Building bridges, tearing down walls

Building bridges, tearing down walls

At Teaneck shul's Shabbaton, teachers learn and students teach

There is a great deal to say about the Shabbaton that Congregation Beth Sholom of Teaneck held last week – it was warm, welcoming, filled with the voices of children singing in unison and adults in harmony, a prime example of a Conservative movement organization not just surviving but thriving. But the main thing that struck me was how very smart it was.

Let me start with an explanation. The Jewish Standard does not cover events on Shabbat. We honor the sanctity of the day and our writers’ freedom to mark it as they choose, free from the demands of work. But I have gone to two Beth Sholom Shabbatonim so far, not as a writer but as a person, and I cannot resist the need to tell the story, so I called participants on Monday. All quotes come from those telephone conversations.

So – back to the Shabbaton.

To begin with, it is huge. More than 250 people signed up for Friday night dinner, and more than 300 for lunch the next day; more than 300 registered for sessions. It is one of the shul’s most popular annual programs.

Beth Sholom is unusual in that it has more than 30 rabbis on its membership rolls – by many counts more than 35 of them – as well as many other Jewish professionals and academics. “You have a lot of people who are knowledgeable on many levels Jewishly,” its rabbi, Joel Pitkowsky, said. “Not only text-based knowledge, but also about the Jewish world.”

The Shabbaton takes advantage of those Jewish professionals. All the teaching is done by members. The Shabbaton includes three learning sessions, as well as the panel discussion at its end; there are 19 options for those sessions, as well as a simultaneous children’s track. The obvious cliché to apply here is an embarrassment of riches. To anyone who loves Jewish learning, it is a huge, colorful, savory, aromatic buffet of glorious treats; you are given a small plate and can take only what can fill it, and you have only one chance at the line. You know that you will leave behind more wonder than you can grab for yourself; to be at the Shabbaton is to know that and accept it.

The striking part of the classes, though, is the level at which they are taught. The assumption is that everyone there is smart and well-educated, both Jewishly and generally. That seems to pay off; when classes end, the kind of intellectual discussion that it’s not always easy to find anywhere is everywhere. Everyone seems to be talking ideas.

This year’s theme was Bridges and Walls. “It was a big year for Women of the Wall,” education committee chair Dr. Elaine Cohen said. “There are a lot of new partnerships and collaborations in the Jewish world – those are bridges. This is a time when there are so many divisions in Jewish life, and we wanted to focus on the ways we can build bridges. That’s building community.” Teachers must have their courses approved, but they are free to use the theme as literally or as figuratively as they choose.

The Shabbaton “reflects a community of learners, where the teachers also learn, and the learners teach,” Andrew Silow-Carroll, the editor of Metrowest’s New Jersey Jewish News, said. “There is so much wisdom and talent in the pews.

“I can take a class from Steve Garfinkel” -that’s Rabbi Stephen Garfinkel, assistant provost and assistant professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary – “one of the top Talmud teachers in the country, and then when I look, there he is in my class, which is flattering and intimidating at the same time. And then I look again and see that the person asking the question is Ben Sommer.” Dr. Benjamin Sommer is a professor of Bible at JTS.

“Honestly, to have a class on this level, normally you’d have to pay for it.”

Adina Avery-Grossman, one of the leaders of the children’s chorus, Tzipporei Shalom, loves the Shabbaton – but not as much for the classes as for the music.

“This is a shul that connects spiritually through music,” she said.

“Speaking as someone who is less of a serious learner than other people, this shul provides me, and people like me, who are more moved by music and arts, ways to connect that are as legitimate as studying.”

There are three choral groups that sing at the Shabbaton – and at the shul – and she loves each of them. Tzipporei Shalom, of course, is Ms. Avery-Grossman’s baby. (A shared baby – she and Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan created and lead it together.) The chorus is for first- through eighth-graders. (When they’ve aged out, high-schoolers can go on to HaZamir, the national teen chorus, which happens to meet at Beth Sholom.) When you first see the singers, you’re struck by their cuteness; when they open their mouths, you forget that. They sing in serious, lovely, earnest, bell-clear unison. They melt hearts.

The Russian chorus’s members are émigrés; they sing the songs of their history. “They’re passionate, and they have access to a repertoire that none of the rest of us could possibly have,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “They sing in Russian, in Yiddish, and in Hebrew. The first Shabbaton I went to, 19 years ago, they had me at ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.’ They sang it in deep, thick Russian accents. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

The third choir, Tavim, is the adult a cappella group. (On Shabbat, all the music is a cappella.)

At the Shabbaton, the Russian chorus sang after dinner, Tzippporei Shalom after shul on Shabbat morning, and Tavim after lunch.

On Friday night, I went to the class taught by Rabbi Dr. Michael Chernick. Talk about bridges – he spans much of the Jewish world all by himself. A Yeshiva University-ordained rabbi and identifying Orthodox Jew, he is a professor of Jewish jurisprudence and social justice at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan.

He and his wife, the artist Miriam Stern, are associate – and very active – members of Congregation Beth Sholom.

He addressed the question of bridges and walls in the Jewish community head on.

“Throughout the ages, Jews started building walls,” he said. “They built more walls than bridges – and a whole lot hasn’t changed.”

It’s different in smaller Jewish communities, where survival demands solidarity, he added, but “it seems to me that whenever Jews have the ability to make Shabbes for themselves – and nobody else – they tend to do so.

“But that hasn’t always been bad. Creative tensions come out of people taking different stances on issues, and sometimes good things have come out of it. Something that has come out of the tension between the denominations is the building of interesting creative bridges.

“For example, there has been a lot of wonderful liturgical music that comes from the Reform movement and makes its way into Conservative synagogues, although not Orthodox ones. And conversely, music that has become very popular in Orthodox circles has made a big dent in the musical practices of Conservative and Reform services – Carlebach, chasidic music. So despite the fact that there might be a lot of feuding and fighting between the movements, when it comes to improving the spiritual quality of davening, they are ready to cross lines.”

By the end of Shabbat, a panel that looked at the future of the Conservative movement still drew about 150 listeners. “People’s stamina is amazing,” Rabbi Noam Marans, one of the panelists, said. “Some people are making a distinction between Conservative Judaism as a set of beliefs and ideology and the Conservative movement’s institutions,” Rabbi Pitkowsky added, looking back at that discussion. “What does it mean if, as it seems, the ideology is a success but the institutions aren’t doing so well?

“It’s certainly going to be an ongoing challenge for our movement to figure out where we fit in, and who we are. I think that there are tremendous successes in our movement, and we have to continue working very hard to retool the institution to fit our current reality.”

Note to anyone investigating the Conservative movement’s successes: Take a look at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

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