A zeitgeist isn’t necessarily a simple thing.
It’s the spirit of the times, yes, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the spirit goes only in one direction. Sometimes its winds blow things down, and sometimes they blow things together. Sometimes that recombination brings new growth.
Rabbi Brian Leiken is a Reform rabbi, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion-ordained leader of Temple Beth Sholom. Rabbi Paul Kurland’s Conservative ordination comes from the Jewish Theological Seminary, his movement’s flagship institution; he heads the Nanuet Jewish Center. Both synagogues are in New City; in fact, they’re less than three miles apart.
The two rabbis’ congregants know each other, and the same landmarks figure in their lives. But until a few years ago, although the two rabbis liked what little they saw of each other through meetings of the Rockland Board of Rabbis, that was the end of it.
Now, Rabbi Kurland and Rabbi Leiken are planning on combining their synagogues in a new model that retains their ability to lead separately according to the practices and theology of their separate movements, but also to join in ways that not only allow them the practical benefits of economies of scale but also gives them the intangible assets of exposure to new people, new points of view, new ideas, and therefore new energy and life.
The background — the most obvious part of the zeitgeist — is that shifting demographics, increasing intermarriage, and decreasing interest in the post-World-War-II models of suburban Jewish life have eaten away at the comfortable synagogue life that lasted for half a century at least. As the famous 2013 Pew Research Center survey showed, Jews are leaving organized Jewish life in droves. (As are millennials in general; Jews are like everyone else in that way.)
Even as there are generalized truths, each place has its own specific truths that make it unique. Rockland County’s Jewish life is unusual because of the large and growing charedi and chasidic groups that extend their eruvin and thus their geographical boundaries, have large families, and flourish, but have little to do with the rest of the Jewish community. “The demographics are changing enormously all over the country, but particularly since the Schechter school in Rockland closed” — that was the Reuben Gittelman Day School, shuttered in 2012 — “strongly committed Jewish families who want to raise their children in a day school that is not Orthodox are not attracted to Rockland,” Rabbi Kurland said. “It is particularly hard for Conservative families. The ultra-Orthodox community is growing so quickly that they fear that if they move here, by the time their children are teenagers the whole neighborhood would be ultra-Orthodox.” That means that the non-Orthodox community seems to shrink even more quickly in Rockland than it does in other places.
Rockland also is a fairly small place. “We drive by each others’ buildings all the time,” Rabbi Leiken said. “But that intimacy and closeness also means that there is more competition, and that has bred mistrust in some parts of the community. Over the years, there have been attempts to merge congregations, because in truth the synagogues in the county matched the needs of the county in the 1970s. So congregations talk about it” — and some have merged successfully — “but usually it doesn’t happen, because neither community wants to give up its identity.” The result of those failed talks not infrequently are “synagogues that have closed their doors,” he said.
But then there’s the other part of the zeitgeist — the search for spirituality and meaning that drives many Americans, particularly but not only young ones, including many Jews, to religious experiences that fulfill them. Synagogues can provide those experiences, if only they can figure out how.
The goad that prodded Rabbi Leiken and Rabbi Kurland to acknowledge the community’s problems and desires and devise a new way forward came about four years ago when Gary Seipser, the then-new CEO of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland, took a delegation of lay and rabbinic leaders to Israel. It was part of his ongoing community weaving initiative, a way of looking at communal life that sees the web that connects organizations as being as vital as each separate organization; that sees the whole as even more valuable than the sum of its parts because it also counts the web when it does its calculations.
Rabbis Kurland and Leiken are not talking about a merger, they both say; mergers usually are intra rather intermovement, and they rarely are entirely equal. The model they are building is a different, less usual one.
Rabbi Leiken, who has been at Beth Sholom since 2012, “grew up in Cleveland, and I truly found my Jewish identity through the JCC and JCC camps,” he said. “My father was the president of the JCC, and my mother taught nursery school there. I grew up in the Conservative movement, but I was always meeting people from different Jewish denominations and backgrounds, some affiliated, many not, and I had always appreciated the diversity of Jewish practice that I saw at the JCC.” He chose to become ordained in the Reform movement, “but I heard from my cantor that there’s a synagogue in Newburgh that combines Reform and Conservative, two that came together.” He’s talking about Temple Beth Jacob, part of Orange County’s Kol Yisrael.
“My cantor, Anna Zhar, is from there, and she talked about it in ways that made it sound like a success because it protected both identities but allowed there to be a new awareness of the diversity of Jewish practice, and of Jews. It strengthens both communities.”
Rabbi Kurland is a birthright Conservative Jew. “I went to USY and Camp Ramah and then to JTS,” he said. But he took a job as an educator in the 1990s, when his children were young, and it was “at a shul in Tarrytown,” he said. It was Temple Beth Abraham, which, according to its website, “offers worship services in both the Reform and Conservative traditions,” in two separate sanctuaries, and has done so since 1945.
He’s thought a great deal about something he heard Dennis Prager say about authentic Judaism. “There’s no such thing as authentic Judaism,” Rabbi Kurland paraphrased. “There are only authentic Jews.
“In Tarrytown, I saw authentic Jews who were not Conservative,” he continued. “It was authentic, and it was holy. Having that experience allows me to see and respect all sorts of Jews.
“I remember being a youth group adviser in the 70s. We would never do a program with the Reform group, because they were Reform. The times, they are a-changin…”
So, if you listen to the similarities and differences in their stories, Rabbi Leiken suggested, “You can hear the bashert.”
The two rabbis and their lay leaders decided that it would make sense to try to work together. “We realized that we both had an awareness of each other’s denomination and background.”
This is not a merger, they both stressed; instead, it’s the creation of something new, based on a deep respect and understanding of the past, and the desire to keep parts of it intact, while creating something else brand new.
They also stressed that they are planning this partnership unusually. “Usually the clergy are put to the side,” Rabbi Leiken said. “They are not part of the decision-making.” Often, that’s because they’re part of the problem the board must solve. If two synagogues are merging, which rabbi will stay and which will go? Or, if one synagogue is subsuming the other, it’s clear which one will go, so why deal with that before you have to?
“Another issue is that boards have to spend so much time dealing with finances that religion is just set aside,” Rabbi Kurland said. “If the number one interest is financial, they just don’t think about vision.
“We are making sure that the whole process is guided by vision.”
Once you look at it from that angle, you see parts of it differently. “It sometimes can be frustrating for congregants to have to say that we chose one synagogue over another,” Rabbi Kurland said. “You have to pick Reform or Conservative, because usually you join only one. Not many families choose to join two. This will allow people to walk in under the same roof and have a wide spectrum of religious experiences to choose from.
“We know that our average congregant doesn’t really buy into the theologies of the Reform or Conservative movements 100 percent. They are looking for meaningful experiences.”
That’s not to say that finances don’t matter, they both said. “Ein kemach, ein Torah” — that’s Pirkei Avot’s pithy statement of a basic truth — “no flour, no Torah.”
“We understand that. We know that a synagogue has to pay its bills — and it has to pay its rabbi!” Rabbi Kurland said. “But sometimes so much energy is placed on it.” He recalled finding an exit interview with a disgruntled former member, who was quoted as having said “it felt as if they were worshipping the almighty dollar, not the Almighty.”
So they plan to work together to build a new paradigm, which “gives people real Jewish meaning,” he said. It will address both spiritual and practical concerns, and it will demand the informed consent of all the stakeholders.
“It will work only if we get the lay leadership on board, and let them know that they are part of the spiritual vibrancy of the synagogue,” Rabbi Leiken said. “That has always been the challenge.”
The most likely plan is to have both congregations meet in one building, to sell the other building, and to use some of the proceeds to enlarge the one they’re keeping. Which building would stay, and which would go? “The board is doing due diligence,” Rabbi Leiken said. “We have explored all possibilities,” Rabbi Kurland added. “We are leaning in one direction.” Once the process is complete, the conclusion will be made public.
“Under the one roof, there still will be a Conservative congregation and a separate Reform congregation, and they will function in the way they always have functioned, especially in terms of religious services,” he continued.
Because the Reform movement’s main Shabbat service is on Friday night, and the Conservative movement focuses on Saturday morning, for example, it shouldn’t be hard to have the Reform service in the main sanctuary on Friday nights while the Conservative group meets in the (to-be-enlarged) chapel. They’ll switch the next morning.
As for children’s programming, “the idea, based on the models we have looked at so far, is that there will be one nursery school and religious school, and the religious school at some point will have two tracks,” one for students from Conservative families, the other for the children of Reform families, the rabbis said. Students would learn how to pray in their own movement’s way, and also they’d learn the basic etiquette of the other; details like when you say the second line of the Shema (in a Reform temple!) and when you don’t (in a Conservative synagogue!). Adult education and speakers and other programming will not be divided along movement lines.
Beth Sholom uses the pay-what-you-think-you-should (not the hard-to-live-on pay-what-you-want) model. Nanuet does not. That will change. Most likely, all members will pay dues to the same combined institution.
The goal is to have a new name, shared by the members of both old synagogues and the new members yet to come.
The groups will retain their memberships in their movements’ synagogue organizations, so the new shul will be a member of both the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “It is my belief that memberships in the movements are vital,” Rabbi Kurland said. In fact, he added, leaders from United Synagogue’s Metny office — that’s the movement’s Metropolitan New York region — “came and shared what they know about other places that have done things similar to what we are doing,” he added. And that’s new. “In the 1970s, there is no way that they would have approved.”
The two rabbis also look forward to being able to work together, co-equal religious leaders in one divided but whole institution. “It can be lonely being a rabbi or clergy member,” Rabbi Leiken said. “This gives us the chance to have a partnership.”
They want this to happen soon; both their boards will vote on the proposals by the end of this summer. “Our goal is to have this done in September of 2020,” Rabbi Kurland said.
That way, they can head into the new year of 5781, less than a year and a half from now, as one separate but united community. A new paradigm for a new year.