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!
When historians write about social or political transformation, they often make a distinction between “change from above” and “change from below.” Change from above comes directly from the leadership—Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal is a good example. Change from below is brought about by the efforts of regular people, whether directly from their actions or as a result of pressures brought to bear on those in power. The Civil Rights Movement is an especially compelling example of this. In researching the Jewish history of Louisville, Kentucky, I found a fascinating instance of “change from below” that literally came from above.
Keneseth Israel was created in 1926 from the merger of Louisville’s two oldest Orthodox congregations, both of which had been established by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. By the mid-20th century, a new generation of members had begun to chafe under the requirements of strict Orthodoxy. After World War II, the younger members of the congregation, especially its women, began to push for mixed-gender seating. In 1950, a group of female members, who normally sat in the synagogue balcony, held “sit-down strikes” in the downstairs men’s section during services. During one of these demonstrations, the police were called to restore order, and some members threatened a court injunction to stop the protests. Keneseth Israel’s Rabbi Benjamin Brilliant supported the traditionalists and refused to continue services while women were sitting in the men’s section.
Finally, the board sought to strike a compromise by allowing women to sit on the main floor of the sanctuary separated from the men by a mechitza, though this solution did not satisfy the protestors. Finally, after Rabbi Brilliant left Keneseth Israel in 1952, the congregation voted to institute mixed seating in the middle section of the sanctuary, with separate sections for men and women at the sides. Over the years, the congregation would continue to struggle with how to balance traditional Judaism with the demands of the modern world. Later, Keneseth Israel affiliated with the Conservative Movement and become fully egalitarian.
It’s quite remarkable that thirteen years before Betty Friedan published of The Feminine Mystique, which helped spark the second wave of American feminism, the women of Keneseth Israel decided to challenge the gender inequality of their congregation in such a direct way. Their effort is a perfect example of how most social change comes from pressure from below, even if it actually comes from the balcony!
Hurricane Katrina (and the man-made disaster of the levee breaks) struck Louisiana and Mississippi seven years ago today, with devastating effects. Now as the region prepares for Hurricane Isaac, we also remember Katrina.
In 2005, when Katrina struck, I was still living in the New Orleans area. The city and her surrounding suburbs were all affected. The Jewish community felt the wrath of the storm – particularly the Modern Orthodox synagogue, Beth Israel, which was destroyed.
At that time, I was Executive Vice President of Temple Sinai in New Orleans. As a practicing Reform Jew, I had become involved with the local Federation, but, until then, I had not thought much about how our small Orthodox congregation benefited the whole Jewish community. In the aftermath of the storm, every congregation, including mine, reached out to them to provide temporary worship space until they could figure out what to do next. I found myself thinking about the interdependence of New Orlean’s Jewish community. and wondering how the loss of Beth Israel Congregation would affect the rest of our largely Reform contingent.
After Katrina it quickly became apparent that the Jewish community would either come together and survive as a whole or fall apart in individual efforts. Nearly a quarter of local Jews permanently relocated in the months after the storm. Those who remained had to embrace pluralism in a whole new way. We needed each other to survive and thrive as a Jewish community.
Under the leadership of Rabbi Robert Loewy, Metairie Reform congregation Gates of Prayer and Beth Israel formed a historical partnership, with the Orthodox congregation meeting in the Reform synagogue for the last seven years, until this past weekend. Shared space, increased understanding and partnership between the two congregations taught the entire Jewish world the importance of community.
But why does a city need a full range of Jewish observance? If it wasn’t for the Orthodox community, there would be no community day school. Without a community day school, the Reform and Conservative congregations would never have been able to attract the current roster of Rabbis, Cantors and Educators who moved to the New Orleans area since Katrina. Congregation Beth Israel also brought the amazing Rabbi Uri Topolosky, an asset to the whole city who moved to New Orleans in 2007, and has led the congregation’s rebirth.
Of course, benefits go both ways. Without the Reform and Conservative Jews in the city purposefully patronizing the two Kosher restaurants in town, they would not be able to stay in business in order to serve the Orthodox Jews (and many Reform and Conservative Jews) who keep Kosher. And our efforts to reach out to the greater community are strengthened by our partnerships in the larger Jewish Federation.
In order to maintain a thriving Jewish community and give back to the city as a whole, we need each other; we are absolutely interdependent.
In August of 2010, I was privileged to attend the ground breaking ceremony of Congregation Beth Israel. After sharing a space amicably, Congregation Gates of Prayer sold a parcel of their land to Beth Israel to build their new synagogue and permanent home.
Last weekend, Nes Gadol Hayah Sham (a great miracle happened there)! After seven long years in the lovely wilderness of Gates of Prayer, Beth Israel joyfully paraded its five Torah scrolls out of the temporary space and into the Ark of their very own synagogue. Dignitaries from federal, state and local government, along with well-wishers from the entire community were invited to be a part of that glorious day. Yes, it was the seventh anniversary of hurricane Katrina, but much more importantly, it was the first day for Beth Israel in their own home once again.
While the congregations are now in separate buildings, they made a conscious decision to share the children’s’ play yard, so this generation and the next will never wonder quietly to themselves, “Why are the other ones important to me and the world around me?”
They will already know.