Thursday, January 20, 2011

Topping Out

About thirty years ago there was a bestseller written by John C. Molloy entitled Dress for Success in which he explored the world of business attire.  He argued for people at the lesser rungs of commerce to dress more like their senior executives.  Of course, their spendable income was much less so they could not make frequent trips to Brooks Brothers, let alone Saville Row.  In its place, he recommended going to the top stores to look at the finest business clothing, identify what made it different from the stuff most of us buy, then go back to our stores to look for the products that have those basic unique features. 

So this weekend, I treated myself to forays into where the three main branches of Judaism excel, to see what I can bring back to my ordinary experience.  After a wicked week at work, one in which I would have liked nothing better than to plop myself down after Shabbat dinner with a look at Washington Week followed by a visit to my mattress, I instead shlepped with Irene to Beth Emeth.  I never regret the effort to get there.  This Shabbat was special.  It being Shabbat Shira, they traditionally have a special event with Kriyat HaYam by the Hazan.  It happened also to be the week of the passing of Debbie Friedman, the most influential member of the Reform Movement whose music has added to spirituality of every synagogue I have attended since the 1970's when, as a rising star in the world of Jewish Music, she performed at the WashU Hillel.  There were a couple hundred people in attendance, with all three synagogues represented, listening to a somewhat makeshift hybrid choir singing her melodies, trying to get the congregants to sing along much as Debbie would do at her performances, and incorporating the melodies into the kabbalat shabbat liturgy.

My destination for the weekend was the Orthodox Union Convention's Day of Learning, but since I needed some real recreation, I opted to make a weekend of it, seeking out the upper tier of Conservative Judaism. With some exploration on the web and some guidance from Rabbi Satlow, one of the real talents of Conservative Judaism, I opted for shabbat morning at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck NJ, having heard that JTS Faculty and United Synagogue senior honcho's live in the community.  They are having a Shabbat of learning that makes my AKSE Academy look minuscule.  By Kiddush, my concept of the viability of Conservative Judaism had been completely transformed.  It was like a Ramah experience made multigenerational and transplanted from a rural retreat to mainstream sanctuary.  About 200 people attended.  They must have a fair number of transients since only a few recognized me as a visitor, including the Gabbai who offered me Shishi, though I preferred to remain  an observer rather than participant.  Nearly all the men had knitted kippot like mine.  None had a satin Bar Mitzvah souvenir and almost none took a black general synagogue issue one from the box.  Most of the people who brought their own talesim, men and women, wore full orthodox style woolen garments, few had their own silk tallis though a lot of people like me wore the ones from the synagogue.  The sanctuary had been prepared for shabbat, one of my pet peeves with AKSE.  Each place had an Etz Chaim Chumash on the left and a Sim Shalom Siddur on the right.  The congregation does not have a Hazan.  Their web site hinted that they do not need one, as capable congregants were committed to not only showing up to make the minyanim but to make the services happen.  This shabbat the Rabbi did the Pseuke D'Zimra.  A young guy chanted shacharit, incorporating a few of the late Debbie Friedman's melodies into the Kedusha as a memorial, Torah reading was divided three ways, all done very well particularly the last two done by a young woman with lovely voice and impeccable skill.  The very long haftarah was chanted by a rabbi who was not the congregational rabbi.  He did it capably but struggled with some of the less familiar words in the song.  Musaf was done by a middle age man, approximately one of my contemporaries, with a pleasant tenor voice who also incorporated a few Debbie Friedman melodies.  Their liturgy was a complete one with a few variations from AKSEBirchat Cholim came after the sixth aliyah.  Their rabbi received a list in advance, read it and invited people to come up.  Few did.  I think it was a mistake for AKSE to change its policy from this. About three women were honored with aliyot as well as peticha, suggesting true egalitarianism rather than squaw work often seen in other Conservative settings and certainly at AKSE.   A prayer for Tzahal and captives was then done in Hebrew by the rabbi.  The prayer for Israel was done in Hebrew at its usual place followed by a prayer for the United States read in English by the Rabbi with an insert for the Armed Forces.  The sermon was delivered after the scrolls returned to the Ark, given by the Gabbai who apparently was also a prominent attorney.  He spoke about different ways to assess census to understand the Exodus and victory over the Canaanites.  At the end, two girls concluded the service.  They did not do Anim Zemirot but instead did the passage that separates Ein Kelokainu from Aleinu followed by Kaddish D'Rabbanan.  They also did the Sabbath Psalm earlier in the service as their Siddur places it.

Then a visit to a friend recovering in a nursing home in Spring Valley, then some relaxation at the Howard Johnson's in Ramsey, then completion of the weekend at the final day of the OU convention.

We have a board meeting at AKSE this coming week.  The President included a semi-annual summary among the agenda items.  What made Beth Emeth and Beth Sholom Teaneck attractive places to attend may have been the excellence with which they executed what they intended in a way that enhances the experience of being there.  AKSE has more pretense, aspiring to what it is not, guaranteeing that the experience of being there will never measure of to its hype.  There are people there who will demean Beth Sholom Teaneck as inferior based on its USCJ affiliation yet ignore the talent of its members that make the experience of shabbat morning in the sanctuary sparkle while shabbat morning at AKSE parades far less capable participants from the Rabbi to the congregational volunteers offering a couple of hours of mediocrity.

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