Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a conservative rabbi and professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote a piece for the New York Jewish Week asking why reform and orthodox congregations are growing while conservative synagogues grow “more and more empty.” To find a possible answer, she decided to attend Friday night services at Central Synagogue, a large reform congregation in Manhattan. What she found was a synagogue that promoted community as much as it promoted prayer – and a Friday night service with nary and empty place to sit.
Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, she wrote, until the beginning of the Torah service (which usually happens on a Saturday). It’s customary for the rabbis to remove a Torah, or Torahs, from the ark and carry them around so the congregants can wait their turn to kiss the Torah. But in this congregation, the procession took well over ten minutes.
“Rather than stand silently waiting for their turn to kiss the Torah, people began talking to each other. So I, too, entered into conversation with the young man next to me, also there by himself, and, as it turns out, a Friday-night regular. I suddenly realized that this gap in the service was part of the plan: by taking so long to bring the Torah around, the rabbis were encouraging us to talk to each other, to form a community. No one was going to be able to come by herself, sit through the service, and leave without speaking to anyone else. Formality was out; warmth was in.”
Of course this isn’t a miracle cure for the conservative movement, but its one way this particular congregation is encouraging a warm and welcoming community. Rabbi Hauptman didn’t know anyone there, but while the Torah was being walked about, she found herself forced to engage with others in attendance. She loved the entire service so much she “danced” her way home. She also realized she was jealous of this reform congregation. “As I look to orthodoxy on the right and reform on the left, I see vitality,” she writes. The orthodox attract people who adhere to strict halacha (Jewish law), while personal freedom attracts people to reform congregations. Each might not agree with each other, but “both approaches are keeping Jews Jewish, and that’s what matters.”
So what can conservative Judaism offer, she asks. Conservative congregations won’t shorten prayers and most won’t add musical instruments, and many people seem to find the traditional conservative service “boring.” Rabbi Hauptman suggests conservative rabbis and laypeople “visit at least 10 synagogues” across the religious spectrum. See what works and try to bring that home. We think that’s a pretty good idea. As Adam Bronfman and JOI’s Rabbi Olitzky wrote in a recent op-ed, we shouldn’t be competing. If we really want to see Judaism grow, “we should be asking questions of each other that will help us find and celebrate our common ground.”
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