Notwithstanding that Andrew Silow-Carroll is one of my dearest friends on the planet, I must challenge some of his assertions in his recent column “The way we do the things we do” (Nov. 19).
First, as an insider (a board member of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), it’s positively exhausting having to deal with a Jewish press that’s bent on rehashing their never-ending narrative of a dying movement, a bankrupt USCJ, a shrinking constituency, dysfunctional leadership, and draining finances. While New Jersey Jewish News has been eminently fair in its coverage of the Conservative movement and USCJ, both locally and nationally, it’s enervating as a volunteer in a position of leadership to be told it’s all for naught, the handwriting is on the wall, and on and on.
Despite the negativity, despite the nihilism, the movement’s leaders, both professional and volunteer, are hard at work, focused on our mission to redefine what Conservative Judaism stands for and dedicated to making our kehillot centers of American Judaism, a Judaism that is responsive and relevant to our members’ lives.
Silow-Carroll writes that he and others have an “extremely hard time with the lengthy Shabbat morning service.” So which part of the service do you think we should do away with? If you take away the first hour, which is made up largely of contemplative psalms, blessings of thanksgiving, and settings for the Sh’ma, you’ll lose me and many others who look forward each week to that part of the service. The melodies sung in our kehillot can be hypnotic and uplifting. That many congregants choose to sleep late on Shabbat morning is understandable in light of work-weeks that can be draining and sleep depriving — but they are missing so much! The fact that many congregations choose to race through the early parts of the Shabbat liturgy is to their detriment. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Do you want to shorten or do away with the Torah service? True, many kehillot have opted to practice a triennial reading. While it may not be my particular cup of tea, it does work for many. A full Torah reading allows me to re-visit interesting midrashim or interpretations I have either overlooked or forgotten. Sometimes I follow the Torah reading, sometimes I don’t; sometimes I choose to read a different text, sometimes I don’t. But that part of the service for me means textual immersion and cause for reflection.
Ok, so then there’s Musaf — the additional prayer service that follows the Torah readings. In most Conservative congregations, that’s when most congregants arrive. So let’s make that part of the service more responsive and, yes, melodic. I have participated in many services throughout my travels in which the cornerstone of the Musaf prayer, the Kedusha, is the high point of the service and offers an opportunity to participate in joyful singing. I agree that, in all too many synagogues, the melodies can be monotonous and repetitive. A new look at how we can invigorate that experience is in order.
So, my friend, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. To extend the metaphor, let’s clean her up, make her more fragrant, put on more colorful clothes…and for heaven’s sake, let’s make the baby give us cause to smile, be joyful, and give us an opportunity to feel good about ourselves and what we’ve created and to be optimistic for the future.
I for one am not giving up; I’m not going to hide and be mournful about the Judaism I practice and be embarrassed about the choices I’ve made. I’m going to re-dedicate myself to the only Judaism in my opinion that’s authentically American, refocus on making it relevant, celebrate its successes, and not sulk over its failures. I’m going to dream about its revival and opportunities, embrace its tradition, and welcome its change.
Harvey H. Rosen
The writer is a member of the board of directors of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.