Wednesday, February 25, 2015


Went to my own shul for the first time this calendar year.  Normally I stare into space from Torah reading onward, which is why I hardly ever go unless I have business to conduct for shabbos, in this case yahrtzeit.  The Rabbi invited his Rabbinic friend to deliver the Dvar Torah, which he did exceptionally well by any standards, not just our own.  After the service I chatted with him briefly about a small part of his sermon, an obscure linguistic one, which he discussed briefly and to the point.  I returned at mincha to try to make a minyan for our Hazzan who had yahrtzeit but with serious snow coming down we fell one man short.  Sitting across from the guest between mincha and maariv, we did some small talk about his home congregation where some of my friends attend.  I learned he is relatively new to our region and had functioned as a both a Rabbi and attorney before marrying and relocating. His current shul is Orthodox but he had no difficulty functioning in our mixed seating sanctuary.  His obvious talent prompted me to find out more of his Jewish background after havdallah.  I expected ties with JTS, which he had as an undergrad, but smicha came from the Union of Traditional Judaism, with which our Rabbi personally affiliates.  I knew very little of the organization though prominent members had been the final pulpit Rabbis of my own Bar Mitzvah congregation and a childhood friend who is both JTS grad and physician gave his allegiance there as well.  Yet when Forward did a recent article on where college talent was pursuing their ordination, UTJ came completely under their reporters radar.  It's probably to the detriment of the Jewish community to suppress real talent, as much as some of the machers and organizational types try, so thought I'd try to figure out where this part of Judaism fits in the American mosaic, particularly since it impacts on my own congregations whose fortunes have been on the decline for some time now.

UTJ keeps a low profile, to say the least.  They have a web site and a Wikipedia entry which seems a good deal more transparent than the web site.  They describe themselves as transdenominational which may be a less emotionally laden way of saying dissatisfied Conservative, yet their origins are only partly devoted to ridding themselves of the mediocrity of much of the Conservative synagogue experience.  What they really seem to set out to do initially was preserve the synagogues of the 1960's, those worthy competitors of suburban debate nights where representatives of the Conservative and Orthodox offerings of a community receiving young families with GI home loans would tell why theirs merits affiliation.  The Conservatives did quite well for a while, building synagogues and related institutional infrastructure.  Definitely worth having something more robust than a USCJ Hebrew School.  But the divide was really not over the quality of experience but over the expanding role of women, making UTJ's hidden face one not of superior learning but of non-egalitarianism.  There were op-eds on the site but few later than two years ago.  They have training programs for clergy but no description of who their graduates are or what they have achieved.  There is no listing of affiliated synagogues.  How could an organization that positions itself as a competitive hashkafa not have a list of communities that promote that ideology?  But there is a very long list of Board Members, though not a hint as to where they are from or where they worship or activities that they promote. 

So while folks like me, imprinted in that environment fifty years back, can recognize the quality that once was a shabbos morning at my childhood synagogue, competitive with any place else in our growing town, the longing for its return does not seem something that a lot of people aspire to.  Even within, as much as the people have to offer, it reads more of a closed shop, developed from within but shielded from people who might be looking for something more traditional and mentally upscale from what they have now but might have a few arrows to sling on gender positions that keep UTJ from making more mainstream inroads than they have.

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