It was shabbos Rosh Chodesh Sh'vat. While we are expected not to have a whole lot to do that competes with going to synagogue on shabbos morning, many of us do not really want shabbos morning at shul to drag into shabbos afternoon at shul. There is an optimal amount of time to spend there. Added Hallel, Maftir, Psalm 104 and an expanded Amidah can extend the services so I selected an experience that I already knew would be scaled down. Moreover, I really wanted to hear our town's newest Hazzan. So this seemed like the best opportunity to escape the Aliyah Sound Bites that irritate me so much at my congregation and sample the offerings at the USCJ place across town. This place comes with some baggage. They have macher swoops and kingmakers. They created a very adverse experience for me when their congregation and mine tried to merge the Hebrew schools. A Beth Sodom in many ways but with a personable, knowledgeable Rabbi who understands his reality and tries to correct what he can an now a new Hazzan who I wanted to hear.
So I went. Their attendance was similar to ours for a shabbos morning. Nearly everyone must have been a regular since congregational chanting to familiar melodies went well. It being neither Rosh Hashana nor a Board Meeting, their machers either remained under the rocks or had gathered in a secret cabal in one of their Jew Canoe Mercedes to conspire how they might impose their will at the next Board Meeting. Rabbi absent. Cantor officiated. Lovely lyrical voice, excellent Dvar Torah. Their attendees were a generation younger than ours. They had kids present. Rather pleasant experience were it not for the Torah reading.
Shabbos services have a beginning, a middle and a closing. The centerpiece is traditionally when the Torah is extracted from the Aron Kodesh, the weekly portion recited with its characteristic tune, a related section of the prophetic writings chanted with a melody in a minor key, the business of the congregation conducted with Bar Mitzvahs, Baby namings, Aufrufs, prayers for recovery of ill congregants, prayer for soldiers in harms way, and a prayer for leaders of the community as well as governments of America and Israel. And then there is a message from a Rabbi or designee intended to bring a measure of insight from what was just read. It is the centerpiece. When people come late, they invariably arrive as the Torah is being read. The Aliyah Sound Bites at my shul irritate me so partly by their triviality and partly by their disruption of the cadence that I have come to expect over the decades.
Reading the Torah takes work and it takes a little real knowledge. At my shul we read the entire section, but many in America read only a portion of the designated reading each week, at this congregation about one-third. Seven people are typically honored by an invitation to witness their portion being read. Since this can be difficult to read, at our shul we hire somebody to do it. When he is not present, we usually know that well in advance and have a cadre of readers who typically read 1-3 sections each or about 1-2 columns of text. Short portions are ordinarily given to inexperienced readers to enable advancement of skill. At this congregation, they only read one third, about what we would give to a single amateur reader, and still divided it among six readers, including the professional Cantor. Gender issues aside, only the Cantor had the skill to do it at a level that would be mainstream at my place, two others might get the short invitations though the fluency left a lot to be desired, considering their portions' brevity. The others could not get the words right, had no sense that what they were reading had grammar and sentence structure and meaning. This was a portion that had well known phrases that people stumbled over even with practice. There are two Gabbaim at the sides of the Torah readers expected to prompt the readers when they stumble. They are required to correct the words but did not themselves have the facility with Hebrew to recognize the errors and offer the correct pronunciation, let alone the reader to put the reader back on track with phasing and grammatical errors which typically undermine the rest of the sentence.
When that is placed amidst congregational singing on either side, what an experienced observer recognizes is that the people of the congregation have the illusion of skill but not real skill. They can be taught a catchy tune and sounds, much like a parrot can be taught sounds. They can have a good time being with each other once a week and setting aside sacred time to worship as a community. But even though they have an educational system, it is ineffective. It has become language based on sounds when it should be the ability to perpetuate the thoughts that the words in the Torah scrolls have provided us for thousands of years. It is not education. It is the illusion of education.
And a closing afterthought. I had not been there in a few years. About half the people in attendance knew me, about half probably did not. Customarily visitors are recognized in some way, typically given one of the Torah honors. I was largely ignored. Even at the Kiddush, a little snack provided to the congregation after services, only one person came over to greet the stranger, and one that knew me from before. The clergyman did not. An observer would conclude, maybe correctly, maybe not, that they have inbred their congregation, greeting each other, tolerating the stranger. Ironically, the most repeated Mitzvah in Torah is to treat the stranger respectfully. It appears 36 times. Honoring parents appears three times.
Conservative Judaism has been in decline in America for about forty years now. At one time, they drew upon young families in the post-WWII era, many raised in traditional homes, many refugees from Europe. These are people who brought their knowledge and skill obtained elsewhere into the community. Eventually the poobahs of Conservative Judaism would have to create the level of knowledge from within, setting up many institutions like Ramah, USY, Schecter, JTS and more to do this. Unfortunately, the people like myself who benefited from that effort have migrated outward. At my congregation the volunteer Torah readers are all alumni of those United Synagogue programs who acquired real skill, found the home congregation too trivial and migrated to places that had not yet slouched to Judaism lite. Conservative Judaism in America can no longer import these people as they did from 1940-1960. Decisions to equalize the status of women have kept the population afloat, but there are limits to how well the gender card can be played in the absence of Judaic richness that competing institutions bring to the table. They have a lot to fix.
On former President of the congregation that I visited and to which I belonged for seventeen years once quipped that he did not know where Conservative Judaism was heading but this congregation will get there first. They may still have a lead.