What Do Jews Want?

As it launches its centennial year celebrations, United Synagogue hosted a conversation with four dynamic young rabbis.

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On December 11, 2012, the fourth night of Chanukkah, a group of dynamic young rabbis gathered for an evening of conversation about the future of Conservative congregations. The panel discussion, convened by United Synagogue, was sparked by the interesting coincidence that all the rabbis had recently – or fairly recently – joined kehillot on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a small but densely populated area enjoying something of a renaissance in Jewish life. Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue, moderated the discussion, which was hosted by Park Avenue Synagogue and which included Rabbi Rachel Ain of Sutton Place Synagogue, Rabbi Scott Bolton of Congregation Or Zarua, Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits of East 55th Street Conservative Synagogue, and Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue.

[Listen to the full discussion by clicking here.]

The event marked the beginning of a larger conversation – in-person and online – that USCJ is holding throughout 2013, its centennial year and a milestone for Conservative Judaism. The culmination will be a Centennial Celebration in Baltimore, October 13-15, that’s been dubbed the Conversation of the Century, because Jews from all over North America – synagogue lay leaders, rabbis, cantors, educators, scholars, and innovators – will spend time learning from each other and developing a vision for the kehillot – the sacred communities – of the next decades.

What follows is a condensed version of the conversation. You can can join the conversation and learn more about the Centennial on Facebook at www.uscj100.org.

Rabbi Steven Wernick: It’s interesting that we’re having this discussion on Chanukkah, because Chanukkah is very much about the success of the Maccabees, and later of the rabbis, in filling the void in religious leadership after the destruction of the Temple. The question became: “Okay, we’ve done this, now what?” How do we maintain the relevancy of Torah, the relevancy of Jewish tradition and values in what turned out to be a totally new context for Jewish experience? And we’re having today’s conversation because of the success of Jewish life in the modern era, which has been so great that again we are asking ourselves, “Now what?”

We know the world is changing. We can see it in the demographic changes that played such a big role in the recent American presidential election. And we can see it in the demographic changes in the Jewish community.

A recent study showed a major increase in the number of people who define themselves not as Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, but as “just Jewish.” Just Jewish can mean all sorts of things. But what is undeniable is that the just Jewish category is rejecting the institutions of its parents. As Rabbi Eddie Feinstein, one of my teachers and good friends is often fond of saying, “We built the synagogue of our grandparents’ dreams, and not the synagogue of our grandchildren’s dreams.”

So this evening, we’re joining together to begin addressing collectively the most vital, compelling questions we face: What do the next decades look like? Who will be the engaged Jews? And most important, how do we build the kehillot kedoshot, the sacred communities, of tomorrow?

I’d like to turn first to Rabbi Rachel Ain. How do you understand the changing landscape of Jewish identity and the synagogue’s role in bringing Jewish wisdom and tradition to the public?

Rabbi Rachel Ain

Rabbi Rachel Ain

Rabbi Rachel Ain: First, not everybody is going to walk into a synagogue today,  so synagogues need to be where people are. We know that many people are seeking a connection to something greater than themselves. We call it Judaism, but there are other faith traditions as well. We need to be proud of who we are. We need to be joyful in our Judaism and to communicate that joy to seekers of all ages. We need to take the wisdom that we believe is so sacred and find ways of connecting with others. For example, Sutton Place Synagogue will be partnering with the Moishe House that is near our shul. The Moishe House is a home where young Jewish people live. There are 51 of them all over the country. We’re going to be doing a yoga night with them and there will be a Torah component. They’re going to come to us, we’re going to go to them. Not everything needs to be just in our space.

Rabbi Wernick: Rabbi Bolton, you come to Or Zarua from the Solomon Schechter day school world. Are there specific experiences and skills that you developed as a head of school that you find are especially helpful in the congregation world?

Rabbi Scott Bolton

Rabbi Scott Bolton

Rabbi Scott Bolton: First and foremost, we know how effective it is to bring the voices of all members into the picture, engineering conversations between people who are board members and people who are peripherally concerned. We know it’s effective to bring back potential customers who said “no” and to interview them and say, “We want to hear why you didn’t choose to come.” We need that kind of community outreach in our synagogues, and to train board members and potential leaders to have those conversations.

Rabbi Wernick: Rabbi Cosgrove, just recently in one of your sermons you talked about zerizut, a word which doesn’t translate very well to English. It has to do with a combination of self-assertion, pluck, proactivity. You used it to describe Rebecca as representing an abiding ideal for Jewish women and men, an insistence on stepping up, being pro-active and assertive. You shared a fear that we’ve perhaps lost some of these characteristics. Do you view a lack of zerizut as a widespread malady, and what are the approaches that you and Park Avenue Synagogue are taking to address it?

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove: I think that sermon was prompted by what was going on in our community in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I was expressing frustration watching emails fly by and people saying, “What can we do? How can we do it? How can we respond?” We have the resources but I wasn’t seeing any action.

What I’ve learned is that people will not show up “just because.” But if you provide an excellent cantor, an excellent staff, programming that’s engaging, then congregants will come, whether it’s a program of great magnitude or a pastoral support group. You want to get people out? You want people to be engaged and involved? Then I think, “first, excellence.” And number two, no matter the size of a community, ultimately this business is a retail business. It’s one-on-one: what happens in the conversations at kiddush, what happens in a shivah house, what happens in terms of  the ability to move someone sitting in the pew or a teen study group.

Rabbi Wernick: So what are the key ingredients of excellence within Conservative Judaism and the way in which we structure our synagogue experiences?

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits

Rabbi Ephraim Pelcovits: I’m thinking about that idea of the one-on-one. Several days after Sandy, I was walking back from visiting a couple of home-bound congregants and I ran into a rabbi who had been running a mitzvah day and reaching a tremendous number of people affected by the storm. And for a minute I thought, “I haven’t done anything today.” And then I realized I had just spent the morning with people who have been home-bound. And that to me is the key of what makes the experience of being a synagogue member appealing, which is really being known, being heard and being listened to.

Rabbi Bolton: I’ll build on that by saying that when somebody has a quality idea and you can help nourish it or keep the flame bright, then kehilla life is really exciting. When somebody else has an idea for a class or a lecture series, it really speaks to people within the community. I also would say that one-on-one is right, but there is also “we.” While one person definitely needs to be served, one person also needs to see that the community’s vigor and vitality mean something.

Rabbi Wernick: Other characteristics of excellence?

Rabbi Ain: When people are clearly passionate, when they exude enthusiasm, when they are so excited about an idea people want to be with them. We need to feed that passion and bring others along with them. Because if you’re passionate about it, somebody else is, too. And when they’re a part of something, they’re proud of it, they want to come back and it’s theirs and it’s personal.

Rabbi Wernick: It’s becoming increasingly clear that one of the areas our synagogues need to take a new look at is  tefillah, prayer. The prayer experience often is framed to get from Birchat Hashachar on page 67 to Adon Olam on page 187 before noon. We just turn the pages and once in a while sing along. We’ve lost a real sense of prayer, of connecting with the Divine and with each other. How do we think about prayer so that it becomes a more meaningful experience?

Rabbi Pelcovits: One of the greatest strengths of the Conservative movement is our commitment to the traditional liturgy. We have the sense there is tremendous value there. That’s exactly the way we should approach tefillah. Unless there is a glaring flaw in our tefillah, or if there’s something that we want to bring to it – perhaps the statement we make in adding the imahot, the matriachs, to the Amidah – we slowly but surely return to a prayer and find something tremendously valuable in it.

Rabbi Wernick: Rabbi Ain, I want to ask you also about tefillah, but in the context of your experience not only as a rabbi in Syracuse, NY, but even more recently as the professional for Jewish Federations of North America with Young Leadership. And then by osmosis, with Hillel, where your husband worked. How might synagogues offer alternatives to those who are seeking them?

Rabbi Ain: First, it’s okay to have multiple entry points. We should not be threatened by something that seems like a push against the norm, because we are enhanced by different voices. The second is to be open to education. There are a number of other people who want to be engaged in prayer but don’t yet have all the tools. We need to teach people. We can’t expect them just to show up at a prayer service, be it morning minyan, Saturday morning, or worse, the High Holidays. Some people come only three days a year and we expect them to be moved, but they haven’t prepared themselves. I don’t say that as an insult. It’s very sad because we want people to feel good about the High Holidays and yet they’re our longest services. So we need to find a way to be even more education-minded, and that comes with preparation. Maybe it’s sending out online links, sending out CDs, talking about the tunes they are going to hear. We expect to be moved emotionally and spiritually even when we haven’t done the preparation. That’s on all of us, as educators, professional Jews and laity. We need to meet people where they are, not speak down to them.

Rabbi Wernick: What would you like to see next? What are your thoughts on how the institutions of Conservative Judaism might be your partners in addressing them?

Rabbi Bolton: I have to say something about tefillah, as well. One of the things that inspired me most walking into Congregation Or Zarua was the power of the prayer. It is participatory, people use tunes that come from the places that are doing prayer in exciting ways. Beyond that, we use tunes from the past in new ways, and we have the kids come in at the end. And as important, when the Torah comes out, there is respect for Torah and the discussion of the portion, in addition to hearing the Torah read in its fullness by different voices in the congregation, from teenagers to those in their
70s and 80s.

As moderns, we often have our doubts about faith, but I think that the Conservative world of today is open to a re-engagement with Godliness. So to answer your question about the future, I want us to learn together. I think our community could create an open beit midrash for Conservative Jews. If you want to learn this or that in your Jewish life, we can find you a partner. That’s the way some serious communities have brought people to the table.

Rabbi Cosgrove: Were we to engage all the Jews living in Manhattan, we would not be able handle the number. And so I would, at the risk of being provocative challenge you, Rabbi Wernick, to create more synagogues on the Upper East Side. To find where neighborhoods are gentrifying and changing and for us to realize that Jewish life is strengthened by finding creative partnerships with JTS or American Jewish University, and seeding congregations.

On a more practical level, I don’t think it’s necessary to have duplication of resources when we’re all tightening belts. When it comes to high school students, they just want to hang out with each other. What do we possibly have to lose by figuring out a way to do post-bnei mitzvah engagement all together? We should talk about other communal gatherings. Why are we having, all of us, conversations about how to reinvent congregational school education, and we’re not talking to each other? We have nothing to lose and we have everything to gain from working together.

Rabbi Wernick: Actually, in United Synagogue’s strategic plan, one of our core functions is the seeding and nurturing of new and emerging kehillot. We’re looking for partners to bring wisdom, as well as resources, to assure that it can be accomplished.

This evening was an opportunity to celebrate the unique characteristics of our individual communities while being strengthened by coming together as part of a larger Conservative Jewish world. As we begin our centennial year, I hope we can continue this conversation across North America.