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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.

LimmudPhilly: Shabbat morning at BZBI with a weird-ass Musaf thing

I went to LimmudPhilly and wrote a bunch of posts. Here’s a guide to them.

I was gonna go to Society Hill Synagogue, which the LimmudPhilly program book described as “Unaffiliate, Conservative-style” because I wanted to know what that means. According to one person I asked, there are readings. Gah.

But Desh–a regular Jewschool commenter who I had met for the first time in person the night before–said he was going to Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel–which everyone calls BZBI–because it’s much closer to him. Turns out, it was easier for me to get to as well and it seemed better to go somewhere with a friend.

Plus, I figured, it would be nice to go somewhere predictable and not feel like I have to write a review. Wrong on so many levels, was I.

First of all, at a Conservative shul, I expect a kippah patrol. I arrived with my kippah at the ready, but did not put it on. Eventually, the honors patrol came by and offered me gelilah (this story starting to sound familiar to anyone?). I accepted, certain that he was also about to tell me to cover my head. Instead, he handed me the card–intricately detailed instructions, by the way–thanked me and told me we’d have to find a kippah to wear on the bimah. I told him I had one with me and he said OK fine whatever and moved on with his honor-distribution duties.

I consulted Desh–quite the regular at BZBI and thank God for that because I ended up sitting in a rather snarky section of regulars, just my type!–and he said that at BZBI, men are expected to cover their heads in the sanctuary (so much for that), but everyone is expected to cover their heads on the bimah. Given that, I felt fine putting a kipah on for gelilah. The cantor (more on her shortly) told me I was a very skilled Torah dresser, by the way.

(As an aside, there were way too many women whose doily-laden heads looked like they might take flight at any moment for my comfort!)

Anyway, notes (mental, I mostly refrained from notetaking) from BZBI:

  • The cantor and the music: Despite being very appreciative of my Torah-dressing skillz, the cantor drove me berserk. All of the melodies in the service were familiar to me and none were unusual for the Conservative setting. However, this cantor–one of those cantors who closes her eyes while emoting her way through every other note–was all over the place with this melodies. In some, she was putting the emphasis in funny places, in others, tweaking the melody ever so slightly. It made it impossible to sing along. I also think I was sitting in the only section of singing along types in the whole place.
  • Am I done with rabbis and cantors on bimahs? I’m beginning to think I’m never gonna be happy with a rabbi-and-cantor-on-the-bimah arrangement. I hate it more every time.
  • Begin with Ps. 92? BZBI is apparently trying something new. Their services used to begin at 9 and end at 12:30. The new plan is to being at 9:30 and end, still, at 12:30. [EDITED: I got those times way wrong. Here are the correct times.] There are variety of strategies for doing this that are currently undergoing testing. One of them is to skip straight through Pesukei Dezimrah. So they begin with Psalm 92 and then it’s straight on to Kaddish Yatom and then on to Shochein Ad straight away. Given that the Kaddish that’s at the beginning of the service can tend to migrate anyway, this makes some sense. And there is, of course, a devoted corps (mostly just Desh and some old dudes) who come early to go through PD on their own.
  • No Imahot? I was surprised to find a Conservative shul with a (relatively) young Shabbat morning crowd and relatively (like, really relatively in the case of the rabbi) young rabbi and cantor that still isn’t doing Imahot. Desh and others explained to me that the rabbi and cantor are in favor of doing Imahot, but there are some very strident anti-Imahot people who are quite old. I guess they’re just waiting it out…. Anyway, it was odd.
  • The nusach massacre continues in Kedushah: This is getting grotesque. Kedushah took like ten minutes. *face-pew*
  • The hakafah crisis: The sanctuary has an aisle up the middle and one on each side and both are connected in the back and front. Normally at BZBI, both hakafot proceed all the way up the middle and down both sides. But this week, in the interest of saving time, the rabbi announced that the first hakafah would only go up the middle aisle and that it would go all the way around–skipping the middle aisle–the second time. There was a lot of discussion of how much time this might actually save from within the snark-zone I was sitting in.
  • Thank God for the Torah readers! One of the reasons BZBI needs special strategies for shortening the service is that they’re still doing full readings of the Torah! No triennial here, friends. Yet, the Torah reading is about the coolest thing ever. There’s a retired Baghdadi Sephardi rabbi in the congregation who reads Torah. He does it about as slowly as I’ve ever seen it, but it’s damn cool to hear him doing it. He differentiates in pronunciation between Chet and Chaf and I can hear him vocalizing his Ayins from time to time. His wife then does haftarah, which is also great!
  • And then the second hakafah: They almost forget that they’re not going up the middle aisle. They go up one side, halfway across the back and then turn to go down the middle. They a good portion of the way down before they get the message from the rabbi, gesticulating wildly, to turn around and go back to the back and then come back down the other side. The snark-zone is in stitches.
  • And then the little kids started singing! Good God. There’s nothing worse than accidentally showing up to a consecration service! They do religious school on Shabbat at BZBI so the consecration kids (third grade or something?) emerged and joined us in the service toward the end of the Torah service. They sang  (!), of all things, “Yachad Lev v’Lev”–and Israeli pop song–and something I’d never heard of. And then. Shit. Got. Weird.
  • Then they started singing Avot… v’Imahot. At the point in the service, I didn’t know any of the stuff I wrote earlier about how Imahot works (or doesn’t) at BZBI. The kids sang Adoani Sefatai Tiftach and then they actually started singing Avot v’Imahot. In the snark-zone, there was a lot of uncomfortable glancing about and hiding behind pews. We weren’t sure if this was meant to be musaf or what was going on at all.
  • It was musaf. But there was a poem with some remarkable rhyming. One of my new snark-zone friends said of me to Desh, “He’s never gonna come back, is he?”
  • Eventually, it was over. And we did real Musaf. And then we all moved on with life.

Rating: The Five Ballpoint Pen Rating System is explained here.

Music and Ruach: One Ballpoint Pen

I didn’t like the music at all and there seemed to be very little ruach of any sort in the room.

The Chaos Quotient: Four Ballpoint Pens

I’m gonna go ahead and count whatever those kids up to toward this service’s tremendous Chaos Quotient. Between that and the hakafah, this shul is to be congratulated. On the one hand, I didn’t like the service too much. On the other hand, the chaos was excellent and made me feel very much at home.

Liturgical Health: Two and a Half Ballpoint Pens

On the one hand, I don’t like having the beginning of the service so truncated and the reason they don’t do Imahot is silly. On the other hand, it’s nice to find a shul making conscious, but practical choices about liturgy. And the full reading was pretty spiffy. On the third hand, I didn’t see anyone using anything other than Siddur Sim Shalom.

Welcoming Community: N/A

I arrived pretty early, had friend there already and bolted when the service was over so I’m not gonna try to rate them on this one.

Overall Rating: One and a Ballpoint Half Pens

And they’re only getting that half because the chaos was so good.

Re-writing Korbanot, part II: my approach

This is a two-parter. Part I is here.

Many moons ago, when I was working on a siddur or my own (I won’t link back to any of those old posts because I sound like a moron in a lot of it, but if you do some looking around, they’re still here somewhere), I had an idea about how to redo the Korbanot section of the service, a lengthy section of readings that detail the textual basis for the sacrificial ritual system in place in The Temple back in the day.

Rambam himself saw prayer as the superior form of ritual, saying that God knew that primitive Israelites needed sacrifice to access God, but that we evolved away from that. So I had the idea that we could replace Korbanot with a selection of biblical and Talmudic passages about how to pray with kavanah or intention. I never actually did this, but the idea was there nonetheless.

Like I said in Part I, the Conservative approach is quite clever, but it’s not what I would have done. However, seeing that Harlow created a version of Korbanot for modernity, I’m inspired to think about what I would include in my version.

The problem I have with Harlow’s approach is that it almost ignores the ritual at hand. Ben Zakai’s statement that we can atone through acts of lonvingkindness is lovely, but from what I know, it seems like Judaism does not actually treat acts of great chesed as the replacement for sacrifice. Rather, we take prayer to be the one-to-one replacement. Each Amidah (except for the evening, which is a whole other story) stands in for a sacrifice in The Temple. Shacharit is the morning sacrifice. Minchah is the afternoon sacrifice. And Musaf is the additional sacrifice offered on special days.

So I would begin with biblical passages. There are definitely some talmudic and midrashic and otherwise rabbinic passages out there that should go into this idea, but I don’t know those texts as well as I’d like to yet, so I’ll stay away from those and leave that to the commenters below.

Biblical passages that come to mind immediately:

Psalm 51:17-19, verse 17 already being the opening line of the Amidah:

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.

You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings;

True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart.

Bamidbar 12:11-13

And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to use the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.”

So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, “O God, pray heal her!”

Shmuel A 1:4-13. This passage details Hannah’s prayer to God asking for a child. It’s especially good because it takes place in The Temple among sacrifices. Her husband even offers sacrifices in this passage, but on Hannah’s prayer brings her a child. I might also include part of chapter 2, which is Hannah’s extended prayer of thanksgiving after her child is born.

There’s also a passage somewhere in the Talmud where Shacharit, Minchah and Maariv are described as having been established by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, respectively. That passage and its proof texts would obviously be a must-have in this section.

I’d also want to maintain Rabbi Ishmael’s 13 principles as the final passage of the section.

That’s as far as my thinking has taken me so far in this. Anyone else have ideas?

Where is The Prayer Book Press?

I have a number of pieces in my collection published by Prayer Book Press. Their material that I’m aware of seems to be Conservative, but not USCJ, which seems like an odd distinction, but there it is. I say this because it looks like that’s the tone of the content and because at least one of their works that I have was edited by Morris Silverman.

I just googled PBP. They’re located in Bridgeport, CT, it seems. Other than that, there’s nothing about them on the web except for their siddurim and machzorim. They have apparently on web presence. Does anyone know anything about them? Do they still exist?

Shabbat Shalom.

Machzor adoption trends

As a bit of a follow-up to my discussion of how new machzorim will be adopted at the end of my review of Mahzor Lev Shalem and Machzor Eit Ratzon, my dad just pointed out this little piece about Lev Shalem in Austin’s Jewish Outlook. The Outlook is Austin’s local Federation-pamphlet-masquerading-as-a-newspaper entity.

This method of reading it online is pretty cracked out, but if you flip (flip!?) to page 28, you’ll see a little piece about the local Conservative outfit, Congregation Agudas Achim, adopting a limited set of Lev Shalem. They said CAA has purchased about 30 copies of MLS to supplement their existing machzorim for those who are interested.

The other machzor I reviewed, Machzor Eit Ratzon (and its older companion, Siddur Eit Ratzon), was created not by a movement but by Rutgers math professor Joe Rosenstein. What’s interesting is that CAA is adopting their movement’s new machzor in the same way that Joe recommends that some might adopt his siddur and machzor, as supplementary texts for interested congregants.

Of course the reasons that they’ve bought so few copies may be financial or it may be that there aren’t enough in print yet. But it’s still interesting. I wonder if there is a larger trend toward adopting a few copies of a supplementary siddur in synagogues.

Thoughts, anyone?

A tale of two ma(c)hzors

Over at New Voices, my review of two new machzorim, pluralist Machzor Eit Ratzon and Conervative Mahzor Lev Shalem, is now available. Below is a much longer version with more detail about liturgical minutiae and aspects of their designs.

A Reform rabbi I know tells the story of a man who came into the synagogue in the day of his son’s Bar Mitzvah. The man saw shelves and shelves of an unfamiliar blue siddur called Gates of Prayer, the Reform movement’s 1973 prayer book. He picked one up and began to flip through it, wondering what it was. The rabbi saw that he had come in and came over to greet the man. Before the rabbi could say so much as “Shabbat Shalom,” the man asked, “Rabbi, what is this book? Where’s the red one?” The red one he was referring to was Gates of Repentance, the blue siddur’s companion machzor, used only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

New siddurim, however surprising an unfamiliar one may have been to the man in the story, are a dime a dozen. New ones come out every year, ranging everywhere from unique siddurim that record the practice of one individual congregation to new siddurim from one of the large movements that will come to be used in congregations all over.

However, machzorim–those heavy-as-a-brick, byzantine volumes full of liturgy both strongly evocative and totally unfamiliar, used only twice a year–are another story. The birth and publication of a new machzor is a rare event indeed. This year is twice times blessed then, to see the publication of two new ones. Both the Conservative movement’s new Mahzor Lev Shalem and Rutgers University math professor Joseph G. Rosenstein’s new machzor, Machzor Eit Ratzon, a companion to his 2003 Siddur Eit Ratzon, are out in times for the High Holy Days.. While Conservative ideology, or Conservative demeanor at least, may be familiar to many, Eit Ratzon’s traditional egalitarian approach will be new to most. The cover reads: “A traditional prayerbook for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur with new meditations, commentaries, translations, and prayers.”

They are as remarkable for their similarities as they are for their differences. Both are clearly the products of their creators, Lev Shalem is a Conservative creation through and through, and Eit Ratzon, a product of an independent chavurah in New Jersey, is eccentric as you would expect a machzor from such an environment to be. Both have hefty commentaries, as different as they are enlightening. Lev Shalem has a surprising visual beauty to it, while Eit Ratzon’s design has a rigid utility. Lev Shalem was created by a committee of the Conservative movement’s top scholars, while Eit Ratzon is the labor of love of a single lay-person. Continue reading

“Integrationist” Reform weakened by ritual?

In an oddball pre-Thanksgiving op-ed piece in The Forward, Rabbi Jacob Neusner tells the story of his beginnings as a Reform Jew, his rabbinical education and career as a Conservative Jew, and his eventual return to the Reform fold.

It’s an interesting story, which you can read in full here.

Here at The Shuckle, we’ll look at a few of his more bizarre statements about Reform Judaism.

First of all, you have to understand Neusner’s dichotomy (false? jury is out on that…) of Jewish life. He declares that American Jewish life is composed of self-segregationist and integrationist elements. He places Conservative, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform streams in the integrationist camp, meaning that they seek to be integrated into broader society and that they find their truths in many places, including in the Torah.

The self-segregationist group, according to Neusner is composed of “Orthodox groupings such as Hasidism and yeshivish or Mitnagdic Judaism,” who find truth only in Jewish traditional learning. OK. Fine. Without giving it too much thought, this seems like a fairly apt dichotomy, though I might argue that most dichotomies of religion fail at some point. But that’s for another blog post.

Neusner is fairly “triumphalist” about Reform Judaism, as Rabbi Andy Bachman noted in a brief Facebook wall post about this today. And triumphalist he is:

Today, however, I have returned to the convictions (if not to the cuisine) of my youth — not because they are expedient but because they are compelling. After a half-century of apostasy, I affirm Reform Judaism as the American Judaism both of my personal choice and of our communal necessity. Indeed, I have come to believe that if Reform Judaism did not exist today, American Jews would have to invent it.

He then goes on to decry “The sorry state of Conservative Judaism.” I’d argue that the Conservative movement has actually been the more bold of the two lately. Just compare their Hekhsher Tzedek with the URJ’s new “Let’s eat less red meat, but not acknowledge that mindful eating is a Jewish tradition” initiative.

But then he gets to the bit that really gets me upset:

Over the past half-century, however, the integrationist Judaisms have sometimes seemed to lose sight of their convictions. Modern Orthodoxy has been under siege from its right flank, while even Reform Judaism has chosen to re-adopt some traditional rites. The outcome of this reversion to tradition has been to effectively present the integrationist Judaisms as less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy.

He’s so close to being on the nose that it hurts me to read it.

Have “integrationist Judaisms” been seen recently as “less authentically Jewish than Orthodoxy”? Yes. But is that recent phenomenon only? I’m not sure. Is it because the Reform movement has realized that people like ritual? No.

Neusner incorrectly identifies increased ritual observances as Reform’s true plight. In my eyes, as any regular reader of this blog will know, that is the Reform intellectual community’s latest triumph! What has led to us being seen as “less authentic” is an obliviousness to or an unwillingness to thing about framing and branding, as any reader of BZ will know.

Ironically, if you buy into BZ’s reading of this situation (and I do), you will see that Neusner is guilty of the very thing that has led to the sense of diminished authenticity he’s upset about. “Reform Judaism has chosen to re-adopt some traditional rites.” Here he buys into the framing of the word “traditional” offered up by the right. He agrees with them, implying, “If it’s a ritual more common on the right, it is something truly worthy of the word traditional.”

I reject that. I’m a Jew of tradition and of Reform and there is no contradiction in terms in saying so.

Become a Rabbi? Not with that attitude.

Crossposted to Jewschool.

New Voices, which bills itself as the “National Jewish Student Magazine,” is pretty hit-or-miss for me. Mostly, it’s miss. To be clear, for those unfamiliar with me, I’m a college student, so it’s not unfair for me to be critical of their writers, who are also college students. (Why, by the way, would a magazine targeted at college students even bother having a print presence at all in this day and age?)

This recent post, Become a Rabbi?, left me feeling a little off-put, but also a little sad for the author. As someone who is a whopping one year older than the author, but has given significant thought to the issues she raises in the post, I’ve decided to annotate the post.

Have you ever considered what it would be like to be a rabbi?

Yes.

Depending on your religiosity, there are different rules for who can be a rabbi and what that process entails. The first female rabbi ordained in America was not until 1972. Since then, nearly 400 women have been ordained in the United States. It is possible for women to be ordained as a Rabbi in the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements. Becoming a rabbi is one of the many professions I have considered.

Depending on your religiosity? Or depending on your denominational preference? I would go with the latter. It’s insulting and sad for me, a Reform Jew, to hear this author, also a Reform Jew, buying into the notion that she has less religiosity than her Orthodox counterparts. As a mere point of interest, Sally Priesand was not ordained until 1972, but the Reform rabbinate have a responsa dating back to 1922, which states “that women cannot justly be denied the privilege of ordination.” Further, women can also be ordained in the Jewish Renewal ALEPH Ordination Program and at non-denomination schools like the Academy for Jewish Religion and Hebrew College. Not to mention the emerging field of Orthodox ordination for women, which stops just short of calling their female rabbis “Rabbi.”

Later today I am going to a presentation and dinner given by the Director of Admissions of the Jewish Theological Seminary at my Hillel. This school is where students go to become a Conservative rabbi; while I am Reform, I still think this will be an informative session.

Some Conservative Jews also go to the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in LA, which is unaffiliated, but definitely Conservative, if that makes sense. Unfortunately, the author is operating under a notion of a highly segmented Jewish community. Conservative Jews go here. Reform Jews go there. But if I’m any kind of example, Reform Jews don’t have to be Reform Jews under the auspices of the official Reform Jews. For more on that, see this post, in which I declare my continued existence as a Reform Jew, while declaring independence from the URJ. There is a valid precedent for ascribing to a denomination or an ideology, but going elsewhere to study.

As I still am rather young, I know I do not have to decide what I want to do with my life right away. However, the profession of a rabbi seems to really have its benefits. Besides being able to embrace Judaism and to practice and to teach its principles for a living, there seems to be much more to being a rabbi.

Because it would be impossible “to embrace Judaism” in any other professional context?

Just on the outset, one of the most notable benefits seems to be the flexibility. As a rabbi, it seems you always get to interact with different people in different settings. Whether you are officiating a wedding or a funeral, it seems like you are always helping someone. Being able to teach and to give sermons also makes the profession look intriguing.

Ah, yes. The flexibility. The enormous debt in student loans. The wonderful job market. The well over 40-hour work weeks under a four-year contract at some suburban synagogue. Not that that’s the only thing to do as a Rabbi, but, let’s face it, the majority of rabbis have pulpits.

[...]

Clearly, all rabbis are respected and admired by their congregants. Therefore, it only makes sense that the application and selection process is so selective.

Yes, all rabbis are indeed respected and admired by their congregants. I had a relative (z”l) who used to assert loudly and frequently that all rabbis are ganifs. (Thieves, in Yiddish.) And, yes, HUC is so selective these days. They can’t get men to apply to their rabbinic or cantorial programs to save their lives! They’ll take anyone with a circumcision between their legs that they can get their hands on!

[...]

Additionally, it is unfortunate to mention, but with the poor economy and lack of jobs, I am even more concerned about my future after college. So, a bit of advice—don’t hesitate to be open to attending similar meetings that your campus offers, you may just stumble upon an unknown appealing career!

Again, I’ll refer you to this article at Tablet, which points out that the security if the rabbinic job market is just as screwed up right now as everything else.

The Reformim in the Conservative shul

I went to Kane Street Synagogue on Brooklyn for erev Sukot/Shabat services last night. It’s a Conservative shul, but they have a Friday night minyan that has the feel of being an indie minyan, though it is far from indie.  Rather, it is the Friday night service of this affiliated, mid-size Brooklyn shul. I’ve previously written about KSS here, during my month of NYC shul-hopping last winter.

While there, I ran into to other Reformim. One is a URJ employee and the other was an HUC student. Hm.

I ask the following without wishing to insinuating that there is some crisis where none exists. What does it mean for URJ Jews when Reform Jews, who, unlike me, continue to associate with the Union go to services regularly, but don’t go to URJ synagogues regularly?

Of course, it was just a good as I remembered it, though the crowd seemed a little smaller. Last time I went, I arrived a little late and was confounded by the cluster of people who all seemed to be kind of leading the service. This time, I was there early so I got see that at the beginning of the service, Joey, the leader, just invites up anyone who wants to (“Even if you have no idea what you’re doing”) come up and help lead. What a great minhag! It also introduces a low-level buzz of chaos to the service, which I love.