How do they do it?
Last Shabbat, my husband and I went to the annual Shabbaton at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck.
It was our fifth year there, and for the fifth time we marveled at what one congregation can do.
In between meals in the social hall and davening in the synagogue and music by the choir and the children’s choir and the cantor, the shul’s talented and charismatic music director, Ronit Wolff Hanan, there were classes, all taught by Beth Sholom members, a wild range of opportunities presented by scholars who are good teachers to a group of students, their peers, who also are also breathtakingly smart and well-educated, comfortable in their practices and knowledge, happy to be together, eager to make their brains work.
It is, to be clear, not a model that many synagogues can follow. Beth Sholom has what probably is an intimidating number of rabbis — people say about 30 — and Jewish professionals among its members. Many of them work at the Jewish Theological Seminary, right over the bridge from the shul. And those rabbis and Jewish professionals have attracted other interested, well-educated, serious Jews to the community.
Beth Sholom also is an answer to the critics of the Conservative movement, who say that it’s middle-of-the-road, boring, not authentic enough for the modern Orthodox world on its right and too stodgy and tradition-bound for the Reform Jews on its left. What I see is a shul glorying in both tradition and scholarship, which means that it is open to new ideas and new understandings, always marinated in the tradition but also spiced by science and open to art.
My husband went to a session on Nachman of Bratzlav taught by Dr. Eitan Fishbane, a professor of Jewish thought at JTS. Dr. Fishbane began by asking everyone to sing a niggun; he said that he does the same thing at his seminary classes. Those niggunim break down the wall between the mysticism he teaches and the dispassion of the students. It does not remove the analytic content but it shows by example that passion and intellect can work together, and that studying works best when it joins heart, mind, and soul.
I took a session taught by Dr. Ben Sommer, who teaches Bible at JTS. We looked at some psalms, focusing on the switch many have between the plea with which they begin and the thanks to God that end them. Is that switch internal, as most traditional scholars say, or is it external, a function of the way in which psalms were used at the temples that once stood before the system was centralized in Jerusalem? And before he did that session in English, Dr. Sommer also presented it in Hebrew, and more than 15 people joined him.
I also went to a session by Dr. Steve Garfinkle, who gave us texts showing the interplay of ancient near eastern concepts with the Jewish concepts we know, pointing out both the similarities and the differences that make our own tradition Jewish.
It was all so very smart!
And those were just three of the 30 or so courses on offer. The hardest part of the entire Shabbaton, in fact, was deciding which to go to, because that meant deciding which to skip.
And of course it was fueled not only by food and song, but also by cookies. So very many cookies! So much chocolate.
The Conservative movement might be in trouble in some places, but it is flourishing at Beth Sholom.