I spend a lot of time with Conservatives in the South. Conservative Jews, in this case (probably not what most people picture when you say “Southern and Conservative”).
With all of the information about the downfall and slow death of the Conservative/Masorti movement flying around the Internet (check out some examples here and here), there have been many responses from rabbis and lay leaders all over to the contrary (like this one and this one). One perspective that’s been missing, however, is that of Conservative Judaism in the South.
We here at the ISJL are trans-denominational – which means we value and teach those things that most all Jews share – the importance of Torah and Jewish knowledge, acts of loving-kindness, and meaningful relationships with God, other Jews, and the rest of the world. It also means that we partner with any Southern Jewish congregation, regardless of its denomination.
As an Education Fellow traveling throughout the South, I manage to intimately interact with many different synagogues throughout our region, including many Conservative synagogues from Waco, Texas to Greensboro, North Carolina, and many others in between. Based on my observations, I can say that some of the concern is true – the Conservative movement is shrinking in numbers and that membership and religious school rolls are down throughout our region. However, I am not convinced that it is “dying.” In fact, I’m convinced that in many ways it’s stronger than ever.
After visiting these synagogues on the ground, seeing and talking to real, involved Conservative Jews, I see a much different picture than the one conjured up by the variety of commentators out there. I see a larger community that is being reborn. I see things like:
Able, involved, knowledgeable and inspired laypeople. I’ve seen many laypeople able and willing to lead Shabbat evening and morning services, entirely in Hebrew, without the assistance of a rabbi or cantor: a 13 year old boy leading the entire Musaf service – with repetition, a man in his mid-60s leading all of Shacharit. I’ve witnessed laypeople go out of their way to make sure that services happen.
New innovations all over the place. One rabbi hands out a source sheet to go along with his short Friday night d’rash, so people can follow along. Another one leads Kabbalat Shabbat with the assistance of an MP3 player, for some variety – and since it’s before sunset – there’s no violation of the Sabbath in using electronic devices. I can’t forget to mention the rabbi who plays the accordion as little children dance around and learn how much fun it can be to be Jewish. Several educators have instituted Shabbat School, to bring kids and parents to both participate in services and learn at the same time.
Passion for Judaism and an involved Jewish life. In every congregation, even before I’ve been introduced, people have gone out of their way to meet me and tell me about the congregation and ask me about myself. I’ve been surprised to see packed houses at almost all of the Shabbat services I’ve attended at these congregations.
Engaged and interested youth. Through the work of amazing, talented educators and rabbis, the youth I’ve worked with care immensely about being Jewish. They are proud to be Jewish. They’re willing to sample any wild lesson I might bring with me that weekend, and they’re able and interested in having conversations about important issues.
Based on the Southern and Conservative communities I work with down here, I’m excited about the future of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. I see transformation, growing meaning and vibrancy, and true innovation. Traveling through the South, I see congregations ready to adapt to the changing face of Conservative Judaism, and the changing face of the Jewish world head on. They’re revitalizing Judaism for the future. Likewise, I’ve seen the same characteristics in the Jewish congregations of other denominations I’ve visited throughout the South.
I’m excited for the future of Southern Conservative Jewish life, and truly that of Southern Judaism overall – whether Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, or unaffiliated. If you ever get a chance to check out one of these Southern Conservative congregations, or really any Southern Jewish community, check it out. I guarantee you won’t regret it!
“Crisis Line. May I help you?”
This is how I answer the phone at a local crisis center here in Mississippi, during every four hour shift I spend volunteering there. Each time I pick up the line, I take a deep breath and hope that the person on the other side of the phone is okay. However, having been trained as a crisis line volunteer, I know that I am ready to respond if the person who was brave enough to call is not okay. I am ready to talk to them if they want to talk to me about feeling suicidal.
“Suicide rates among middle-aged Americans have risen sharply in the past decade.”
That is the opening line of this May 2013 New York Times article. When I read those words, I immediately thought about people I know who have been affected by suicide. Too many. As the ISJL’s Director of the Department of Community Engagement, I wondered if and how congregations, as community based organizations, might respond to this rather serious piece of information.
Consider some more noteworthy news points about people taking their own life:
From 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent.
In 2010 there were 33,687 deaths from motor vehicle crashes, and 38,364 suicides; while car safety has improved, it’s still shocking that suicides outnumbered vehicular death.
The increase coincides with a decrease in financial standing and the widespread availability of opioid drugs, which can be particularly deadly in large doses
Most suicides are committed using firearms (not most suicide attempts, but most suicides)
People who are left behind face social stigma.
While I am not suggesting that we panic, I am suggesting that we pay attention to what this means for our congregations and communities. Suicide has become more prevalent. In the same way that we are trained to prevent drunk drivers from operating a vehicle, we can be trained to intervene when someone is at risk of committing suicide.
September 10th of each year is World Suicide Prevention Day. In honor of that day, congregations can host speakers who can talk about issues related to mental health or say a prayer for the healing of all who are feeling hopeless and depressed. Here are some other ways to take action:
- Invite people from service agencies to speak at services about the resources that are available through their non-profit
- Learn about what Judaism has to say about suicide and mental illness; have a study session or education program dedicated to the topic
- Get involved in local crisis hotlines. Congregations can host trainings for crisis hotline volunteers or give an annual financial gift to the local hotline
- Host support groups for people who are dealing with depression
- Host support groups for people who have been affected by suicide (family and friends of someone who committed suicide)
- Foster community and relationship building: with the understanding that suicide is now more prevalent among men between the ages of 35-64, there may be some benefit to having a Brotherhood Committee that mirrors the Sisterhood Committee’s level of activity
- Educate congregants about firearm safety and the dangers of opioid drugs
- Offer programs and initiatives that can help ease the financial strain on families
For information about suicide prevention, contact one of the many wonderful advocacy organizations out there, such as SAVE.
Do you have other ideas of how congregations can play a role in curbing the rise of suicide rates? Please share them in the comments below!
Rabbis and cantors from Central Synagogue in New York are about to hit the Southern road. Again.
It’s all part of the ISJL Rabbinic Department‘s Rabbis on the Road program. We believe that serving small and isolated Jewish communities is important. For years, we’ve encouraged larger communities and congregations to form partnerships with smaller congregations, in order to make rabbinic and educational services available to more people.
Recently, under the visionary leadership of senior Rabbi Peter Rubinstein, Central Synagogue answered the call.
Over the course of this year, Central Synagogue clergy have traveled South, visiting small Southern Jewish communities. Three of these trips have already transpired, with more to follow.
Feedback from communities has been tremendous. Here’s one example:
“Dear Rabbi Rubinstein – Considering your schedule over the last few days, I cannot say enough how much in debt I am to you for making your visit to Selma happen. The only negative of your coming was it just was not long enough!!! But that is okay, when something is really good, you take what you can get and be happy! Everybody, and I truly mean EVERYBODY, was so happy and impressed with you. They took to heart your words of faith and encouragement, enjoying the high profile stories you passed on. People hung around the Temple ‘til we had to blink the lights to get them to leave, a testimony of how energized you left them. As our attendees left, they couldn’t say enough of how much they enjoyed listening to you… It was a great day for me, Temple Mishkan Israel and historic Selma, Alabama.”
The Rabbis on the Road journeys continue this month. Rabbi Michael Friedman will be visiting with the congregations of Am Shalom (Bowling Green, KY), B’nai Sholom (Bristol, TN) and Emanuel (Stateville, NC). Student Cantor David Mintz will be with the congregations of Temple Sinai (Lake Charles, LA), Temple Shalom (Lafayette, LA) and B’nai Israel (Monroe, LA).
These are transformative experiences for both the visiting clergy and the hosting congregations. We share our unique experiences, but are also brought together by our Jewish identity. Through experiences like Rabbis on the Road, may we continue to sustain and strengthen Jewish life in the South, and throughout the United States.