For the first time in years, I am faced with a decision — how should I observe the Shabbatot in the coming weeks and months?
You see, for the last three and a half years, I was a student at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where I was active in one of the fastest growing college campus Conservative minyanim nationwide. By the time I graduated this past fall, our Carlebach-style minyan was getting anywhere between 25 to 45 participants for our weekly Kabbalat Shabbat services. After enjoying the sweet spiritual warmth of our services every week, I joined the rest of the Muhlenberg Hillel community in the dining room for a lovely Shabbat dinner, followed by hours of conversation and great company. On Shabbat mornings, as a college student, I tried to sleep as late as possible, and then eventually I tried to do some reading for my classes.
In addition, on and off during the semester and when I was on breaks from school, I often spent various amounts of time staffing for United Synagogue Youth (USY). This includes staffing weekend conventions throughout the year and three USY summer program trips. As a result, even when I was not at school I usually ended up being “set” for Shabbat.
In the days prior to this past New Year, I had the pleasure of serving as staff for USY’s annual International Convention. During the pre-convention preparations, USY’s year-round staff and the convention executive staff gather for tefillot daily before working all day and into the late hours of the night to prepare for the five-day convention.
During one of the pre-convention services Rabbi Rachel Ain — wife of Rabbi David Levy, USY’s Director of Teen Learning — briefly addressed the approximately 50 staff members who had convened for shacharit that morning. Rabbi Ain commented on the beauty and enthusiasm that filled our services that morning and throughout the pre-convention. Furthermore, she remarked that as a congregational Conservative rabbi, davening weekday shacharit with numerous passionate young adults, let alone more than a dozen individuals, was a rare opportunity for her. Subsequently, she suggested that the young adults in the room should make an effort to attend their local Conservative synagogue minyanim, whether that be now or as college graduates, so that the ruach that we had invoked here could be created in Conservative congregations everywhere. And finally, she urged that instead of joining independent minyanim, or even starting our own, we should attempt to rejoin the larger Conservative community of which most of USY’s staff are products.
Thus, here is my dilemma: at what point do I sacrifice my spiritual needs for the needs of a greater movement? And further, will my spiritual sacrifice even make an impact?
In other words, in my opinion most traditional, or “normal,” Conservative congregational services do not maintain the same level of enthusiasm and ruach for tefillah that I have become accustomed to and which I enjoy most; if they did, this discussion would be obsolete, and the transition from USY tefillah, to Muhlenberg Hillel, to a local Conservative community would be seamless. Conversely, I am left with a choice that I struggle with deeply. Do I join a community that best fits my own personal spiritual necessities, or do I return to a local Conservative synagogue?
Judaism at its core leans towards the latter, as at the foundation of Judaic practice is community and the greater unification of Jews. For example, for just about any Jewish event, holiday, ritual, practice, etc., there is a prerequisite of individuals required for anything to occur — i.e., for any service, you need a minyan (10 Jewish adults), and for any blessing that is said there is generally an appeal for another person to acknowledge the blessing by responding “amen.”
Furthermore, Enlightenment Judaic philosopher Moses Mendelssohn — whom many credit with being one of the foremost pre-Conservative progressive Judaic theologians — taught that belief and spirituality are byproducts of abiding by Jewish values and the performance of ritual practice. If I am to follow in Mendelssohn’s ideals, then my personal spirituality is second to the actions involved with being part of a Jewish community.
Unfortunately, I do not have an answer to my predicament. If I did, I would not have written this piece. I know deep down that my presence in a local Conservative synagogue could potentially benefit the community, but just as likely is the chance that my attendance will have no effect on the community. And, moreover, if I am being honest, I am fairly certain that my spiritual needs will not be met by joining a local Conservative synagogue.
So now what? Do I abandon my Conservative roots? Does my personal spirituality trump that of the greater Movement? Where should I pray now?