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!
Three Jewish women walked into a nail salon….
This is not a joke, just what I did with two of my friends last weekend. These tired working moms needed a pedicure, stat! I have been to this salon countless times and am always my usual talkative friendly self to the unlucky soldier charged with trying to make my runner’s feet look presentable.
The nail technician that I am paired up with the most is Daniel, a young African American man who is married to one of the other workers, who happens to be Vietnamese. Daniel and I have chatted for hours over the time I have known him, about nothing and everything. I usually come in with a friend or two, and you can tell that he finds our banter amusing. We might even be on the list of his favorite customers.
On our last visit, my girlfriends and I relaxed and started chatting about something, and we must have mentioned something Jewish. At this, Daniel’s eyes grew big and he said, “Are you Jewish? I had no idea. You don’t look Jewish.”
There it was, the comment that no matter how many times you hear it is just puzzling. You don’t look Jewish.
This notion of “looking Jewish” perpetuates so many Jewish stereotypes and yet also seems harmless enough when asked by sincerely uninformed and curious people. My friends waited for my answer, and I playfully responded that I actually do look pretty darn Jewish (as long as we are talking about stereotypes).
Daniel continued, “No, seriously. Tell me… how I would know if someone was Jewish? What do Jews look like?”
It was such an innocent question and yet so powerful, as it reminded me that there are still many people who know nothing about Judaism and have never met a Jew (even though San Antonio has over 9,000 Jews). Those of us living in southern small towns know this scenario well, and are often the token Jew of our classroom, or school, and almost every group of which we are a part. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like being signed up to be a group’s representative without being asked if you wanted the job. Some of us readily accept the charge of being the face of the Jewish community, while others are extremely uncomfortable.
While Daniel’s question was innocent, many of the questions that face us lonely Jews can be quite unpleasant. We are repeatedly asked questions such as: Why did the Jews kill Jesus? Are you OK knowing that you are going to hell? and even, Don’t Jews have horns on their heads? Sometimes these questions are like Daniel’s, from a combination of ignorance and interest, and other times they have a hurtful agenda attached.
To complicate matters, Judaism is something that is not always visible to others. I can conceal my Jewish identity if I want to, which perpetuates the situation of people not knowing many Jews. The more this happens, the more people are uninformed about Jews and the more uncomfortable I may feel exposing my Judaism to others in the future. It’s a cycle that can only change with non Jews educating themselves and with Jews being proud of being Jewish even when its not easy. These are both tall orders, and yet we have to start somewhere.
So I took a deep breath, and asked Daniel what else he wanted to know about Jews.
Have you been in a situation like this? What would you say?
Picture this: a really mean kid.
A kid who spends each day at school calling others names, like fat and loser. He chooses specific targets to publicly humiliate. He excludes people from the lunch table where their own friends sit, getting other kids to “vote out” someone who was once their friend, which they all do for fear of becoming the next target. His behavior is documented, but his parents take no responsibility, and the school needs more concrete evidence before they can suspend him. He faces no consequences, despite behavior that is hurtful, harmful and unacceptable.
In fact, that same year, he stands on the bimah and is welcomed with open arms as an adult in the Jewish community. His bullying is known to many, but he is given another title: Bar Mitzvah.
In most congregations, to become Bar or Bat Mitzvah, there are many requirements to fulfill. A students must attend x number of services, master the prayers, learn Torah and haftarah portions, and write a speech about what he/she has learned during this process. We ask that students adhere to the guidelines that Judaism provides for living a moral and ethical life. But what about the children who go against what the Torah instructs us to do? If a student is a known bully, do we ignore that as long as his prayers are memorized and his speech pays lip service to kindness and being a good Jewish adult?
Judaism instructs us clearly that it is a sin to shame another person. Many Jewish children’s first lesson is the Golden Rule: love your neighbor as yourself. And if you do something wrong, you HAVE to make it right. The Jewish system of teshuvah, repentance, provides explicit guidelines instructing us how to make right our wrongs. The essential step of teshuvah is taking responsibility and saying sorry for your actions.
When someone converts to Judaism we conduct a Beit Din (mini jury) as part of the conversion ceremony, to determine if the candidate for conversion is ready and that her intentions are good ones. What would it look like if we had a similar vetting for a Bar/Bat Mitzvah student? What if our clergy and tutors interviewed and even convened a Beit Din with their B’nai Mitzvah students before they began working with them? What would that look like? Would it involve other children – the peers of the bully?
Perhaps part of Bar/Bat Mitzvah preparation should be letters of recommendation, in which the recommenders needed to answer some pointed questions about the student’s behavior and character. These recommendations could come from teachers, peers, community members. We could ask the Bar/Bat Mitzvah candidates to answer questions in an essay that describes their character and intentions.
Does it seem extreme? Consider this story.
Recently, a high school coach from Utah suspended his entire football team because he caught wind that some of the players were involved in cyber-bullying. Those of us in the South know that you DON’T mess with football – but this coach did. His brave gesture was so against the norm that it made national news. This coach made examples of his players, showing that being a good person is the main requirement for any life experience and if this requirement is not met, then additional experiences and privileges are taken away. The football players could earn back their spot on the team through participation in community service.
This act not only had a direct consequence on the players but also offered a public message to the students that had been mistreated that they mattered, and that people were there to help them.
If a coach can do it, why can’t a rabbi? Or a teacher? We’re the ones who have the chance to show all kids they matter, and maybe even through teshuvah and attention, turn a bully into a mensch. What a mitzvah that could be.
Do you think bullies should be allowed on the bimah? Should a Bar or Bat Mitzvah student’s treatment of others be considered?