AKSE services too often come across as perfunctory with little of interest. Their purpose is ostensibly to fulfill a religious obligation for the men, which they do. This may be why the attendance has been lopsidedly men for my entire tenure there. There are shabbat morning experiences that I seek out from time to time or remember fondly as destinations on a Saturday morning. Creating desire out of obligation remains a challenge since you need one or the other to assure attendance.
Beth Tfiloh gets two visits a year. My loyalty to Hillel on Shabbat morning endures and I would leave Wilmington earlier than I needed to on a weekend to be able to make it to Shabbat morning services at the JCC of Spring Valley and its subsequent incarnations. If there might be a common link to the places I prefer to daven it may be fulfillment of the unexpected within the familiar as one element, impeccable execution as another, and an enhanced aura of common purpose among the attendees that AKSE has never been able to achieve. I do not recall anything approaching shtick at any of them. Moreover, I think in many ways the decline of the USCJ experience can trace its roots to either Rabbi-generated or officer-generated surrogates to replace a diminishing capacity to deliver the formal components of the traditional service experience with the proper level of expertise. AKSE has an audience, as does Beth Tfiloh to a large extent. Hillel and the JCC of Spring Valley had participants.
So how might one get the unexpected amid the expected? As a casual visit to Baltimore or Spring Valley or anyplace else, this becomes fairly straightforward. Tunes are endemic to a congregation but differ from what I am used to each week. Rabbi Wohlberg of Beth Tfilah and Rabbi Palavin, the final Rabbi at the JCC, had a good deal of experience crafting their messages each week. But were it not for the preparation of Hillel, I doubt I would be able to appreciate any congregational experience, let alone most congregational experiences. Universities have a way of gathering its participants from varied places and backgrounds. Tunes differ. At each assembly you can expect to greet people that you did not greet the week before, either because they were not there or you were immersed in a different crowd at kiddush. The people there were part of the same community all week long, eating dinner together in the Kosher cafeteria, fretting over common exams, checking out the girls. While there were no sermons, conversations among college students often have substance beyond the formality of a handshake with a goot shabbos appended. It is harder to judge Beth Tfiloh or JCC where I am a visitor but the other people are not. At the JCC there was often a curiosity about me by those there before as drop-ins were few and I had a past there to which those remaining could connect. My presence automatically made me a center of attention. Not so at Beth Tfiloh where Bar Mitzvah rituals with out of town guests were the norm and attendance always huge by AKSE or Hillel standards. In many ways I function there as a spectator, doing my best to function as a participant as well as circumstances permit. The women's section there was always well attended, one of the few ways to assess who shows up to fulfill obligation and who takes time from other possible shabbos activities to attain what can only be attained in shul.
So where might this fit with the AKSE experience? Balancing obligation with attractiveness does not always go well. First, I think it would be a mistake to go down the road of the Conservatives, assuming that the people in attendance are ignorant roobs who would have no Jewish connection or knowledge were it not for their Rabbi. I never dumb down my presentations to residents or medical students to accommodate their limited capacity. There purpose is to elevate people to standard, whether medical trainees or Jews in transition, rather than to diminish the standard to adapt to the people. Gimmicks have a way of doing that unless flawlessly executed and appropriate to circumstance. That is not to say special events have no place. The Senator's visit engaged the teens present like no experience they ever had at AKSE. It is just that they need to be done very selectively and implemented in a way that nobody would assess as amateurish or tircha d'tzibbura. Other guests given appropriate bimah time or guests at Shabbos dinners which have been well attended could fulfill this niche. I think having women really do the parts of the service that the Rabbi deemed acceptable would be another, something that has remained dormant for some time. At Beth Tfiloh, Rabbi Wohlberg has decided what women are permitted to do on his Bimah and in his sanctuary. Every time I have been there, women do those things set aside for them.
The shabbat experience does not have to take place at AKSE in its sanctuary. My most critical comments of the Rabbis and the lay ritual leadership has been that they do not insist that the Women's Tefiloh Group make a concerted effort to attain parity in performance with the main sanctuary to the extent that their permitted content allows. You can claim respect for female congregants but never sell that as reality outside AKSE, or even within, if excellence is not the standard in any of its subgroups. The shabbat dinners by their attendance and flexibility offer enormous opportunities for innovation that would be tircha if done in the sanctuary during services.
Should AKSE appoint a Cruise Director? Is the role of Rabbi one of Cruise Director? It is one thing to have a plethora of activities to offer people, quite another to goad them into taking advantage of what is there. In many ways the congregation's stability depends to a large extent on its inertia. Schedules need to get filled, and they do. Officers are selected from the Recycling Pool. Growth and development of the people does not seem a particularly self-driven process the way it would be at a Hillel Foundation. One very simple way to shake up services and bring people along would be to establish a rule that no individual may recycle a Torah or Haftarah reading more than two consecutive years so that everyone would be forced to prepare something that is new to them.
While congregational discussion has been set aside for this with enough heads-up notice to make it thoughtful, these type of analysis tend to be seat of the pants expression of druthers rather than careful teasing out of expected outcomes of things that might get implemented. There is a ritual committee, now relatively diversely populated without the ideological dominance and manipulation of years past. Not that AKSE committees of any type excel at analytical thought but ultimately this seems the best forum for alteration to a shabbos morning experience that may need only minimal tweaking so that it may proceed while keeping the process transparent and the consequences accountable.