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Standing Again at Sinai
Too many Conservative Jewish synagogues and institutions – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism included – have forgotten the passion, the joy, and even the accessibility of Shavuot.
Thu, 05/26/2011 - 20:00
Special to the Jewish Week

One of Judaism’s most profound ideas is the notion that each year at Shavuot each of us stands at Mount Sinai, poised to receive the Torah as if for the first time. The holiday, in other words, is an annual renewal of the relationship we Jews as a people experience with God through Torah.

It is incumbent upon us at Shavuot, then, to consider to what we are renewing ourselves. As a proud Conservative Jew, standing again at Sinai, I commit myself to a dynamic Judaism that is learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian and traditional.

There’s a problem, though. Too many Conservative Jewish synagogues and institutions – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism included – have forgotten the passion, the joy, and even the accessibility. They have been too bland for too long.

Conservative Jewish leaders have carried out the routine daily tasks of planning services and events, celebrating mitzvot and simchas, helping arrange shivas, and soliciting new members. These are important tasks, and if they are not done correctly our synagogues flail and disorder reigns, but they are not enough.

This is keva – the fixed tasks that define a Jewish life – and it is part of the balance every Jewish community needs.

But these kinds of tasks are not the reason why our kehillot – our synagogues, our sacred communities – exist, and the kehillot that go about their work in this routine way are missing something incredible.

Kehillot should exist to transform Jewish lives, to foster a community that empowers Jews to seek the presence of God, to find meaning and purpose in Torah and mitzvot, to fully engage with Israel and to be inspired by Judaism to improve the world. Going to shul should find our emotions affected and our passions engaged. Our hearts should beat faster. The more kavannah – the more intentionality – we bring to our kehillot, the more spiritually rewarding it will be.

From the bima to the boardroom, from preschool through adulthood, at day school, religious school, USY, Camp Ramah, the college campus and Torah discussions over coffee and the Shabbat table in between, what we as Conservative Jews do best is apply our ancient values and traditions to modern settings. We seek to benefit from the dynamism of today’s scholarship and inquiry by using our knowledge of Jewish texts and modern life to live Jewish values in this world.

When I stand at Sinai again this year, I will recommit myself to these values. And these are the values to which United Synagogue is committed as we work to strengthen and transform kehillot across the continent. As we stand at Sinai at this moment of renewal we commit to a mission to identify, create, nurture, and deliver the multifaceted support that will enable each of our kehillot to fulfill its own sacred mission.

We commit to creating a web of connections that brings each kehilla closer to other kehillot, and to the many centers of energy that comprise Conservative Judaism’s common sense of community, shared mission, and purpose.

Chag Shavuot sameach.

Rabbi Steven Wernick is CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism.

Conservative Judaism, Judaism, Shavuot

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Thank you for this piece. It is my deeply held belief that it is not intermarriage, or migration out of Jewish practice - to non-religiousness or other beliefs- that endangers Jewish continuity here and abroad. It is apathy. Among the stimulation generation, a Judaism that is wholly predictable and by rote will continue to hemorrhage the joyful adherents and practitioners that can and should infuse our daily and cyclic practice with vitality. That is not to say that we must keep up with the pace of the latest online gaming extravaganza. We do have to find ways to make each person's contribution meaningful and to speak to the multiple ways of learning and experiencing that exist in our society. If our beleaguered schools can be stumbling towards function for the multiple intelligences in the classroom, can we not find our way toward addressing the multiple intelligences in our kehillot? It was not until I found a community that spoke to the way I worshipped deep in my neshama, that Judaism became not just a thing I did on chagim because my parents and theirs and theirs had done so, but became a deeply held part of me. Now "Jewish" is so ingrained in my being that I can be in a variety of communities and touch that deep place, even when its not directly addressed by the local practice.

I don't have any easy answers to what this looks like, largely because I believe it looks different for each community and each person. But the difficulty of the task does not absolve us of it. Although we may not be able to complete the task, we are not exempted from starting and from working toward this piece of our tikkun olam.