Nov 6, 2009

OpEd in the Jewish Week: "Needed: An End to Ho-Hum Conservative Services"

OpEd in the Jewish Week: "Needed: An End to Ho-Hum Conservative Services"

by Brett Cohen
Special to the Jewish Week

We need a deeply engaged, committed, non-fundamentalist Jewish center. The tragedy of Conservative Jewish decline is not that we've stopped needing Conservative Judaism, but that Conservative Judaism has failed to live up to its mission.

I challenge a spiritually serious Jew to go to pray at your friendly neighborhood Conservative shul and not to come away with the impression that something has gone very wrong. Empty McMansion  sanctuaries, graying membership, declining ranks, stultifying services. . .

Why don't younger, committed folks want to show up on Saturday morning? Because the services are rote, hum-drum. You go to a religious service to hope for spiritual connection, however uncertain and fleeting. You have more chance of finding that meditatingor hiking than coming to a shul where

they don't really pray. But the rare egalitarian service where the intensity bolts around the room, that service can speak to a whole swath of us who want to touch something holy in our lives. A Conservative service that works is a spiritual on-ramp for those many of us who walked out of the twice a year suburban Judaism, vowing not to return. But without meaningful services (and here I am focused primarily on Shabbat services), all you have is a community center with a Torah in it. If you want Conservative Judaism to work, you need Conservative services  to work.
To that end, here's some of what I think you need to have a good synagogue service:

- Heavy participation in the singing. Find me a service with a cantor wailing away operatically and I'll show you a bad service. If you're being prayed to or sung to at a service, you are not praying or singing. To all the cantors who are at shuls - keep it simple and beautiful. Song is a central route to devotion; you should try to impress the shul with the congregation's singing, not yours.

- Lay leadership of the davening. It's hard for anyone to keep the energy level up if he is running all levels of the service week after week. Let the congregants run parts of the service. Rabbis - this is a statement of strength, not weakness. The best way to have a vibrant congregation is to have a congregation made up of a strong core who can lead the praying.

- A focus on the eternal, not the topical. Synagogue is not a talk show, and it should not be a political town meeting. We're reading and praying from texts that are thousands of years old. If we are going to grapple with topics at shul, why can't we grapple with topics from the text, instead of the latest editorial from the New York Times? If your talk is ripped from today's headlines, you are short-changing the tradition. Worse than that, you're signaling that the text is not as interesting or visceral as the latest heated political debate. Be timeless, not timely.
- Young people. Get the idealistic college kids. Get the singles looking to hook up. Make it easy for the young families with their babies "destroying" services. Think of it like this: I tell you there's your usual Friday night Shabbat service at your shul. Now I tell you that 40 Jewish kids from the nearby college are staying at your synagogue and they'll run Kabalat Shabbat. Which service will have more earnestness, more vitality, more light? No young folks at services means your shul is dying.    
-A service run amongst the congregation, not at a distance. The large majority of shuls have a large raised bimah from which the clergy  talk down to the congregation. Tear it down and replace it with something small and in the center of the congregation. If you can't tear it down, walk right into the middle of the seats and run the service from a small bimah there, from the same level as the congregants. Think of nearly any time you've prayed in a group meaningfully and felt moved (at the Kotel, at a chavurah in college, at a small service in one of the side rooms in the synagogue where everyone sits in a circle on chairs). The worship is happening all around you.

You will not have been craning up at clergy on a huge stage while you sat below. The physical structure of most synagogues reinforces the vicious cycle of clergy praying for congregants, congregants zoning out, and then clergy needing to pray for congregants because congregants no longer know what to do. Get down from there. Sit amongst the congregation while you are praying. There is nothing more ridiculous than those high seats at the back of the massive bimahs for the clergy and officers to sit on as though you were Supreme Court Justices.

Ever wonder why your congregants don't feel connected? Reduce the distance between you and the congregants, and between the text and the congregants. Put the heart of the service right where they are.
-Fidelity to the language in your Siddur. While melodic innovation (so long as it's singable by the lay person) can be great, messing with the text so that your synagogue has a unique way of praying is not so great. If your synagogue lightly changes and rearranges the text from the prayer book, congregants from other places may not feel comfortable at your shul, and congregants from your synagogue may not have the ability to comfortably pray elsewhere. Stick with the siddur as much as possible.
-More silence. Most conservative and reform synagogues either gloss over the silent Amidah (making the vast majority of it communal rather than personal) or skip it altogether. Nearly all synagogues rush it. Even if you don't believe in having a traditional silent Amidah (and I believe very strongly in it, for me it is the lynchpin of the service), then at least have quiet time for people to silently pray or meditate. Why should people come to pray at synagogue? It's not primarily to hear others talk, or to eat kiddush, or to socialize, or even to learn.

It is to talk to God. Most shuls are afraid of quiet, silent prayer. "People will get bored. They won't know what to do." Let go. Create quiet time for the quiet voice of the soul to be heard.

Brett Cohen runs JGB Management, an investment firm

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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