Hebrew song below, with English subtitles. It's a great song, especially when sung by that group.

Maybe that song sung by that group can give you hope. It gave me a little.

But it reminded me that Israelis have lost much of that hope, that optimistic, can-do spunk that sustained them for so long. And for good reason. They've all lost loved ones, and for them, everyone is family. All those faces in the daly newspapers. They have lost so much and are at a loss as to what has happened.

I've been saying it all along. The devastation of Oct. 7 is without precedent. The trauma is beyond measure. It doesn't give Israel license to commit war crimes (not that I'm asserting that any have been committed thus far). But it also doesn't give us license to treat this as some military chess game where we are just hoping Israel can gain a strategic advantage. This is not business as usual, and on some level, even Israel's detractors get it. Even the Egyptians and Saudis seem to get it.

There will be no celebration among Jews when the guns stop firing. The question we must ask is not whether there will be a celebration if, say, Israel earns a clear victory and the hostages all come home, but whether, even if that happens, Israelis and diaspora Jews will ever be able to celebrate again. Will we ever be able to march around and dance with the Torahs on Simhat Torah again? Will things ever be b'seder again?

I can't answer that. But I suspect that it will get better, because if we could find a way to sing, dance, get married and have babies after the Holocaust, we can find joy, somehow, even after this.

But in the meantime, there are no words.

This is a time for embracing.

TBE Milestones:

Defining Ourselves as a Conservative Congregation

As we reach my final months as TBE's senior rabbi, I'm sharing some key moments and events from the past 37 years

In the last years of the 20th century, the Conservative Movement tried to define itself, something that it never really had done before. The publication of the product of those efforts, Emet V'Emunah (you can read the pdf of the entire document here) was a true landmark, but its flaws reflected the drawbacks of the movement as a whole. The document tried to be all things to all people and to paper over major areas of conflict. It was a valiant attempt to take seriously the ideology of a movement that had been created less from ideology than sociology. Conservative Judaism was intended to be waystation between the restrictive Orthodoxy of its forbearers and a more modern expression of tradition that would enable new immigrants to make it in America. 

By the late 1990s, well into my first decade here, Beth El underwent its own identity crisis. While it was true that we were members of the United Synagogue and while our liturgy was well in line with the movement, many of our practices were outliers with regards to how the movement was evolving. We used the organ, which was a source of much consternation, and in fact had led, over the span of decades, to many Conservative-oriented Jews not joining here. We also were formal and monolithic in our style of prayer. There was little room for pluralistic expression and none at all for some of the innovative styles being developed within Havurot (fellowship groups that had been founded during the '60s counter culture in Boston and elsewhere), and its D.I.Y. bestseller, "The Jewish Catalog," and also among those involved with Camp Ramah and other bastions of counterculture creativity. When I arrived, it felt as if the '60s had never had happened here.

So the generational change I brought in the '90s came as a shock to the system. What was doubly shocking was that as Associate Rabbi, I could only go so far in introducing change, so when I became Senior Rabbi, and began implementing some reforms, some people felt like "another Josh" had taken over my body. And in a way it was, a Josh whose vision reflected the innovation, pluralism and activism that was the Conservative Judaism that I grew out of, in countercultural Boston, as well as at Ramah, Brown and JTS.

But however different I seemed, and I was hardly a radical, even that mattered little, because whenever a new rabbi takes over, it's always going to be a shock to the system. It's not just true for rabbis. I was told by a colleague and close friend, Gary Brown, pastor of First Congregational Church, that the point of friction usually happens between years three and five of a new clergy's tenure - for those lucky enough to stick around that long.

And sure enough, that's precisely what happened here, in the mid to late '90s. It was a classic battle of the "old guard" vs the new, with new leadership clamoring for more innovation (which for many meant less organ) and opportunities for diverse and more lay led services - a staple of the havurah movement. We experimented with different formats, which people accepted as long as it was relegated to Shabbat (since, frankly, those whom it would bother were rarely here to see it on Shabbat). But once the suggestion arose to offer an alternative service on the High Holidays too, it was not well received. Rumors sprung up of a conspiracy to make us "orthodox," which couldn't be further from the truth.

There was also a financial aspect to this friction, with the old guard seeking to implement strict financial controls to get us out of a hole (as they had recently done at the JCC), and the younger leadership opted to change the paradigm completely, assessing the congregation $200 per family to get us out of the red and then implementing new, more democratic and transparent fundraising strategies, which led to our first High Holidays appeal. It was a complete overhaul that energized the congregation, but at the same time made some feel uncomfortable, feeling that the synagogue they had grown up with had changed irrevocably.

It was at that point that I tried to draw the entire congregation into a conversation about what Conservative Judaism is - and to engage in strategic planning as to what TBE should become. I sent out a packet that included a fact sheet pertaining to some of the issues we were dealing with then, along with a chapter from a book explaining Conservative Judaism in detail.

I'm sure some of you are cringing at my dredging up prior moments of tension. The fact is that such moments are completely normal in an organization in transition. The key is to be able to recognize the dynamics of what is happening, to hear people's concerns and mitigate against any unnecessary damage.

As TBE faces the coming transitional years, there be similar moments of institutional tension. I guarantee it. You can call me in 3-5 years and let me know. I'll be on the beach. And while this transitional tension will be manifested in any number of ways, it always comes back to the rabbi. Even when people say it is about something else, it always comes back to the rabbi. That's why we get the big bucks.

Even in the healthiest of situations, it happens. I know, because our situation was about as healthy as it gets. I may have been "another Josh" in practice, but I was still the same person, and we knew each other well by the time I became senior rabbi in 1992. Your next rabbi will not have that advantage, and neither will you.

We have once again affiliated with the Conservative Movement. Over the next several years, you and your new rabbi will be engaged in a vigorous exploration of what that means. That conversation, which has never really been completed from the late '90s, needs to happen again and again.

See below the first page of the material I sent out to the congregation back in the late '90s below: Click here for the rest of the material, which includes my rebuttal to the accusation that we were becoming "Orthodox." (the chapter is somewhat dated but still relevant).

Three more timely parodies from Eretz Nehederet

Israel's Front Pages

Jerusalem Post


Yediot Ahronot

Recommended Reading

Temple Beth El
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Stamford, Connecticut 06902
203-322-6901 | www.tbe.org
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