In a way, Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck is like the platonic ideal of a Conservative synagogue.
I know. I know. Over the top, right? It is, after all, a completely normal human institution, with politics and budget issues, cliques and outsiders, and disaffected grousers like any other normal human institution (or so I assume it must, because it is totally normal).
But the platonic ideal part comes in because unlike most Conservative synagogues — which tend to have a core of well-educated, deeply committed members, who may or may not give most of the money but certainly do most of the work, and then a lot of people who know and care less, often much less — Beth Sholom is made up almost entirely of well-educated, deeply committed members. It’s almost a direct pipeline to and from the Conservative movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which is practically on the other end of Route 4. (Okay, there’s the bridge and a short ride down the West Side Highway, but that barely counts.) Beth Sholom provides the Shabbat-observant Conservative community for which many Camp Ramah graduates pine but cannot find. Often they settle; Beth Sholom members don’t have to.
Every year, Beth Sholom holds a Shabbaton; from just before dusk on Friday until Havdalah on Saturday, the community gets together to talk, daven, talk, eat, talk, learn, talk, sing, and talk.
Last Shabbat was the Shabbaton, called “Torah and Its (Dis)contents.” It offered, among many other things, three class sessions, 22 classes in all, taught by 28 people, most of them JTS faculty, retired rabbis, or other Jewish professionals, and every single one of them a member of Congregation Beth Sholom.
As we have for many years, my husband and I spend Shabbat in Teaneck, at the Shabbaton, so we can experience the sense of community, comfort, intellectual excitement, and joy that it evokes.
We were two of 275 people who registered for courses.
The Shabbaton is not perfect, of course. There are six to eight choices at every session; almost inevitably there are two things that you want to go to almost equally. You choose, and then you second-guess yourself. And because the first session is right after Shabbat dinner and the second two are in the afternoon, prime nap time, people sometimes do nod off, snap to attention, and then fight their drooping eyelids and sense of shame for the rest of the talk. But those are small, inevitable matters.
There’s a lot of music; after Shabbat morning services the children’s choir, Tzipporei Shalom, made of first- through sixth-graders, sing, with intensity and pleasure; their leaders, Adina Avery-Grossman and Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan, guide them with evident love and then gesture to the congregation to join them. After lunch, the adult choir, Tavim, sings.
This year, I listened as Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, a brilliant teacher, explored the meaning of the concept of herut, freedom, in the Pesach Haggadah; friends raved about the scholar Dr. Eitan Fishman’s discussion of the Zohar, drawn from his latest book, “The Art of Mystical Narrative.” The next day, friends talked about Dr. Michael Popkin’s class called “Milton as Midrash.” I went to Rabbi Julia Andelman’s session focusing on women in the Talmud, and particularly on texts that are particularly relevant — and particularly painful — to us now. It’s always a fascinating and potentially upsetting subject, the position of women in the Talmud (basically supine), and the question of how to deal with it in any way other than as a sociologist from another planet always intrudes. Rabbi Andelman handled it wonderfully, with a mixture of acerbity, tact, and love.
In the last session, a panel of four Beth Sholom members discussed their trip to Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi and they tried to understand the changes made by the civil rights movement in their physical context, and of course to tie the major contributions made by Jews to that history. I listened as Dr. Stephen Garfinkle examined the biblical texts that place Moshe in his family — how did he relate to his parents, siblings, wife, children, in-laws? “Talk About Discontents,” the talk’s title told us. And Dr. Benjamin Sommer, who teaches Bible at JTS, offered a class called “The Gender of God in Ancient Israel.” He taught it in Hebrew. It attracted 27 people, he marveled.
The Shabbaton always ends with a single closing session, just before Havadalah. It’s the only session where a nonmember can teach. This year, the speaker was Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter of Teaneck, who is the university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University. He’s a major figure in the Orthodox world. He lives close to Beth Sholom, and he and the shul’s rabbi, Joel Pitkowsky, speak warmly and fondly about each other.
Although Rabbi Schacter’s own shul, Rinat Yisrael, is just blocks from Beth Sholom, and many people in each one know many people in the other, there are few overt connections between the two. Although both boast smart, educated, engaged members, the gulf between Beth Sholom’s Conservative world and Rinat’s Orthodoxy often seems unbridgeable (although once a year the two shuls, with much fanfare, study together on a Shabbat afternoon). So Rabbi Schacter’s decision to speak at Beth Sholom was a major big deal.
Beth Sholom members knew it. The sanctuary, where Rabbi Schacter spoke, was full. That’s a neat trick, late on an ice-cold Shabbat afternoon, for just about anyone.
Rabbi Schacter is a warm and engaging speaker, and the audience loved him.
His subject was “Can ‘Truth’ Be Compromised for the Sake of Peace?” and he did not shy away from the implications of the talk. He began by talking about how we all are “part of one big house, the house of the Jewish people,” he said, in an email exchange on Sunday. (My memory’s good, but it’s always good to check.)
Then, on Saturday afternoon, Rabbi Schacter moved on to discuss truth versus peace. What do we do when they conflict? It is sometimes necessary, sources say, to relinquish our hold on what we see as truth for the greater good that is peace. Shalom bayit, he said, or to be more heimish, shalom bayis, peace in the refuge that is home. Inherent in his talk was the understanding that we might hold onto ideas of truth that we see as objective truth but in fact are just our truth.
“One’s insistence on their ‘truth’ may result in denigrating and disrespecting those who do not share that definition of ‘truth’ but that needs to be rejected,” he wrote on Sunday. “‘Peace’ is a very important value.”
One question still nagged at me. At this point in American history, when we are lied to so often and so bald-facedly by the country’s leader and his advisors and supporters, is it wise to downgrade the value of truth? Is doing that just giving in to the liars who try to talk us into believing that there can be both facts and other, “alternative facts”?
No, Rabbi Schacter wrote. “God forbid. Lying is unacceptable. Period. Totally. For me the opposite of me insisting on my ‘truth’ is not lying but recognizing that you, too, have your understanding of what you consider to be your ‘truth.’”
I left the talk knowing that Rabbi Schacter’s world sounds like a good one to live in.
And I left the Shabbaton knowing that Beth Sholom is an extraordinary shul.