Friday, March 22, 2013
The Forward ran a feature on 36 American rabbis from around the USA recommended as outstanding clergymen by testimonials submitted by their congregants. Among the lamed-vav was a gentleman I knew in college who worked the cash register at the Hillel Dining Room. He was a year ahead of me in school and I never thought about him again until about ten years ago when Moment Magazine published a landmark article that he had written in response to a critique of Conservative Judaism. My crystal ball from college days never would have presented him as a Rabbi, let alone a prominent one from the Chicago area. He faded into the background again until appearing as one of The Forward's 36. One can find out a little about most anybody in cyberspace these days so I did a quick search of his congregation's web site where the Rabbi usually has a short bio and a more substantial paper trail reflecting ideology. His congregation, while Conservative, announced itself as Traditional, as does mine. That has become shorthand for mixed seating at worship, open parking lot on shabbos but Y-chromosome for most ritual performance. Shuffling though their web site, egalitarian did not appear but neither did non-egalitarian, which has less membership recruiting baggage than its euphemism Traditional.
Exploring further, it seems that my acquaintance of old appears again at the peak of his public prominence in 2001. Another Conservative Rabbi in the region, this person the son of a man who I got to know well and admire when he lived near me, decided that his congregation really ought to make the transition to egalitarianism. Much to this Rabbi's credit, he did not impose the new policy as he could as mara d'atra. Instead, he set aside a year of status quo to explore the options and ramifications. Among the guests invited to discuss positions was my old college acquaintance who presented the case for restricting bimah participation to men, something which had become a minority view in the Conservative movement by then and remains even more of a fringe now. The discussion by that congregation in Wisconsin centered around the religious propriety of the change and its implications for bringing new opportunities to women already in place who could expand their capabilities.
My congregation has also started to explore some measure of this change. Propriety and religious opportunity for women has a much smaller place in the discussion than prospects for reversing membership attrition and acquiring a better market position for attracting new dues paying members. What actually becomes of those women seems subordinate to what becomes of the congregation's checking account. Advance the role of women not because it is consistent with communal values in 21st century America but because it is expedient. Women are not really being served in that type of analysis as much as they are being made pawns for a goal that has little to do with the core mission of the synagogue.
In reality, women thrive Jewishly in many types of synagogues. Conversely the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism experienced its talent depletion in the very years they were advocating an expanded role for women as baalebatim and as rabbis. Stable membership participation and communal growth are really byproducts of what is offered to any member of any gender or age to enhance their Jewish experience and reinforce their Jewish identity, irrespective of mode of worship. At a forum of a Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbi in San Francisco a couple of years back, podcast on www.yutorah.org an audience member asked the Orthodox representative whether the policies of his congregation diminished the importance of the women members. He responded very insightfully that his women were more knowledgeable by far and more committed to transmitting Judaism to subsequent generations than the women of any place else in the city. Worship takes about 1.5 hours each day, a little more on shabbos. But the synagogue building and its resources are open from dawn until dark pretty much every day. It is his women that take best advantage of what is available to them and have the most available to them.
My congregation's leadership likes to categorize things with labels. Membership is who came and who went. Education is what classes are on the schedule when it should be what benefit did people derive from the classes. There is a Women's Tefilah Group that puts a priority on attendance when they should put the priority on parity with what the men perform. That is how you distinguish our congregation from Brand X around the corner which lets women chant Aliyot but at a level of skill too paltry to even get an invitation at our congregation. Discuss women, for sure, but discuss them in the manner of servicing them, not as a vehicle to strengthen a precarious financial situation.