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New Conservative machzor tries for accessibility, inspiration

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This page of the new Lev Shalem machzor displays the traditional Al Chet list of sins juxtaposed with an alternative meditation on sins against the earth penned by Jewish Theological Seminary Dean Daniel Nevins.

This Rosh HaShanah, worshippers in Conservative congregations across North America will find themselves using a new machzor.

More than 150,000 copies of the High Holidays prayer book, Mahzor Lev Shalem, have been pre-sold, representing orders from nearly 130 of some 650 affiliated congregations.

The strong interest might stem from “dissatisfaction with all previous machzors,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley, Calif., a member of the committee that produced the prayer book.

Lev Shalem in one sense is a response to two oft-heard criticisms of the Conservative movement: that it is too elitist and too intellectual.

For starters, the entire Hebrew text is translated into English, and parts that might be said aloud are transliterated to allow those without Hebrew knowledge to participate in group call and response.

“It’s a great expression of the tremendous desire of the Conservative rabbinate to share the tradition we are so steeped in with people wherever they are, and not to wait for them to become scholars to appreciate it,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative body that produced the book.

For experienced worshippers who want a Hebrew text unencumbered by directions indicating where one should stand and sit, subtle signals like the icon of a bowing man offer what Conservative leaders hope will be a rich, free-flowing davening experience.

Commentary and exposition fills the right side of each double-page spread. The left side is for poems, meditations, and alternative readings.

Ten rabbis and cantors spent 12 years putting together the machzor, meeting twice a month for more than a decade.

Each of 10 regular contributors took one or two assignments, and the entire group read and commented on one another’s work. Kelman wrote the commentaries for the evening and morning Sh’ma and its blessings, for example, while Rabbi Leonard Gordon of the Germantown Jewish Centre outside Philadelphia wrote the commentary for Kol Nidrei and the Torah and Haftarah readings.

The groups also translated the Hebrew text into English and read it aloud to make sure it flowed, so those who cannot “feel” the meaning of the Hebrew can use the English for prayer.

Some who saw early versions of the machzor, which was tested in six congregations, say it answers a need articulated by Conservative laypeople as well as clergy.

“There is a cadre of congregants that is really looking for spiritual connection,” said one Conservative rabbi, Geoffrey Haber of Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Chestnut Hill, Mass., in a YouTube video that is being used in an unusual PR campaign to promote the prayer book. “Oftentimes our movement can be focused on the intellectual rather than the spiritual, and people are really thirsting for that. I think this machzor speaks to that.”

Along with the content modifications, Lev Shalem is aesthetically pleasing. It weighs less than two pounds, is printed on fine paper, and uses a typeface that has been specially designed and copyrighted.

Like the new daily and Shabbat prayer book released concurrently by the Israeli Masorti movement (see jstandard.com), Lev Shalem is being presented as a prayer book for all Jews rather than as a Conservative text.

“We’ve got everyone from [the late Israeli poet] Yehuda Amichai to the Lubavitcher rebbe,” said committee chair Rabbi Edward Feld of Northampton, Mass., senior editor of the project. “It does not represent any single theological perspective.”

Feld spent weeks poring through the rare book room at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, mining more than 60 old prayer books for long-forgotten piyyutim, or liturgical poems, to include along with modern meditations.

On one page is an 11th-century poem on the new year by Joseph Ibn Abitur of Spain. On another is “For the Sin of Destroying God’s Creation,” JTS Dean Daniel Nevins’ environmentally sensitive version of the Al-Chet, the traditional confessional list of sins recited during Yom Kippur services.

The way the texts are put together is in keeping with Conservative values, Feld said.

“We include myriad Jewish voices, allowing them to be in conversation with each other,” Feld said. “In that sense it’s a deeply Conservative text because the movement at its best is about the conversations that can take place between tradition and a 21st-century sensibility.”

The entire traditional text is included, with a few modifications. The matriarchs are included as an option on the same page as the traditional Amidah prayer that refers only to the patriarchs. Kelman says that’s progress from the most recent Conservative prayer book, which relegates the matriarchs to a separate page.

The Conservative leadership hopes the new machzor will help worshippers deepen their synagogue experience. Those who produced it, however, have less lofty expectations of their first encounter with the book from the other side of the pulpit.

“In all likelihood,” Kelman said, “I’ll be looking for mistakes.”

JTA

 
 

U.S. rabbis offer rare rebuke of Israeli edict

An edict signed by dozens of Israeli rabbis barring the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews in Israel has led to a rare consensus among American rabbis, who have issued a nearly unanimous condemnation of the ban.

Statements by the American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American haredi Orthodox umbrella group, all denounce the Israeli rabbis’ directive. So does an online petition signed by more than 900 rabbis, most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations.

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says that the Israeli rabbis’ statement “couldn’t be left on the record without a response.”

Controversial proclamations by Israeli rabbis are not unheard of, but this sort of broad American rabbinic response is rare. Now it appears that the collective response has reached a tipping point — so many American rabbis have spoken against the edict that others may feel compelled to concur.

“The halachic issues here are complex,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largely Modern Orthodox rabbinic group. “But a blanket statement that singles out a certain population and says ‘don’t rent to them; don’t sell to them’ in such a blanket fashion is something that struck a very raw nerve.”

The Israeli letter was drafted in support of an effort by the chief rabbi of Safed to bar home rentals to Arabs. Tensions have run high in recent months between haredi Orthodox and Arab students in that northern Israeli city.

Exactly how many rabbis signed the edict is unclear. Some right-wing Israeli news outlets reported that the letter had 300 signatories, while other news organizations pegged the number at fewer than 100.

Regardless, the edict drew attention in the Israeli and international media because dozens of those who signed it were municipal rabbis employed by the government.

Israel’s leading Lithuanian haredi leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, refused to sign the letter, as did, according to one report, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the letter.

In America, rabbinic opposition to the letter came quickly. An online petition for rabbis posted by the New Israel Fund on Dec. 10 had received 914 signatures by Dec. 15.

“Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel,” the NIF statement read. “They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing.”

Signatories of the NIF petition included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Most signatories appeared to be members of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, with a few notable exceptions including prominent New York, liberal-leaning Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school and Marc Angel of Cong. Shearith Israel.

Some Orthodox rabbis said the sponsorship of the petition by the NIF, which is identified with left-wing causes, may have discouraged the participation of rabbis who otherwise might have agreed with the petition’s sentiment.

The RCA’s statement, released Dec. 14, criticized the Israeli rabbis’ letter in somewhat gentler terms.

“We are surely sympathetic to the impulse to protect a Jewish community in the face of intermarriage, communal conflict, or unsafe neighborhoods,” the statement read. “It is our view that in spite of the concerns of the authors of the statement, it is wrong and unacceptable to advocate blanket exclusionary policies directed against minorities of other faiths or ethnic groups.”

Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said the RCA felt compelled to speak because, unlike an off-the-cuff comment by Yosef, who is known for making provocative remarks, the Israeli rabbis’ edict was a formal statement of Jewish law.

“That is what drew our attention — that once such a formal statement is issued, we felt that it couldn’t be left on the record without a response,” he said.

“It’s always easy to criticize those with whom you fundamentally disagree,” he told The Jewish Standard. “It takes greater courage … to publicly differ when someone from your own camp steps over the line. The rabbis who signed the document are zionist Orthodox rabbis with whom the members of the Rabbinical Council of America share great affinity on so many issues. Precisely because of that affinity, I am proud that the Rabbinical Council of America was willing to speak up on this matter.”

The RCA’s statement came hours after the posting of a translated version of a letter opposing the edict written by prominent centrist Orthodox Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an American living in Israel, to a widely read Orthodox blog. Some observers saw the RCA’s response as a gambit to protect the group from recriminations for not speaking out on the issue.

“They came up with it because they had no choice, because everyone else was already speaking out and they felt, ‘We better say something so people don’t think we’re in favor of this,’” said Angel, a former president of the RCA and a frequent critic of the group.

“They’re facing the reality, political realities, that this is not an issue that you want to have your name stamped on,” Mendy Ganchrow, former president of the Orthodox Union and a retired executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, said of the RCA.

In an e-mail, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the American haredi Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, said his organization concurred with Elyashiv and Yosef.

“The rabbis who signed the letter [banning the rentals] were simply misguided,” Shafran wrote.

Though the mainstream American rabbinical associations appear to oppose the Israeli rabbis’ letter, at least one prominent Orthodox rabbi was sympathetic.

“I think it’s part of a concern — and I believe a rightful one — that there’s a war going on, and we’re trying our best to maintain normalcy,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a major rabbinic arbiter.

The Forward

The Jewish Standard contributed to this report. For an opinion piece by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of the Depts. of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, go to The Rental Controversy and Halakhic Decision-Making.

 
 

At Conservative confab, it’s about the future

Listening to Conservative rabbis talk about their movement is like witnessing an intervention.

They talk of “saving” Conservative Judaism — and sometimes they blame the parents when things go wrong.

“Reform rabbis speak positively about their movement and less positively about their synagogue, while Conservative rabbis speak positively about their synagogue and less positively about their movement,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., paraphrasing a refrain he says he has heard often from Reform and Conservative colleagues.

News Analysis

Weinblatt was one of nearly 300 Conservative rabbis who came to Las Vegas this week for the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic group. On the agenda, as usual, was the future of Conservative Judaism — what it is, where it’s headed, and how rabbis can get that message out to the world.

“The Conservative movement belongs to us, and we’ll either fix it or bury it,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., during a panel Monday on what Conservative Judaism will look like in 20 years. “We’re the rabbis. We need to get together, stop the bulls—t, and get it done, or we’ll become a shrinking, dwindling, heteronomous movement with very little to say.”

At this gathering, there was little of the grumbling by key Conservative synagogue leaders that reportedly prompted the development and release last month of a new strategic plan to restructure the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Instead, there was energy, even a little bravado, at the Rabbinical Assembly conference, and criticism was tempered by concern for the Conservative movement’s future.

“We need a new financial model,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue and the man in charge of overseeing the restructuring of the congregational umbrella group. “Less edifice and more personnel. Multiple minyanim in the same building — the Hillel model.”

What will the new strategic plan, a year and a half in the making, mean to members of Conservative congregations? Not much, said Wernick — at least, not for a while. “It’s navigational. The implementation plan — how do we get there — is what we’re working on now.”

At any rate, institutions do not a movement make, rabbis at this convention reiterated. That’s particularly the case in the Conservative movement, whose three main institutions — the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, and the United Synagogue — are modeled on the separation of powers within the U.S. government rather than on anyone’s notion of the most effective way to deliver religious services and build Jewish community. Those are two of the main interests on rabbis’ minds today.

“The Conservative movement is not these institutions,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “These institutions are more than 100 years old and in urgent need of rethinking.”

The ideas and values of Conservative Judaism, on the other hand, are as relevant and compelling today as ever, she said.

“People get hung up on the Conservative institutions — are they good or bad. That’s beside the point,” she said. “They’re only good or bad in terms of how they help us get out our message of building a sustainable, joyful community that finds meaning in Jewish tradition and is committed to making the world a better place.”

The convention featured formal discussions among the United Synagogue leadership and key figures among a group of about 50 rabbis who have been pushing for completely overhauling United Synagogue. They call themselves Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism. Those discussions took place behind closed doors, but their message is no secret, nor is the rabbis’ dissatisfaction with the new strategic plan.

“The clock has started moving faster, and it’s up to the chancellor and the R.A. to determine the fate of the North American Conservative movement,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., a leader of Hayom. Creditor helped craft the strategic plan, which, he says, “left some of the most dissatisfied communities dissatisfied,” despite his and his colleagues’ best efforts.

Some of the Hayom congregations, including Netivot Shalom, have refused to pay the full dues assessed them by the United Synagogue. Those dues can run upward of $80,000 a year for the largest shuls. It doesn’t pay, said one rabbi who preferred to remain anonymous, “because we don’t get anything for that money.”

That’s what Wernick is trying to deal with by rebuilding his board, bringing together educators, rabbis, and lay leaders in a new leadership development program, and re-imagining the old synagogue model of dues-paying membership. The changes won’t come quickly or easily, he said.

But this was a rabbinic conference, not a United Synagogue gathering, which meant less interest in strategic plans and more intellectualizing about what Conservative Judaism is supposed to be — and how its rabbis can best serve their congregations.

“I’m not sure the organizational structure matters to people in my pews,” said Rabbi Howard Lifshitz of Cong. Beth Judea in Long Grove, Ill. “The institutions of the Conservative movement are unknown to them. Most people who come into my synagogue want to know how their participation will touch them, what it will add to their lives.”

At Monday’s morning plenary, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Ansche Chesed in Manhattan locked horns with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles over solutions to the movement’s malaise.

Kalmanofsky championed a Judaism of purpose and complexity, one that moves beyond the 20th-century emphasis on helping Jews fit into American society and concentrates instead on helping them “find moral and spiritual purpose” — a “passionate authenticity” that will “seed, nurture, and harvest opportunities for people to find depth.”

Wolpe argued, on the other hand, for a coherent ideology that “could be put on a bumper sticker,” to let Jews know what the movement stands for.

“Intellectual complexity is not the way to bring people into your synagogue,” he said. “You have to pray to something expressible. You can’t beseech a nuance.”

While that big picture conversation was going on in the main plenary, rabbis of congregations outside the major metropolitan centers said that although they found the discussion fascinating, those weren’t their day-to-day concerns.

“I’m not that much into the politics,” said Rabbi Michael Werbow of Cong. Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh. “Our shul is 80,000 square feet. The sanctuary seats 1,800, and we get maybe 100 people on Shabbat.”

With a $150,000 deficit and less than one-quarter of his membership paying full dues, Werbow says the future of his synagogue doesn’t depend on how the movement is reorganized.

“Our deficit isn’t going away if we don’t pay our dues to the United Synagogue,” he said.

“I don’t think the work I’m doing is ‘saving’ the movement,” added Ita Paskind, assistant rabbi of Cong. Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Va. “In my daily work I try to touch Jews and help them connect to their tradition. I get a fair amount of questions about what the movement says about certain things, but that’s an opportunity for me to explain what Judaism says about it.”

Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the Jewish Community Center of Paramus told The Jewish Standard in an e-mail from the convention, “For all the problems and issues that face Conservative Judaism, our message remains compelling and valuable. I support the efforts of my friends and colleagues to ensure that our movement remains a vital and leading force in American Judaism in the 21st century. A Judaism that is traditional in its approach to law and observance yet not afraid to confront modernity will ultimately resonate with American Jews.”

JTA Wire Service/Jewish Standard

 
 
 
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