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Religious Life Committee Blog

25 Adar II 5779 / Monday, April 1, 19 

From your new Religious Life chair...


After Faith Levy asked if I would stand for election as Religious Life Committee chair at CSI, I spoke with quite a few of you about what you wanted for the future of prayer services in our shul, I checked with Barry Etra and Pia Koslow Frank, the chairs of the Kadima process to learn what the strategic plan data collection was saying, and I sat with Rabbi Kaiman to better understand his vision for our future. While what I learned reminded me a little of the old adage, two Jews, three opinions, there really were common themes.


Shearith Israelites love our egalitarian, traditional-leaning Conservative services, except those who want services to be more innovative, more musical, with more English. We love our lay daveners who lead with joy and ruach, not with a desire to perform, except when they struggle with the Hebrew, have trouble keeping the key, or fail to fully reflect the sex and age diversity of the congregation. We want more meditative moments in services, but we see the meditative preliminary prayers as boring. We love having children in the Beit Knesset, except when they won’t sit still and make it hard to hear. We love having twice-daily minyanim, except when we feel awkward about not knowing what’s going on.


In my thinking, I pit these challenges against those of other kehillot I’ve been part of in the past, most of which wished for these problems. As I’ve shared with a number of you, I think of my shul past as having two kinds of communities: consumer communities, and producer communities. The consumer communities were populated largely by congregants who took the shul for granted; wanted it to be there when they needed it, but seldom lifted a finger to make anything happen. The producer communities were populated by engaged, giving Jews, who rose to the occasion to lead services, cook kosher food, teach the religious school, and sit with the dead. I learned about producer communities in a small shul where there was little choice about how we would do any of this because we had to work with the limited skills of those involved and we had to contend with largely empty pews.


Shearith Israel has both consumers and producers in good numbers. For a Conservative shul our size, the number of our friends who have learned to daven from the amud or to leyn Torah is extraordinary. The corps of congregants who volunteer to comfort the grieved and the sick, to prepare the dead for burial and to manage our cemetery, as well as to join in the work of repairing the world makes me so very proud to be a Shearith Israelite.


So reflecting on the challenges we face, I think (now follow my eyes lifting slightly toward the heavens and my shoulders rising ever so slightly, one palm turned up)… I think we have problems good shuls want.


We want to serve Hashem well, but we often disagree how to do that. Isn’t that symptomatic of our namesake, Israel: “one who fights with Hashem.”


We are blessed with many volunteer service leaders, of varying ability and talent, who in some ways reflect the diversity of Hashem’s children. So rather than sit back and admire the artistry of a great hazzan, we are motivated to set the key for those around us, or even to step forward and learn how to do it ourselves so that it’s done “right”.


When the the noise of children at play diverts our attention, we may need to look deeper for our own kavanah, but we can be contented to be surrounded by the vibrant voices of the next generation of Jews enjoying being in shul.


We may feel awkward not knowing what is going on in minyan, but next to us is a friend that would relish the opportunity to answer a question, and once we understand the outline we can walk into any shul in any city in the world and feel at home.


We have good problems. Really they are ambitions we should be proud of. We won’t achieve them overnight, but we will make good progress this year and next, because we are a committed kehillah that cares about our spiritual life and our service to community, Judaism, and the world. I relish the chance to work with the other members of the Religious Life Committee these next years to move us forward in addressing these ambitions. We’ll be calling out for you; please step forward in ways you can to enrich religious life at Kehillah Shearith Israel.



Baruch Stiftel

Wed, June 19 2019 16 Sivan 5779