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.


20 responses to “Turning the welcoming up to 11–A review of two services at Beth El in South Orange, NJ

  1. Larry Kaufman

    “These people welcome you like it’s their job.”
    It is their job, but, as one often finds in the workplace, slackers outnumber performers. In fact, when I first went on my temple board, b’dor hamabul, the rabbi told me that greeting people at the oneg was the most important thing I could do for the temple, and second was introducing them to other people.
    “Mishebeirach gone wild.”
    I attended a bat mitzvah a few weeks ago at a Conservative congregation, and observed the kind of Mishebeirach you describe for the first time. I’m inclined to agree both with my friend Danny and with you about the theology behind it — I think it’s kind of an exercise in narcissism, with the self at the center instead of the Divine at the center.
    “Service times”
    I had my finger in the dike for a long time at my former (Reform)congregation, trying to hold back the tide of the early kabbalat Shabbat service, where you not only start maariv before sunset, but end it before sunset as well. I am really surprised to hear about it in a Conservative congregation, and wonder to what extent the difficulty in getting a minyan reflects people voting with their feet.
    “Overall Rating of the Review.” Five ballpoint pens.

    • I think it’s kind of an exercise in narcissism, with the self at the center instead of the Divine at the center.


      I am really surprised to hear about it in a Conservative congregation, and wonder to what extent the difficulty in getting a minyan reflects people voting with their feet.

      As it turned out, we didn’t have difficulty, they just came late! It’s weird, but not problematic to start Kab Shab before sunset because one can always increase Shabbat. You may start Shabbat early, but never late.

      “Overall Ration of the Review.” Five ballpoint pens.

      You’re saying you liked this review? Thanks. Anything in particular about this one that you like better than others?

      • Larry Kaufman

        “Anything in particular about this one that you like better than others?”

        First of all, you seem to have developed some savlanut regarding liturgical minhag that doesn’t reflect the choice that you would have made. Second, and this inference may be wildly off, you seem not to prefer the chant-the-first-and-last-line style — a style which I never came to terms with at the Conservative congregation where I grew up and now find myself hating on the rare occasions when I find myself at a Conservative or Orthodox service. And third, the importance you place on the community and its warmth, which coincides with my prejudice towards hachnasat orchim k’neged kulam.

        • First of all, you seem to have developed some savlanut regarding liturgical minhag that doesn’t reflect the choice that you would have made.

          I hate to argue with you about whether I’m a good person or not, but I don’t really see myself doing that here. Can you point to where I do that?

          Although, as an aside, I did put a kippah on without having to be told and I did leave my pen at home.

          you seem not to prefer the chant-the-first-and-last-line style

          I wouldn’t say that I dislike it. I think it has its place. If what you want to do is a fuller liturgy, as I do, and you want to do it with some real ruach, as I do, it has its place as part of a more diverse set of styles within the service. At Chavurat Lamdeinu (https://davidsaysthings.wordpress.com/2011/02/12/minhag-chavurat-lamdeinu/), which I’ve written about several times here, we do some first-and-last-line stuff, but its mixed in with more musical and chanty bits. My objection that what I experienced at Beth El is that it predominated to service.

          • Larry Kaufman

            I am convinced that you are a good person, even if I sometimes think you are Shammai to my Hillel or vice versa. But in this case, you didn’t seem to be making the kind of negative judgments I seem to remember your making in past evaluations — perhaps more in terms of siddurim than of worship experiences. So I was actually commending you for having become an even better person than you were before.

  2. So how did you decide on South Orange? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    That means that we skipped the selection of texts that SSS replaces Korbanot with, Kaddish D’Rabbanan and Ps. 92 (the daily psalm).

    File this under reasons why we need the serial comma (along with “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God”).

    • A professor of mine has an apartment here and he’s on sabbatical for a year, so I’m in his apartment.

      And as for the Oxford comma, I had them beaten out of me when I got into journalism. The better solution here is to say, “That means that we skipped the selection of texts that SSS replaces Korbanot with, as well as Kaddish D’Rabbanan and Ps. 92 (the daily psalm).”

  3. Ow!!! Next week, schlep on over to Oheb Shalom on Scotland Rd. I’d be interested to read your take on the differences. Then Temple Shalom (further north on Scotland Rd). Try the whole town!

    • I’m tempted to just settle in at Beth El. It seems better than average–at the very least–so I don’t want to push my luck by shopping around. But if I get bored after a while I may do some shul hopping.

  4. I experienced a “mishebeirach gone wild” at one of the minyanim at Georgetown Jewish Center in Philadelphia. It seemed to go on forever. I found it rather off-putting.

    • Was it like this one? With everybody going up to the bimah?

      • Yes. The minyan met in a basement room. All the seats were fold-up card table chairs. The “bimah” was a slightly raised area with a shtender next to a table on which they placed the Torah. I can’t remember if they grabbed on an eitz or not. But I was shocked to see that what appeared to be about 20% of the group got in line. Frankly, I’m annoyed when the rabbi asks people to say the names of their ill loved ones from their seats. This line up and announce the names thing seemed a bit over the top from my perspective.

  5. I grew up at that shul. Certainly has gone through many changes in 30 years but the core is very much the same as I remember it from being a teenager. You captured it well I thought. You really should check out Oheb Shalom and Bnai Israel in Milburn (I don’t know if you drive on Shabbat but it’s about an hour walk from the SO train station). It’s worth it at least for the reviewing experience to see what suburban conservative shuls in essex county are like. There is certainly no shortage.

    If you continue to go to Beth El – stay on the right side of the sanctuary. It’s where the best shmoozing happens. Between my dad (Danny Allen) and Allen Cooper you’ve got it made in the shade.

  6. Pingback: Stowing my pen and covering my head | The Reform Shuckle

  7. I remember Rabbi Roston from the conference. When we’re both back in the northeast, I’d like to join you at Beth El sometime.

    Also, why the capitalization of lesbian?

  8. Pingback: If I stick my foot in my mouth and there is no one around, do I still make an ass out of myself? | The Reform Shuckle

  9. Pingback: A Week of Things I Like, Day 2-ish: Beth El | The Reform Shuckle

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