Selling Synagogues Short
Tue, 04/27/2010

A young woman looks at me from her hospital bed and confesses that grappling with her illness has helped her understand what her bat mitzvah Torah portion — which concerned isolating people with certain afflictions from their community and welcoming them back in once health was restored — was really all about.

A venerable community member tells a newly ordained rabbi that her High Holiday sermon motivated him to approach someone from whom he had been estranged for years, to ask for forgiveness.
 
A bar mitzvah student publicly thanks his teacher for helping the words of his Torah portion and Haftorah become a song to him.
 
Scenes from an independent minyan (“The Real Crisis In American Judaism,” April 2)? While I’m sure that moments as profound as these occur there too, these are true stories from what many people are being led to assume is the least likely source, Jewishly speaking: the mainstream Jewish community. These moments and others like them are the best of my rabbinate, reminding me again and again why I chose to do this all-encompassing, often frustrating, breathtakingly nuanced work.
 
It’s because, like Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, I wanted to help move people towards claiming Judaism for themselves. In that way, I applaud Kaunfer’s call for meaningful engagement, more substantial learning and individual empowerment as we look to our collective Jewish future. In fact, I can’t think of a single rabbinic friend or colleague who serves in a large, established synagogue, as I do, who would argue with this call.
 
What I do take issue with is the image of such synagogues as everything that is wrong with Judaism, everything that all Jews are running from. I used to believe that. Two decades ago, as a searching college student stretching my Jewish wings and looking for new, vital definitions of community, I jokingly referred to the synagogue of my childhood as the “American Jewish Nightmare.”  Then a decade later, my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The supposedly staid, unimaginative and Jewishly unchallenged members of our community cooked for us, listened to us, wept with us, and did not let my family fall. And I can tell you, based on living it on a daily basis, acts of Jewishly informed kindness, wisdom and engagement happen within the walls of our synagogue every day.
 
Independent minyanim do much that is needed, vital, visionary and right. But they do not corner the market on these qualities any more than all large, mainstream synagogues are the unequivocal if buffoonish villains of our story, standing in for all that is stale, shortsighted, tired and watered down.
 
I join Rabbi Kaunfer in his passion for  “imagining a world in which every Jew has the potential to take hold of the gift of Jewish heritage (as the) first step to building it.” How much more powerful that work will be when we can engage in it without creating false and diminishing dichotomies that sell all our Jewish communities short.
 

 
Associate Rabbi,
 
Temple B’rith Kodesh
 
Rochester, N.Y.
 

 

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