Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities
USCJ is currently running deficits, losing affiliated congregations, and dealing with a large number of affiliated congregations who are questioning the benefits of affiliation. Many congregations simply don’t think the organization is able to respond to the needs of affiliated communities. Successfully executing some of the better governance ideas in the strategic plan will help. They plan to lower dues and link them to congregational budgets rather than numbers of members. They also plan to put more of the dues back into all geographic regions.
I have no expertise in organizational structure, and I’ll confess that this section is a bit more brainstorming than the above sections, but I figure I’ll try to write something vaguely useful. I look at the most recent budget and the professional and lay leadership organizational structures and I just don’t see how they communicate and function. It looks like a bunch of people with malleable job titles who mostly work in NY. ($4.3million of the $18.4million budget is spent on central office staffing. USCJ gets $8.3 million from affiliation dues and assessments.) I have no clue how ideas travel around the organization and what the lay-leaders who have 1-to-1 pairings with professional staff’s job titles are supposed to do.
Improve Conservative Jewish education
Whether it’s USCJ or some other Conservative organization, the problems with the Conservative movement’s education programs are central issues for the health of the movement. Simply put, the vast majority of children who are growing up in the Conservative movement are not being given the opportunities to gain the knowledge needed to become full participants (let alone leaders) in their own communities. For a movement whose purpose includes keeping Hebrew as the language of prayer, not placing children on a solid path to knowing the full liturgy and its meaning is a failure. The strategic plan rightly says that USCJ needs to get the movement’s various educational organizations working more closely together, but punts on what their goals should be except to say there should be a “blue-ribbon panel” to figure it out. Perhaps training children to have the basic skills needed to be the next generation of full participants in Jewish prayer might be a good starting goal.
The third part of this three part post turned out to be rather long, so I will post it in three smaller chunks, so that people are able to comment on its various parts with better ease.
The USCJ Strategic Plan, Part 3: Some thoughts on what USCJ could be
Any useful long-term plan needs to be a bit idealistic. In my mind, USCJ’s strategic plan was a bit too heavy on the idealism with very little vision or practical conception of how to get there. Here, I’ve taken the ideals already in the USCJ strategic plan and tried to envision what an organization would need to look like to possibly reach some of these goals. I humbly acknowledge that my ideas have their own leaps of logic and limitations and could receive similar criticisms to those I’ve thrown around. Then again, I’m not consultant who spent a year and charged $30,000 to write up USCJ’s actual strategic plan. Even if USCJ collapses, perhaps this could be part of a discussion of how other large Jewish institutions interact with the broader communities they serve.
I’m going to try to divide the challenges/goals of USCJ into three main categories: (1) Becoming a “nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism” and Conservative movement regrowth, (2) Improve Conservative Jewish education (particularly pre-college education), and (3) Reforming USCJ governance and finance to greatly improve support to affiliated communities. More »
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 2: Critique of the strategic plan
The first thing that jumps out of the USCJ strategic plan is a revolutionary change in membership focus. They are no longer an association of synagogues. They are now an association of “kehilot.” There’s even a whole paragraph about why this is so significant and how they plan to create a team to figure out how to rebrand USCJ with a new name to match this word change. This is part of the growing trend where transliterated Hebrew is considered more profound than English [insert random quote from Steven M. Cohen here]. Beyond the excitement that the Conservative movement has finally discovered transliteration, it is a welcome part of an effort to create ways for groups of Jews that don’t call themselves synagogues to affiliate with USCJ. They even say they want USCJ to become “a nexus for serious, post-denominational Judaism.” (Hello Indy Minyanim! We love you! Really! Honest! Ignoring lots of evidence to the contrary, we still consider all of you expatriates of our movement and want to welcome you back.)
This will be the first in a series of three posts on the USCJ strategic plan from guestposter “ImproveUSCJ.”.
The USCJ Strategic Plan Part 1: USCJ as it is
I’m a parent in my early 30’s. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue and I’ve been a dues paying member of Conservative synagogues since my early 20’s. I’ve davened with at least 8 independent minyanim. I have never been paid for work in the Jewish community. I spent a couple of years on the board of directors of one synagogue where I had many opportunities to observe the competencies of USCJ. I think the Conservative movement would benefit greatly from an organization that connects our communities to resources that help them improve. It would be great if USCJ could be that organization. I figure it’s worth a bit of my time to prod them in that direction. You can reach me at: improve dot USCJ at gmail dot com
The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has just released a strategic plan. This is in response to an ongoing effort to revive an organization that is rapidly losing members and relevance. Large factions of remaining members formed groups like Hayom and Bonim to demand significant changes or the creation of new organizations. This is all at a time when major Jewish publications are writing articles saying that the decline of families in synagogues affiliated with USCJ is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism. It’s not completely clear why synagogues’ refusal to write large annual checks to an organization that wasn’t giving them much back in return is a sign of the decline of liberal Judaism or even a decline in the Conservative movement, but it makes for a catchy article title. Many of Judaism’s large, communal institutions are losing strength and significance. Due to errors in management and vision, USCJ’s recent decline has been particularly impressive.
It’s worth noting why large institutions, like USCJ, matter. Simply put, if small communities have common goals, putting some time and money into an organization that helps them meet those goals can be a good investment. The common goals and funding needs vary depending if you’re USCJ or the National Havurah Committee, but the concept is the same. Before talking about what USCJ plans to do, I wanted to discuss what it currently does, and sketch its current problems.
The Masorti movement (the Israeli and generally non-North American arm of the Conservative movement) is bringing out the snark a bit with a new ad campaign to address the issue of government stipends for yeshiva students in Israel.
They’ve put up big ads all over Jerusalem (including on the back of buses) with the statement, “Torah that is not accompanied by a worldly trade will in the end amount to nothing and will lead one into sin” (Pirke Avot, chapter 2) and an index of the occupations of some of the tradition’s great sages–Maimonides was a physician, Rashi was a vintner, R. Yehoshua ben Hananiah made needles, and so forth.
I, for one, am amused, and glad they’re throwing down on this one.
You can see a close-up of the ad here.
Shaul Magid has an interesting discussion of Art Green’s new book Radical Judaism together with the reviews of the book, asking the question: “What does it all mean?” Here’s the punch-line:
These three reviews illustrate three levels of anxiety Jews feel about their theological future. The anxiety is not really about Green’s proposal as much as the realization that something must be done to create a theologically-relevant Judaism and no one really knows what to do. Mirsky’s questions about “survival” and the ever-present threat of the dissolution of the particular are well-placed and Green and others need to address them seriously. Wolpe’s anxiety about syncretism and the un-Jewishness of contemporary Radical Judaism is an instantiation of what I have called the paranoia of assimilation. If Judaism cannot learn to live with this syncretism, that is, with the normalization of un-Jewishness in its Judaism, it may be doomed. In America, Jews have learned to live comfortably with non-Jews in productive and mutually respectful ways. The next step may be learning to make the borders of Judaism more permeable. Landes seems to be threatened by everything that stands outside his own imaginative “Judaism.”
But you should read the whole thing here then come back and comment.
Repentance shouldn’t be about wallowing in guilt. In his sermon last night, my rabbi spoke about this at length. It’s something I’ve thought about before, and it really speaks to me.
These days I’m pretty much never at synagogue. Back when I was at school (I’m currently taking a year off), I participated in the Chavurah minyan each week, which I loved. But here, I find that praying congregation-style just doesn’t do it for me. And last night I realized for the first time that one of my personal sources of guilt on Yom Kippur comes from actually being at synagogue, precisely because I’m so rarely there. I feel guilt for not being more a part of the community. Guilt for being so unfamiliar with the liturgy. Guilt that my Hebrew is so bad. Guilt for not truly feeling that the path to repentance involves asking for permission to repent.
So, like last year at Brown, I didn’t go to services today, albeit for slightly different reasons. I’m at home, on my own. Here I can observe Yom Kippur guilt-free, thinking about ways in which I can repent for me, myself, and I. My lack of belief in G()d in the traditional sense of an entity or concept that has at least some manifest control of my life or the world leads me to understand that I repent for my own benefit, and for that of those around me. Repenting helps me become a better person. I take responsibility for my flaws, my problems, my errors, and I ask those around me to understand them, and join with me as I try to grow past them. That growth might involve additional involvement with the community. Or it might not.
This approach to observance is a source of conflict with my family, who feel strongly that going to shul is a family operation. And while I respect the desire to observe the day together, I can’t subvert my feelings on what it means for me to be a Jew to the family’s feelings on what it means to be a Jewish family. The same holds for a congregation. Yom Kippur is too important for me to follow anyone’s patterns of observance but my own. I’m sure that those patterns will continue to change, and as they do, I’ll do my best to understand and remain true to them.
Alright, I know I’m kinda behind, as this is last week’s (month’s really) news, but it’s the season of forgiveness, okay?
Over the past month, there’s a been a lot of discussion of intermarriage in the wake (Is that a pun? Sorta) of the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding. One article that caught my eye is the piece in the Forward last week by Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller,urging the Rabbinical Assembly to rescind the ban on Conservative rabbis participating in or attending intermarriages (of Jews to non-Jews anyhow. I don’t think other pairings are found disturbing).
In theory, violating this ban can have a rabbi expelled from the RA, although in practice, as Miller points out, attendance at interfaith weddings has not – as far as I or he or anyone I’ve queried, knows- actually resulted in said expulsion. I can’t say that I agree with Rabbi Miller, although I have mixed feelings about it: since in fact, there is no consequence for for violating the attendance part of the ban, rabbis who need to go because it is their child or a close family member, can actually attend, while preserving other rabbis’ ability to say that ultimately, intermarriage is not something that they are able to celebrate, if that is their bent, and having the movement stand behind them, which given the ostensible principles of the movement, seems reasonable to expect.
Rabbi Miller seems to view the refusal to attend interfaith weddings as tribalism, rather than as a more complex problem. I suppose in the case where the Jewish member of the couple is Jewish in name only, and doens’t view Judaism as important at all, then tribalism might be a fair description, but for a rabbi in the Conservative movement, who at least in theory views Judaism as having a divine component, and Jews (as a people) as having a particular and holy mission, that strikes me as an unfair description.
In some respects, I view this as a variant of the same discussion that happens about the driving tshuvah. Jews on the more observant end may point out that it was a mistake to allow it, as those who were going to drive would drive anyhow, while the tshuvah givies the appearance that driving is okay to everyone else, halachicly speaking (the problem with the tshuvah appears most especially to be two things: 1. the people who wrote it had only the sketchiest idea of the inner workings of an engine, and 2. there was a deliberate stretching of the way halachah works , in honesty, beyond the breaking point: claiming that the spark of the spark plug is a sort of unintended side effect of the driving is sort of like claiming that the heat on a stove is an unintended side effect of cooking the food) while in fact, it isn’t really, and even the tshuvah sort of admits it. Instead the better solution might have been to simply not address the issue, nor castigate those who chose to drive, and welcome them as one would anyone else, simply not taking note of the matter. However, once the tshuvah is published, it’s very difficult – I would say impossible- to reverse it to that situation, since any change away from a complete acceptance then appears to be a rejection of the people who drive.
Am I advocating hypocrisy? I suppose so. I think that in this case Miss Manners would approve (Miss Martin, if you should happen to read Jewschool please feel free to weigh in). Perhaps I can argue that mipnei darkei shalom, hypocrisy might be our best alternative?
Interested in other peoples’ thoughts on this.
Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Gavriel Meir-Levi who heads up Jewish Outreach for the Mark Levine State Senate Campaign for District 31 which runs along the Hudson River from the Upper West Side to North Riverdale. He worked on the 2008 Obama Campaign and is currently exploring the intersection of Democracy and Technology.
Tu B’Av with the Orthodox Avante Garde
One of the most interesting things about running Jewish Outreach for a state senate campaign has been re-discovering all of the technicolored streams within waves within movements of Jewish observance and identity that run from the Upper West Side to Washington Heights to Riverdale; Modern Orthodox meets Open Orthodox meets YU Orthodox meets Black Hat Orthodox meets Non-Traditional Chassidic meets Liberal Conservative Halachic meets Non-Pluralistic Egalitarian meets Zionist Traditional Reform meets Post-Zionist Israeli meets Meta-Judeao Eco-Zionist meets Activist Atheist.
Did I miss anyone? It’s impossible I did not, and even if somehow a complete list were compiled, no doubt crashing the Jewschool server in the process (not to mention our own heads), we would need but to wait a few minutes for a new movement to emerge from within the Brownian Motion of contemporary Judaism.
It was just such an emergence that my friend Mark Levine who is running for State Senate witnessed for the first time at the Bangitout Tu B’Av party in Riverside Park, the emergence of the Avante Garde Orthodox. Somewhat ironically, the Orthodox communities have been most welcoming of my candidate (who founded the Barack Obama Democratic Club of Upper Manhattan) even though many of them have deep misgivings about President Obama. Intuitively the expectation was that the more liberal communities who are Jewishly closer to Mark’s level of observance and practice would be his strongest supporters, his “natural base” in political parlance. And yet the enthusiasm of the Avante Garde Orthodox has been astonishing to behold, even though they were far more interested in each other than in anything Mark had to say on Tu B’Av.
Despite their misgivings about Obama and progressive causes (of which many Mark supports) the Avante Garde Orthodox may be closer to Obama than they realize, albeit not in the strictly political sense. Many of them may have suffered through overbearingly Ultra-Orthodox childhoods and day school experiences during which year after year they were told, “No, you can’t!” Well, they are now discovering that as young adults living on the Upper West Side oh yes they can! Yes they can stay up all night flirting on Tu B’Av, yes they can appreciate a Broadway show, yes they can become active politically and yes they can figure out their own unique contribution to the multi-faceted multi-colored movements within contemporary Judaism.
Well, I agreed with Hershel Schachter, rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva University, last week, but unsurprisingly, this didn’t last long. Cross-Currents reports that, at this week’s Rabbinical Council of America convention, Schachter taught a class on why women could not be ordained, and said that ordaining women was a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor (i.e., in the category of violations that Jews are commanded to die rather than transgress), “because the Conservative movement had made egalitarianism a key plank in its platform”.
First of all, if Cross-Currents is reporting his statement accurately, Schachter is wrong on the facts, and giving the Conservative movement much more credit than it deserves. The Conservative movement has always been timid about egalitarianism, treating it as a leniency rather than as a principle, and certainly not as “a key plank in its platform”. There are still a number of non-egalitarian Conservative congregations, and the movement doesn’t seem to have a problem with this.
But let’s look at the general principle that Schachter propounds, that any key plank of the Conservative movement’s platform becomes a yeihareig ve’al ya’avor for Torah Jews. One of the things that Emet Ve’Emunah, the Conservative movement’s “Statement of Principles”, actually does say is “Conservative Judaism affirms the critical importance of belief in God”. Therefore, anyone following Schachter’s opinion must conclude that it is strictly forbidden to believe in God, and that this prohibition is so serious that it is better to die than to violate it. Yes, some (presumably left-wing fringe) Orthodox Jews and congregations still believe in God, but we can assume that they will fall into line soon.
I can see the scene now: Schachter and his students giving up their lives al kiddush [REDACTED], having their skin flayed with iron combs as they say with their last breaths, “Hear O Israel: There is no God!”
This is a guest post from Rachel Silverman, 5th year Rabbinical student at JTS, and member of KICKS’ leadership team.
What do you call a new independent minyan that is neither new nor independent? The folks in Brookline, MA have decided to call it KICKS – Kehillath Israel‘s Community Kabbalat Shabbat. It fits few, if any, of the criteria that define the independent minyan movement – and yet it is, without a doubt, the place you are going to want to be on Friday nights in Boston – starting March 12.
We can’t claim to be independent because not only are we meeting INSIDE a Conservative synagogue, but we are actually becoming the Kabbalat Shabbat service FOR the synagogue. That’s right. Kehillath Israel has graciously handed over responsibility for their Friday evening service to a group of young, empowered Jewish leaders, straight out of Kehilat Hadar, Kehilat Kedem, and the Washington Square Minyan (all great and vibrant places from which we are regularly inspired and have learned a tremendous amount).
Just as if we were creating a minyan from scratch, the leadership team has been meeting diligently to confront the big questions of how to make this happen. How do we balance quality davening with a sense of inclusivity? How do we create a feeling of community outside of our prayer space? How do we make the chapel a warm and welcoming place to be? Our answers are nothing earth-shattering, but they are the result of thoughtful, careful deliberations which will hopefully produce the right atmosphere for a prayerful experience.
I’ve never been one to predict what is to come, but if I had to take a gander, I’d say this is the wave of the future. The combination of being in a synagogue that feels like an independent minyan is a win-win situation. The synagogue gets active, engaged, passionate, (mostly) young participants through their doors – a group of people who otherwise tend to avoid synagogues at any cost. The minyan-goers get the spiritual, energetic davening and the warm, welcoming, peer community – both of which they’ve been craving. As the minyan participants get older, they have a natural connection to a synagogue for lifecycle events, nursery schools, and movement specific opportunities, such as Israel trips, USY, etc. Put all together, we create a vibrant intergenerational community.
Sure, working within a synagogue structure has its challenges. Changes require buy-in from the existing community and rabbi – and there is only so much change that will, ultimately, be permitted. But that structure also means that we can focus on what we’re good at (amazing davening and creating community), and not get bogged down in questions of things we can’t change (the set up of the room, for example). In our case, KI and Rabbi Hamilton could not be more open to the change that we want to create – and I’m confident that their support is what will ultimately make us successful.
One of the unique features of KICKS is that we have created a davening leadership corps that will meet monthly to cultivate intentional leadership of our tefilah. We will work together to establish goals for our davening, to consider the arc and flow of the service, to think together about tunes that shape the arc, the give and take of leader and kahal, and the use of space, voice and body in shaping davening and inviting the energy of the kahal. It is also our goal to reach out and train new leaders. We look forward to offering sessions to help develop these skills among people who want to learn and join our team.
KICKS is kicking off (yes, pun intended) on March 12. We meet in the Rabb chapel of Congregation Kehillath Israel, 384 Harvard Street, Brookline, MA. Mincha begins at 5:35, Kabbalat Shabbat will be at 5:55, and Ma’ariv will be at 6:30. We will meet weekly, but start times will vary depending on candle-lighting. We’re planning Shabbat dinners, both potluck and home hospitality, for future weeks.
You can join our facebook group here, and sign up for our mailing list (a google group) here. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, or your desire to get involved.
Below is an article (tshuvah) by Rabbi David Golinkin of the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem–the seminary that trains Masorti (Conservative) rabbis in Israel. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions (namely, he seems to imply but not state outright that Women of the Wall shouldn’t fight for equal rights to pray at the lower plaza of the Kotel (Western Wall), and I believe strongly that they should indeed continue doing so), but anywhichway there’s some interesting stuff for discussion here.
Question: Since the arrest of Nofrat Frenkel in November 2009 for wearing a tallit and trying to read the Torah at the Kotel, there has been much discussion of the Women at the Wall and the right of women to wear a talit in the women’s section at the Kotel.1 There has not been enough discussion, however, of a much greater problem: In recent years, the Rabbi of the Kotel has expanded the synagogue section of the Kotel plaza and the Kotel Guard now patrol the entire Kotel plaza. They have posted large signs warning people to dress modestly. They tell people how to dress and what to wear, they tell women and girls not to sing, they separate girls from boys and they tell Christians to remove the crosses from their necks. The result is that non-Orthodox Jews have begun to avoid the Kotel entirely and many military ceremonies have been moved to other locations. Indeed, a recent poll (December 23, 2009) shows that 90% of Israelis want less gender-separation at the Kotel.2
Therefore, please answer the following questions:
I) Was the area near the Kotel considered a synagogue before 1948 and did it have a mehitzah?
II) Why is the Ministry of Religion in charge of the entire Kotel plaza?
III) What is the halakhic status, as opposed to the legal status, of the Kotel Plaza; is it really a synagogue?
IV) How should the State of Israel deal with the fact that the entire Kotel plaza is slowly but surely becoming a Haredi synagogue?
Ron Skolnik is the Executive Director of Meretz USA, a 501c3 educational nonprofit affiliated with the World Union of Meretz, whose Israeli affiliate is the Meretz-Yachad party holding six three seats in the Knesset. Originally written for Israel Horizons.
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
– George Orwell, “1984″, Part 1, Chapter 1
Consider this a primer in the underside of Zionist politics. At first blush, not the most riveting topic in the world. But don’t reach for the delete key just yet – unless you really aren’t concerned about how decisions get decided, deals get dealt, and money gets divvied up. And, to tell you the truth, it’s an incredible Orwellian tale, if you take the time to navigate the labyrinth.
You see, unbeknownst to most Jewish Americans, even those active in the Zionist world, the democratic nature of the Zionist movement is under severe attack – in the name of democracy and Zionism!
For those who don’t have the patience, here’s a three-bullet executive summary:
- The World Zionist Organization (WZO) has a hand in policy and controls millions of dollars.
- The World Zionist Organization is controlled by its 500+ elected delegates.
- The large Zionist organizations with the lion’s share of delegates want to consolidate control of the WZO by dismantling the electoral process.
Now to fill in the details: The World Zionist Organization is the international umbrella and operational arm of the Zionist movement. Its various departments support Zionist education, the cultivation of young leadership, and settlement (link in Hebrew only) throughout Israel – unfortunately including the West Bank and Golan Heights.
According to the latest reports, the WZO holds approximately $85 million in assets and works off a budget of $12-$14 million dollars a year. Just as important, the WZO has a 50% share in the running of the Jewish Agency, whose annual budget is close to $300 million. More »
Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.
I’ll begin by being up front about the fact that I’m far less a bencher aficionado than I am a siddur aficionado. But I was asked if I’d review this new entrance into the bencher market and I said yes. I hope I do it justice.
You could pretty easily divide the world of benchers into two categories. On the one hand, there are totally perfunctory versions that exist as a mere vehicle for what their editors consider a fixed collection of blessings and prayers and a smattering of songs. On the other hand, there are a few benchers that are not mere vehicles for your embossed name and the date of your wedding, bris, bar mitzvah, or whatever. These are generally more liberal in their attitude toward the content and tend to contain some amount of commentary.Yedid Nefesh, a new bencher from Joshua Cahan, a rabbi coming out of the Conservative tradition, falls into the latter category.
The bencher itself has a larger page size and ends up a tad thicker than your average bencher, but not so big that it becomes useless as a highly portable collection of songs and blessings. The page size is larger to accommodate Hebrew text, translation, transliterations and a lot of original commentary from Cahan himself, which far exceeds the bits of commentary and functional instructions that normally permeate a bencher.
Most interesting to me, as a self-proclaimed cataloguer of liberal liturgies, is that the bencher proclaims itself to be egalitarian. According to the YN website, this means that “in some places additions or alternatives are provided that counter some of the gender imbalance of the traditional texts.” Unfortunately, these attempts are marred by the usual Conservative discomfort with doing that. For instance, on page 15, in the middle of the Birkat Hamazon, we get this:
…our ancestors (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The parenthetical formulation repeats in the Hebrew and in the transliteration. If you want to include the mothers, fine. If not, fine. But if you’re going to do it, why leave them as some sort of parenthetical afterthought?
On the other hand, the bencher does call the section for a brit milah “For a Brit Milah or a Simchat Bat,” reflecting the increasingly common contemporary practice of having a celebration eight days after the birth a baby girl and, where appropriate, offers alternative Hebrew that correctly addresses the gender of the girl.
At the other end of gender equalizing, the bencher includes Eshet Chayil as well as an alternative for a wife to read to her husband, Ashrei Ish (Psalm 112).
The bencher also includes the order of blessings etc for Erev Shabbat in the home, all sorts of simchas, kiddush for every occasion, ushpizin, a wide selection of Shabbat songs, and a few other sections.
And then, of course, there’s Birkat Hamazon. There is the usual absurdly long version of BH as well as an abridged version. As the commentary in the bencher notes:
The Talmud does not present a fixed text for Birkat Hamazon. Rather, it describes the basic themes of the four blessings and notes key terms that must be included in each. The length of the text that developed around those themes has led scholars in many generations to compose shortened versions which pare back the text to its original components.
Though the commentary doesn’t say whose shortened BH it is presenting, the shortened version is considerably shorter. But that means it’s got less shtick, so who wants that?
In all, I like the bencher. I like how many different blessings and prayers and songs it include while remaining compact, if larger than most benchers. It’s got a great, elegant layout. If you like siddurim like Siddur Eit Ratzon, as I do, you’ll like this bencher as well.
YN’s editor, Joshua Cahan will be at Limmud NY next month. Will you? Registration was just extended through Monday, so what are you waiting for? See what he’ll be teaching about at the conference here.
Haaretz asks, “Who will save Conservative Judaism?”, and does a pretty good job of pointing out some flaws in the USCJ’s biennial plenary sessions, like the rather vague criticism of the movement that the leaders offer (Conservative Judaism “failing to live up to its best ideals”), and the similarly vague statement that the movement’s “detractors” don’t recognize its importance in “Jewish life.”
Really. The best criticism these guys can come up with is that they haven’t met their ideals and that they’re underappreciated? Having very little existing knowledge about the prior careers and current work of the leaders in question, I definitely can’t make a judgment on whether or not it’s their “fault” that the movement is, as they seem to be describing, sputtering. The reason I point out this article is not to blame the evil establishment for guiding Conservative Judaism off the rails. No, it’s to point out the contradiction of having a body that wants to “centralize” its leadership, as the USCJ does through the reformation of its organizational bylaws described in the article, and accomplishing said centralization by removing “governing” power from constituent synagogues, as these reformations would effect. In other words, if you need someone to save you, don’t suddenly take away the voice of everyone except your board of directors. As we know, boards of directors and such executive advising or decision-making bodies are notoriously bad at providing consistent advice or policy in the interest of constituents without some kind of direct responsibility to those constituents.
I’m not calling the USCJ a corrupt organization, or one that doesn’t honestly want to help its members. But I question the judgment of revitalizing a movement by astroturfing it. Something as large and diverse as Conservative Judaism can can’t be sustained just from the top down. The job of an organization like the USCJ should be to provide resources and assistance to smaller Conservative organizations, be they synagogues, think tanks, or independent minyans with a focus on Conservative practices.
I was raised Conservative, but with very little connection to our synagogue, a place that never really excited me that much. I don’t feel beholden to the Conservative movement, as apparently does Yona Schulman, quoted in the article as wanting the USCJ to ”help us get our message out.” To me, placing your ability to reach out to constituents in the hands of a distant organization you have no control over is sort of asking for stagnation or disinterest. The Havurah movement has taught us that when people can get involved, the’re likely to assemble an organization that exists to serve them, not to define them. When I describe the NHC to people, I say that the essence of the Havurah concept is that it’s not centralized. It’s not a sect, it’s a social movement. There’s no governing body. The NHC is the manifestation of havurahniks’ desire to connect and share. If the USCJ has a fundamentally different mission, then that’s their right. But I’d still say it’s a mistake.
A little while back, in addressing recent discussions of minyanim and reacting to Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, BZ posted:
Rabbi Kaunfer writes “New self-proclaimed movements sprung up — Reconstructionism, and the Renewal and Chavurah Movements.” The “Chavurah movement” is not now and has never been a “self-proclaimed movement” parallel to the “big three” or the Reconstructionist movement. Rabbi Kaunfer himself has argued for why the latest wave of independent minyanim do not constitute a “movement” in that mold, and the same is true for earlier waves of havurot.
This has led me to think about the similarities and differences between what people tend to refer to as Chavura, Conservative, Independent Minyan, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, and Renewal. (note that I alphabetized them rather than forcing them into a spectrum that doesn’t quite fit). Of course these labels have substantial overlap. Some are parallel. Some are not. They all come about because people want quick categories that they can use to label the Jewish approach of themselves and others.
–This next paragraph can be skipped, it defines a few terms and frames the issue, but some might find it needlessly semantic–Some of these labels are (what I’ll call) institutional, ideological, and/or aesthetic. Institutional groupings are based on a subset of Jews being unified based on connection to an institution(s). For instance, The Conservative movement is an institutional grouping since it’s people are connected through camps, schools, youth groups, an other institutions. It is also an ideological grouping since it has positions on many questions that it endorses. Conservative Jews have tendencies to think about Israel in certain ways, egalitarianism, etc. Of course, some differ and there is some diversity, but certainly, you can see what I mean by ideological grouping. By aesthetic, I mean a preference for decision-making model, prayer approach, or something else which is not explicitly Ideological. In many cases these issues are deeply moral, so I don’t mean to imply that this is in any sense superficial. Minyanim, for instance are united by a desire for lay-ledness and thus “Minyan” is an aesthetic grouping. This is a rather arbitrary nuance but there certainly is a nuance between how people think about the world (ideology) and how they prefer their prayer specifically (prayer aesthetic) that while influenced by the former is a slightly different issue.
Now I’ll take a look at a few common groupings and examine what they are, where they come from, and which they are parallel too, and not.
Crossposted to The Reform Shuckle.
I’m not the first blogger out there to say “Yes!” to Reform and “No!” to the URJ. I’ve learned a lot about how to do this and about how to articulate it from BZ, who blogs at Mah Rabu (his personal, often highly technically-worded blog) and at Jewschool.
One of BZ’s long-time trains of thought (and by extension, mine) is the problem of liberal Jews letting those to their religious right define them. BZ’s new op-ed in The Forward, Reframing Liberal Judaism, addresses the upcoming URJ biennial and USCJ biennial on the topic of terminology and definition in the liberal Jewish world.
And I couldn’t have said it better myself. The best part:
[...] religiously liberal Jews (Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, nondenominational, etc.) frequently suffer from a deficiency in framing when talking about their Jewish ideologies and practices. Consciously or unconsciously, liberal Jews often invoke frames that implicitly establish Orthodox Judaism as normative and set up their own forms of Judaism in comparison with Orthodoxy.
The remedy is clear: For liberal Judaism to thrive, it must develop frames to see itself as authentic on its own terms. Orthodox Jews aren’t doing anything wrong by viewing Judaism through Orthodox frames, but we as liberal Jews are missing an opportunity by failing to see Judaism through our own liberal Jewish values.
This framing problem manifests itself in subtle ways. When we refer to Jews of other denominations as “more religious” or “more observant,” we undermine our own standards of religious observance, and judge ourselves on a scale external to our own Judaism.
Consider this phrase: “I’m not shomer Shabbat: Every week I light candles after sundown and then drive to synagogue.” The speaker obviously observes Shabbat but is allowing someone else to define what Shabbat observance means.
Furthermore, one version of this frame (problematic even for Orthodox Jews) equates “religious observance” solely with ritual observance. That’s how convicted felon Jack Abramoff can be labeled as an “observant Jew” despite violating many of the Torah’s ethical commandments.
Perhaps the most interesting part of this to me is that BZ is the person The Forward turned to. In advance of the biggest meetings of the two mammoth conglomerations that dominate liberal Jewry in America, that The Forward has gone to someone whose public persona is so defined by having turned his back on the liberal Jewish “Man” is fascinating.
Check out the whole piece here.