Rabbi Heshcel's Island of Time, some weeks it is better not to have an AKSE Ferry.
The services on Saturday morning, my Jewish centerpiece since grade school, have morphed from an Orthodox experience with full content and fluency to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism model, with its rabbinic or lay leader contrivances that so many of us, including AKSE's core talent, escaped from. The concluding time the last several months on Shabbat morning had extended a half hour. Kids from the Hebrew School now do Ashrei , replacing a quick silent reading with brief Chatima with a small parade and old Hebrew school flashback. I support learning and acquisition of experience as much as anyone else but this is tircha. Instead of a central message from the Rabbi, which has improved immensely in content over the past year, we now have an interruption between each Aliyah in addition to an introduction to both Torah and Haftarah portions. The Rabbinical Assembly has long taken the erroneous and destructive position that their congregants are Jewish ignoramuses who depend on them exclusively for every snippet of knowledge that they can impart. That is unfortunately in the process of being transplanted to the AKSE shabbat morning experience as well. Moreover, this is occurring at a time when the local Bulshitzer Rebbe has been siphoning off a measure of previous attendance. His product differentiation started with a more pure form of gender separation. He may be more successful with our help as we move to something more akin to a Beth Shalom experience while he starts later, moves through with minimal interruption and ends earlier.
It is possible to maintain a shabbat morning experience that has parity with what one might expect with a visit to any observant sanctuary around the world amid several formats. Penn Hillel has both a conservative and an orthodox minyan conducting shabbat services simultaneously. I have been to both and the content of worship is almost identical, the only difference being gender equality at one and a brief drash on Jewish Law at the end of the orthodox service. At Beth Hillel-Beth El where my wedding took place, the Havurah minyan conducts the AKSE service with very minor variation based on the Siddur they use. The only difference seems to be multiple Torah readers rather than a single hired reader and very capable female participation. There is no schtick from singing of Hatikvah to showcasing Hebrew school kids, to moving lecterns. The experience that their service conveys is judged my the fluency of the participants, a volunteer sermon that recognizes the audience as college graduates rather than Hebrew school graduates, and a concluding time that does not infringe on other elements of Shabbat's break from the other six days of work.
There was an interesting podcast http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/760703/Rabbi_Josh_Strulowitz/A_Panel_Discussion_with_an_Orthodox,_Conservative_and_Reform_Rabbi which presented a forum sponsored by either a JCC or Federation in San Francisco where three rabbis from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform congregations in the area discussed their ideologies and how they adapt it to their congregational realities. The moderator tried to bait the Orthodox Rabbi in a friendly way by asking about the divergence between public values of gender equality and practices at his synagogue. He did not bite with the expected defense as their practice being divine will. Instead, he made a couple of insightful observations of life at his congregation. First, the women at his shul were the best educated, most Jewishly involved women in the San Francisco Jewish community. More importantly, for people really committed to Judaism, the formality of worship and legal restrictions needed to fulfill the requirements are really a very small part of what happens in his shul. Almost no service other than shabbat morning takes more than an hour yet activities that make his congregation interactive to their members occur continuously. There are no restrictions for women outside of formal worship. They rise to the opportunity by making the educational and social programming attractive. There is a quest for excellence on all things.
It is that quest for excellence that challenges AKSE. The relative exile of its Talibans to the shteible of the Bulshitzer Rebbe should be an extraordinary opportunity for the mainstream that remain. The Ritual Committee, having divested itself of its Taliban impediments and securing a top-notch chairman, should be discussing ways to elevate the people to excellence in worship, not diminishing the experience of worship to adapt to the limited capacity of its people. I think it has been a shonda for my entire tenure there that the Women's Tefillah Group has been permitted by two Rabbis to continue to function as a form of Junior Congregation under AKSE's roof when their service should strive to be one that approaches parity with the main service with minor halachic adaptations in content. One Rabbi who probably couldn't care less about what happens to female worship has been replaced by one who sincerely does, yet finds it expedient to diminish all worship in some way. Making the AKSE sanctuary experience more like the Beth Shalom sanctuary experiences from contrivance to blue pencil editing of the sages' recommended content to enable more Rabbi commentary jeopardizes the very substance that has made AKSE unique in the community and attractive to its loyal participants.