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A Plea For Diversity In Worship

A Plea For Diversity In Worship

For suburban congregations, friction between passion and inclusivity.

Many Westchester readers will recall that a number of synagogues in our county participated some years ago in the Synagogue 2000 program. The program stressed two central goals: (1) making the synagogue a more spiritually fulfilling and uplifting place; and (2) making the synagogue a welcoming, “user-friendly” place, which would draw people in.

These are both things that any synagogue should want to do. But I think it is accurate to say that most congregations found that the two goals were locked in a certain tension with one another.  Providing spiritual fulfillment generally involves an intensity of engagement in worship, study and observance that is not likely to be the common heritage of the uninitiated. All of these things are features most readily achieved by a relatively homogeneous community, in which one can assume some broad uniformity in levels of experience, competence and commitment across individuals. Clearly, this is a large contributor to the impressive achievements of the many independent minyanim around the country, which are mostly of urban provenance, and whose successes are rightly celebrated.

But for those Jews whose backgrounds and educations do not match those of the engaged core, those same elements of energetic engagement will usually not be experienced as the sympathetic, helping hand the uninitiated need in order to be drawn in. (A simple example: utilizing a lexicon of terms shared by the engaged core, without taking the trouble — which might well be perceived as tedious — to translate and explicate the terms for the broader community).

On the other hand, being welcoming and user-friendly means always putting yourself into the minds of those who are “not yet there” in terms of shared interests and skills. But being encouraging to heterogeneity in this way will often be viewed as a “watering down” of the levels of spiritual depth that the core would like to maintain as the community norm.  

But the conundrum is even deeper than this: Were everyone to have more or less the same image of what the ideal Jewish communal life is (in worship, study and practice) it would be possible to devise programs for bringing those still on the margins of the ideal into the core. But that is rarely the case in truly heterogeneous (that is to say, “real”) communities. Not all who aspire to a substantive, involved and transmittable Jewish life commitment have the same image of what it means to be fully Jewish in these ways.

The Pew Research Center’s just-released survey of American Jewry — the public discussion and analysis of which is just beginning — immediately makes it clear that there are many ways in which American Jews today “do and think Jewish.” But what survey questions are not very good at revealing are the many variations in how even the religiously committed believe in living out that commitment.

Recently, I had a troubling conversation in which it was conveyed to me that the Rosh HaShanah worship in our sanctuary — which features beautifully rendered classical Jewish liturgical music — is not experienced as having the same “davening” authenticity as another service that takes place under our roof as well; that one is much less formal and more visibly participatory, in the style of the independent minyanim. What was missing in that conversation was a recognition that there are in fact different ideals among committed Jews with respect to worship, study and practice (not to mention an acknowledgment that our two minyanim every day of the year are populated and maintained almost entirely by the people who choose to worship in that sanctuary service).

What also needs to be recognized is that we stand only to be enriched by accepting this heterogeneity within the ranks of the committed (e.g. between synagogue school and day school families), and by creating, through mutual respect and shared experiences, a sense of interdependence among the diverse set of Jews in our communities.

There has always been, in Jewish life, an unavoidable balancing act in our community structures between the passion generated by uniformity on the one hand, and the inclusivity promoted by diversity on the other. Current conditions, however, pose a new and particular challenge to the kinds of synagogue communities that are typical of suburban settings such as ours. 

How should we be planning for the next chapter in the “uniformity/diversity dialectic,” as the passionate Jews of the independent minyanim become our neighbors and, it is to be hoped, our “chevra?” Certainly not all will leave the city and find their way to Westchester, where the kind of “customized” communities possible within the denser urban population are not practical. But, when children begin to be born, and many find that economic necessity pulls them out of the urban centers, many of them will do so, as a growing number already have. What will we be able to learn from these deeply engaged young Jews for the enrichment of our kehillot? How shall we communicate to them our desire to benefit from their contributions? And how shall we in turn, with gentle respect conjoined to a sense of responsibility for a cohesive Jewish future, teach them by our practices that diversity is not necessarily a dilution of authenticity, but rather the broad learning tableau of real Jewish life?

These are among the critical questions for which Westchester — and other near suburban — congregations need to seek appropriate answers.

Gordon Tucker is senior rabbi of Temple Israel Center, White Plains.

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