Monday, December 25, 2023

TBE Milestones: Defining Ourselves as a Conservative Congregation - in the late '90s.

In the last years of the 20th century, the Conservative Movement tried to define itself, something that it never really had done. The publication of Emet V'Emunah (you can read the pdf of the entire document here) was a true landmark, but its flaws reflected the flaws of the movement itself. The document tried to span the enormous gap between extremes, to be all things to all people. It was a valiant attempt to take seriously the ideology of a movement that by definition was born less of ideology than sociology. Conservative Judaism was intended to be way station 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).

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