First, please permit me to write in the first person. I could say that we have had a busy weekend going from one extraordinary Jewish experience to the other – and that would be accurate, because my husband went with me – but the implied we of that sentence sounds more grandiose than is good for me. (Or for us.)
Assuming that permission is granted, please let me tell you about my weekend.
From Friday night to motzei Shabbat, my husband and I joined 350 others at the Shabbaton at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.
You may say that the Conservative movement, to which Beth Sholom belongs, is in great trouble. United Synagogue, which speaks for its shuls, is ever-shrinking and seems incapable of attracting any but the most unfavorable publicity; Koach, its college program, was discontinued, and USY, its jewel, has gotten itself into trouble over a clumsily worded statement about interdating.
But none of that resonates in any way at Beth Sholom.
The Shabbaton offered three time slots for classes. Altogether, including sessions for kids, there were 48 separate meetings. Each one was taught by a shul member. And the wild profusion of riches overwhelmed. Andy Silow-Carroll on Jewish jokes. Rabbi Eliezer Diamond on irony in Talmud. Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu on the makeup of the Jewish community. Dr. Benjamin Sommer on the biblical origins of kabbalistic theory. Dr. Eitan Fishbane on mysticism. Rabbi Cathy Felix on Jews in the Civil War.
And that, by the way, was a random list of offerings.
Shabbat included performances by the children’s choir, Tziporei Shalom, as well as one by the adults, and a song they sang together. It ended with four personal stories, each extraordinarily moving, culminating in Irina Katz’s personal story of leaving the Soviet Union, going first to Israel and then to Fair Lawn. We all sat open-mouthed, barely breathing as she spoke.
Every shul claims to be warm and welcoming; that is, in fact, practically a mantra, voiced even by places that are frigidly off-putting. Beth Sholom truly is those things, and intellectually and spiritually compelling as well.
That was my first weekend experience.
Next came the panel at B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, which attracted many people from this side of the river to listen to second-wave Jewish feminists Judith Plaskow and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Orthodox feminist Elana Sztokman, Orthodox Rabba Sara Hurwitz, and Stern College’s Professor Joy Ladin, the first (and I assume the only) openly transgender woman to teach at an Orthodox institution, among many others.
It provided a wide-ranging exposure to ideas being widely discussed, debated, even fiercely argued in the Jewish world right now.
Last, we went to the dinner honoring the Sinai Schools. The Sinai program takes students with disabilities and places them in mainstream Jewish schools while educating them using programs tailor-made for each child. It is an extraordinary model, inclusive as appropriate and separate as necessary, done with love, care, and a huge amount of thought.
The expertly made videos shown throughout the presentation – which was mercifully short and therefore breathtakingly tasteful – were particularly moving because they managed the difficult balance between kindness and sugarcoating. The videos did not downplay the difficulties, but they gave hope.
Perhaps the most heartrending of all the wrenching videos was the story of Nathaniel Richman Cohen, who died in 2007, when he was 21. Nathaniel had suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a progressive disease that doomed him to an early death. His parents knew that, but they never gave up on him. They fought for him and loved him. Sinai Schools helped Nathaniel get meaning, purpose, friendship, community, and structure, just as it does for all its students. Just as any good school does.
The dinner drew together a huge range of people, mainly but not exclusively from the local Orthodox world. In fact, you could make the argument that the dinner itself modeled on a small scale the inclusion/separateness dynamic that makes the school so strong.
Three communities. Each different, each strong, each proud, each wonderful.