Conservative Judaism with a Groove: Congregation B’nai Jeshrun
This post marks the end of my 10 days of study and observation in New York City. I was privileged to meet with a number of Jewish professionals, community leaders and organizations during my sabbatical visit to the largest Jewish community in the United States. It was both a fascinating and inspiring experience that raised many ideas and insights into how we might better organize and facilitate Jewish community life and the life of the synagogue in particular. In these next few posts I will attempt to share with you some of my observations, lessons learned and the questions they raise for us as a Jewish community. While my lens at present is, “How might these insights be applied to my work in my own congregation?” their application is really much broader and global in scope. I have focussed each post on a different community I visited (many over multiple days). I hope to post each day on my observations from these congregations. As always I welcome your feedback, comments, questions and suggestions – in fact I am counting on them.
CONGREGATION B’NAI JESHRUN
BJ is a progressive conservative congregation on the Upper West Side of Manhattan it has 1850 members, 3 full time pulpit rabbis, a cantor and a staff of about 25 full time professionals. (NOTE: BJ is not currently affiliated with the Conservative Movement – they left for what some characterize as social justice reasons, but they are conservative in practice.) I was privileged to join them for worship on Friday night, and to meet with their lead rabbi Roly Matalon one on one, their Assistant Executive Director Belinda Laski, and then to meet again with Roly and BJ’s cantor Ari Priven for a ‘Worship Team’ meeting. Sharon and the boys went Saturday morning to Tot Shabbat and gave me a full report while I davened at another congregation. (Thanks Honey!)
In meeting with Belinda she enumerated the reasons people join BJ as the following:
- Worship services (friday PM)
- Social action
- High Holy Days (You have to be a member to attend HHDs (no tix for sale to community)
- Young Families Community – a program designed to engage young families
Taking each of these one by one this is what I learned:
BJ has 700-900 people in attendance at Friday Night services. The worship style while traditional (Conservative) uses professional musicians (about 5) and a vast repertoire of congregational music, much of it originally composed or adapted by Cantor Priven. The musical influence is Argentinian (the country of origin for Cantor Priven and two of the three rabbis). The music has a ‘groove’ to it, which I can only describe as something that has no clear end point and which the ‘pray-er’ can immerse themselves in. I love it, though it does require a higher degree of hebrew skills than most Reform congregants have. In addition the service is not very explanatory, so if you are not familiar with a traditional service order you could easily be lost (they do announce page numbers but the theme of each prayer is assumed).
What I like about the BJ worship style and what I think TJ and Reform congregations in general could endeavor to replicate is that praying comes as much from the congregation as it does from the pulpit and rabbis. It is improvisational in that the rabbis and cantor play with a melody or a text in the same way a good live rock band (Grateful Dead) plays with a setting of a song. Each time is a little bit different, a little more personal and reflective of the moment and feeling in the room. In this sense the worshiper feels (1) that if they are not there they will miss something that may not occur again and (2) if they are not present the service will be missing them, that the unique experience depends on the input of the congregation as well as the Rabbis and Cantor.
Tot Shabbat: Sharon reported and my kids confirmed that the service was exceptional (and they go to a lot of Tot Shabbat services) It was 45 minutes long and included a Torah reading. The parents put on a play that demonstrated a teaching from the week’s parsha. The music was rooted in the same melodies as the adult service (it helps that the adult service has such contemporary and congregational tunes) and then additional ‘kid songs’ for Tot Shabbat. She said the key to a 45 minute service was that their was lots of movement. No chairs and the kids were up at frequent intervals moving and interacting. She also liked how the rabbi personalized some of the brachot (blessings) to include things the kids were thankful for. These minor tweaks and perhaps a shift to modeling a fuller shabbat service could be helpful for the TJ Tot Shabbat which is already wonderful but could be even better.
Like Temple Judea, BJ a long history of Social Action, although it is safe to say that Social Action at BJ is more institutionalized as regular focus of the congregation. This is most notable by the fact that BJ has two full time Social Justice workers on their staff, whose job is to organize and mobilize the congregation toward this area of focus. That is in addition to the work of the Rabbis and Educators in this area as well. The saying put your money where your mouth is, BJ has put some of it here.
BJ houses a homeless shelter Monday and Tuesday in their social hall, have done this for 25 years, they sleep downstairs, its a women’s only shelter (some kids too) and they partner with a local church and social service organization so that the residents have other places to go throughout the week. Social Justice at BJ takes two parallel tracks. (1) Direct Service: Shelter (cook, setup, staff overnight), Tutoring, Lunch Program (2) Advocacy: Working with local government and some national issues to make lasting change in a community organizing model.
The obvious lessons for TJ or any other congregation is that you get what you pay for. To have one let alone two professionals who are singularly dedicated to Social Justice work makes a huge difference in quality, quantity and the scope of the work they can do as a congregation. The other area that deserves our reflection is the hands on work of the homeless shelter and tutoring programs. While TJ has done this in the past, it became infrequent and distant from the week to week work of the Temple. While something like this is twice weekly it takes a major commitment of time and resources of the congregation. It depends on its membership to keep it going. While these initiates are organized by professionals they are staffed by volunteers who see it as an expression of their Judaism. One other thought, as we enter a new building and we think about would we have homeless once again sleep in our new facility, the following quote from a Presbyterian Minister comes to mind. “Worship in your
building, do not worship your building. May you always have crumbs on your carpet and fingerprints on your doors.”
YOUNG FAMILIES COMMUNITY:
This is not really a program but a philosophy and area of emphasis. Every Saturday morning BJ has Tot Shabbat for 0-6 at 10:45a. Service includes a Torah reading, music. After the Torah service they have breakout groups; 0-3 are in one room for story and music, 4-6 in another room for higher level learning. In addition they have a mid week program called BimBam which is a music and sing along program for 0-6 every friday at 9:30a and 10:45a lead by BJ musicians. The cost of the program is $36 per child per semester. No rabbi is present and you do not need to be a member to participate. The Assistant Director of Education staffs it and is there to answer questions. This program is under the supervision of the Department of Youth and Family Education. BJ does not yet have a Preschool but they have plans to open one next year. Preschool in NY is highly sought after and the school already has a waiting list.
My take away from this initiative of BJ was how they have organized all the parts under one administrative umbrella. We have all (or most) of these offering at TJ and more – but maybe we could be more intentional in how we organize ourselves so that everything feels integrated with the larger mission of the congregation. In the case of BJ it is so that parents and kids are introduced to the music of the congregation and feel comfortable and encouraged to come to worship. This goal helps clarify how best to focus their energies and resources.
As an example like most congregations, the Rabbis at BJ place a very high value on teaching, they have their own teaching schedules and tracks and interact with the congregation via those teaching experiences. However inlight of the above goal of worship participation the teaching of the clergy focuses intensely on Prayer. They want an educated highly trained congregation. They do teach other things but the vast majority of their offering begin with synagogue and siddur skills.
Lastly BJ is organized around the VARCI MANAGEMENT MODEL
V = Veto
A = Accountable
R = Responsible
C = Consult
I = Inform
Each Rabbi is the ‘A’ for a particular area. The model allows they to have multiple ‘Senior Rabbis’ or put another way they do not have A Senior Rabbi but rather a diversified leadership structure where accountability for 90% of what the congregation does is distributed amongst the 3 members of the clergy team. They also have a level of program staff (the ‘R’ for many things) that is responsible for implementation. Most synagogues have moved more fully in this area of staffing that we have at TJ, program directors, membership directors, communications directors, social justice staff, etc. We do not yet have any of these at TJ and currently use our clergy staff to be both A and R in those areas as well as more traditional pulpit clergy roles.
Time and again at BJ and in other congregations I heard that worship is the public face of the congregation, it is what most people see first and how they engage the community. We may have convinced ourselves otherwise in Reform Judaism but I believe that is a mistake. A synagogue is of course many things (House of prayer, study, community) but for most people it is a house of prayer first and can only be the other two if they are engaged with is as place for prayer and worship. The shabbat service is the communal assembly of the congregation and if only a segment of the congregation feels inclined to come to services then we have to ask ourselves why? I believe that Reform Jews need prayer, I believe they want what a worship community can provide in their lives. How can we make a Shabbas community at TJ or other Reform Congregations. The great Zionist thinker and ideologue Ahad Ha’am is quoted as saying, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.” If we are not coming together for Shabbat as a community then by a very Jewish measure we are not yet fully a community. The majority of BJs programming happens on Shabbat, while only a fraction of ours at TJ takes place Friday and Saturday. I learned later at other Shuls in NY, if you asked people to come on Sunday (or mid week) they won’t come on Saturday also. (More on that in a future post)
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