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What’s Conservative? What’s Reform?

Joint program will help unite New City congregations

Rabbis Brian Leiken, left, of Temple Beth Sholom and Paul Kurland of the Nanuet Hebrew Center are working to align their shuls under one roof.
Rabbis Brian Leiken, left, of Temple Beth Sholom and Paul Kurland of the Nanuet Hebrew Center are working to align their shuls under one roof.

Over the last 10 months, the Nanuet Hebrew Center and Temple Beth Sholom, both in New City, have been working on programs that will draw the two synagogues closer together in advance of their physical partnership.

Physical, because while the two congregations are looking to move in together, they are working toward “a new model that retains their ability to lead separately according to the practices and theology of their separate movements,” we wrote in a story abut the partnership, “Old friends, new paradigms,” on June 12 last year.

To clarify exactly what those non-physical differences are, on January 29 the two congregations will present what they call an evening of meaningful adult education. The program, called Understanding Reform and Conservative Judaism, will include two sessions.

The first, taught by Rabbi Brian Leiken of Beth Sholom, will focus on the history of the two movements, exploring the historical development of the Reform and Conservative movements. “I teach everything, but my love is history,” Rabbi Leiken said. “I love the ways in which history repeats itself, and how lessons from history are so relevant to our time today.”

Rabbi Leiken is spending a lot of time now studying 19th- and 20th-century Poland. “It was very fluid as far as different kinds of Jews,” he said. “The very Orthodox community was in contact with the more secular Jews, and there was more fluidity to the ways they spoke to one another.

“I was reading and thinking, how unfortunate that we in the Jewish world here isolate ourselves from each other, putting up walls and silos.” When we only associate with those who are exactly like us, he added, “what we lose is the ability to see one another and become enriched by it.”

Rabbi Paul Kurland of the Nanuet Hebrew Center will teach the second session. It will focus on halacha; specifically, on the responsa and decisions the two movements have made. “Halacha still has a voice in the Reform movement and there are still responsa, but in Conservative Judaism, it has more of a veto,” Rabbi Kurland said.

“We want people to see what we have in common and how we differ, to give them a more solid foundation about who each of us are, so the Reform world won’t be afraid of us, and the Conservative world won’t be afraid of them,” he continued. That’s because most people in the two congregations are “100 percent behind this exciting project”; but still, he knows, “there are those who are afraid the other movement is contagious.”

Rabbi Leiken is delighted by the idea of the new partnership. “Our aim is not to develop one new identity but to allow our current identities to partner and co-exist,” he said. “It’s going really well. There is an excitement about exposing people to the varieties of Jewish practices and beliefs that exist in our community. Being together in one community allows us to better understand one another’s differences and appreciate those differences.”

According to Rabbi Kurland, at first the planners hoped that the new partnership would be accomplished by the fall, but they now accept the fact that some aspects of the project will be realized by then and others will not. “To do due diligence, we realize that we can’t quickly put the whole thing together,” he said. “We’re taking it step by step to do it right. It will take longer, but it will get done.”

The demographic realities of Rockland County, with its growing Orthodox population, dictate that non-Orthodox synagogues must find ways to function more effectively. Other non-Orthodox congregations in the area are “looking to the future and knowing that we need a new paradigm,” Rabbi Kurland said. “They’re curious as to what we are doing,” either looking to do something similar themselves or “trying to figure out if they should be part of our venture.”

“When congregations are willing to take bold steps, it creates movement among the entire community,” Rabbi Leiken said. In working toward this new partnership, he said, the two synagogues “have demonstrated the important quality of leadership. Overall, I’m really excited about creating a new paradigm.”

Rabbi Kurland pointed out that the Nanuet Hebrew Center and Beth Sholom already have come together for various programs. At the beginning of September, Beth Sholomites joined the Nanuet cohort for a pre-Shabbat barbecue, which drew some 300 people. They also joined for a Kabbalat Shabbat Maariv service, blending a regular Reform Friday night service with the Conservative synagogue’s monthly family service. “People loved it,” Rabbi Kurland said.

He noted as well that the partnership necessarily involves compromise. “We compromise on one issue, and they compromise on another issue.” The joint Friday night service was one such example, he said, “but we were more flexible because it was a family service.” Other issues to be addressed revolve around kashrut; for example, will the joint shul will have one kitchen or two?

Rabbi Kurland said the upcoming program is yet another effort to bring the congregations together. And to do it with an educational program, he said, is particularly appealing to rabbis. “There is not the same divide between the two movements in the 21st century as there was in the 20th,” he said. “I worked as a USY adviser in the 1970s and wouldn’t do a program with a Reform synagogue. Nowadays, the average non-Orthodox Jew doesn’t see as much of a divide. Therefore, they may join a synagogue based upon convenience, or where their friends are sending their kids to religious school.”

In other words, they might not understand the unique features of their own movement. This program, he said, will help address that issue. “In my own congregation over the years, some families have joined who started off in a Reform congregation, and I’m sure that also happens in reverse.”

“Few American Jews understand the denominations to which they belong and the ways the denominations have been evolving,” Rabbi Leiken said. “The aim of this program is to tell the story of how the Reform and Conservative movements were born. It’s fascinating. They were both born out of the same time and context, in mid-19th-century Germany. Both movements are Jews’ attempts to struggle with modernity and to maintain their Jewish identity while living in a non-Jewish world. It’s a journey we all are on today.”

Because the attack in Monsey happened not far away, and security is on everyone’s mind, the rabbis discussed it. Rabbi Kurland said that his congregation has had “strong security” since the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October of 2018. “Of course, we were devastated by the Monsey attack, and people have their eyes open more,” he said. He noted also that the Rockland federation has been working hard on this issue, bringing congregations together to discuss it.

“Last night I came to minyan, and there were other meetings going on,” he added. “Someone asked me why there was a police car in our parking lot. I said they’re doing that more often, hanging out so people can see them.” He said also that his congregation is planning a trip to Germany, Poland, and Prague at the end of April, and he has been told that he should wear a baseball cap rather than a kippah there. He has worn a kippah since 1972, he said, so he is troubled by that directive but he will “play it by ear” when he’s there.


Who: The Nanuet Hebrew Center and Temple Beth Sholom present

What: An Evening of Meaningful Adult Education with Rabbis Paul Kurland and Brian Leiken

When: January 29, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Where: Nanuet Hebrew Center, 411 South Little Tor Road, New City

There is no charge. To register, call Kari at (845) 708-9181 or email office@nanuethc.org

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