I sometimes joke that my synagogue is not just Conservative with a capital C, but with all the other letters capitalized as well. It prides itself on the dozens of Conservative rabbis and JTS faculty members in the pews, on the number of its kids who attend Solomon Schechter and Camp Ramah, on its tight bond with the Masorti movement in Israel.
I guess that would make me a movement man, except I’ve always been catholic (small c) in my Jewish choices. I grew up in a Reform synagogue, joined a havura in my 20s, and then a Conservative shul after we started having kids. While living in Israel, we attended a Reform synagogue on Friday nights and an Orthodox shtiebl on Saturday mornings. Moving back to Riverdale, N.Y., we joined a Modern Orthodox synagogue with a high tolerance for halachic fence-sitters like us.
If I wasn’t concerned about the synagogue’s “brand,” I did look for a few key features: Was there a strong sense of community? Were services well attended? Was the davening spirited, serious, and participatory? Were the congregants Jewishly literate or eager to become so? Was the kiddush hearty? (I’m kidding [No I’m not].)
An academic might call me “post-denominational,” and others might call me wishy-washy. Rabbi Andy Bachman calls me the wave of the future. Bachman, a Reform rabbi who leads the booming Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, believes denominations are a holdover from the 19th century. At the national gathering of the Jewish Communal Service Association of North America, held earlier this month in Whippany, he addressed a roomful of Jewish professionals looking to solve the riddle of Jewish disengagement. “Don’t assume people have any interest in identifying themselves across the denominational spectrum,” Bachman told them.
Removing labels was just one of the tips he offered in a session called “Breaking Idols,” in which he described the assumptions he discarded in turning Beth Elohim into one of New York’s fastest-growing synagogues. Granted, its Park Slope neighborhood is at the epicenter of a demographic and cultural boom, with hipsters giving way to young families drawn by the inevitable gentrification. But if they come for the latte, will they stay for the leyning?
To make sure they do, Bachman jettisoned a number of communal conventions. First, he wants Jewish organizations to stop treating intermarrieds as a lost cause. Instead, many interfaith couples are ripe to make Jewish choices, he said, if institutions make them feel welcome. “Intermarriage is no longer ‘marrying out’ of the community,” said Bachman. He urged his audience to “engage people without regard to family make-up.” That includes sexual orientation.
While many of the new families aren’t interested in denominations, they are interested in politics and culture. Beth Elohim attracts them with top-notch cultural events, like readings by A-list authors. For those struggling with worship, cultural happenings allow them to connect with a Jewish institution on their own terms. “Initially, synagogues were beitei knesset—places of assembly—and not beitei midrash, places of prayer,” he said. “We positioned ourselves as a meeting place of the Jewish people.”
(This extends to the neighborhood’s Israelis, often regarded with ambivalence by American-born Jews. Beth Elohim’s Hebrew sing-alongs—capitalizing on a vogue for public sing-alongs back in Israel—draw 300 people on a Friday night.)
Younger Jews are also struggling with their feelings about Israel, and are looking for places that honor that struggle, not deny it. “The most open conversation about Israel is taking place in Israel,” said Bachman. Synagogues should emulate that, and “love people no matter what they believe.”
Like many rabbis, Bachman recognizes the pull of social action. He isn’t talking about canned food drives, however, but a deep engagement with disadvantaged neighbors. Beth Elohim houses a homeless shelter, and its members regularly chaperone children on visits to their incarcerated parents in upstate New York. It provided more than 60,000 meals to people hit hard by Superstorm Sandy.
As Bachman wound up his list of “broken idols,” a member of the audience asked how any of his suggestions relates to the traditional functions of a synagogue. Or to put it bluntly: “What’s Jewish about all this?”
Bachman answered the question by describing the informal discussions he holds with prospective families. He likes to ask a simple question: “What do you want?” And inevitably he gets the same list of answers: Community. Connection. Meaning. Israel. Opportunities to give back. Intellectual engagement. Soon he came to realize how their “wants” overlap with the words of Shimon HaTzaddik—that the world stands on three pillars: Torah, service to God, and acts of human kindness. “These are the values of Jewish life,” said Bachman. And when people come to associate these values with a synagogue, “they understand for themselves that these things are based in a valued tradition.”
I looked at the answers to Bachman’s simple question, and noted how they overlapped with my own criteria for joining a shul. Community. Connection. Intellectual engagement. Which doesn’t mean I would join just any synagogue that offered these possibilities; I still have a few bottom lines when it comes to ritual, and they often align with the Conservative movement.
But Bachman is urging us to imagine a Jewish world where those kinds of differences matter less and less, and there is only one bottom line: engaging Jews in their “valued tradition.”
Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor-in-Chief of the New Jersey Jewish News. Between columns you can read his writing at the JustASC blog.