Searching for Covenantal Judaism

Most American Jews that gravitate to Chabad Houses… like the feel of “doing the real thing,” even if they don’t show up every week.” Rabbi Sid Schwarz, Jewish 

Megatrends

This statement caught my attention for a couple of reasons. Raised as a tribal Jew in the Bronx (my early narrative shares many similarities with that of the essay’s author), I was immersed in “the real thing” and only peripherally aware that there were other Jewish “movements” or “denominations.” They were generally understood as “somewhat less Jewish” (Conservative) and “almost completely secular” (Reform).

The sense that halachic Judaism as practiced in my Young Israel community and amongst my schoolmates was the “right” way, persisted in my guts long after it no longer resonated intellectually. By my late teens, it was hard for me to embrace much that worldview, especially as woman.

Several years and a many steps away from a Jewish life later, a circuitous route led me to a professional position in a Reconstructionist congregation. My first real encounter with progressive Judaism was an eye-opener, to say the least. The young man in the jeans & sandals turned out to be the rabbi! Kabbalat Shabbat was a time-machine back to summer camp; this time there were instruments, English songs, translations. Rituals were invented on the spot. Siddurim were individually crafted and personalized by families for each life-cycle event.

In some ways Ramat Shalom was not unique. Formed as a Havurah in Plantation, FL in the 1970’s, the community shared the ideals of egalitarianism, inclusiveness and innovation common to many similar groups. Less commonly, the group evolved into a full-service Reconstructionist synagogue. The community recently celebrated its 40th anniversary and continues to thrive, even as other nearby congregations falter. What is interesting to me is that, despite all the trappings of “institutional” Judaism, they’ve intentionally moved to a post-denominational model and are no longer an affiliated congregation.

In 1982, I was naively unaware that I had discovered a community ahead of its time. Somehow, I imagined that, freed from halakhic constraints, all non-orthodox synagogues would be hotbeds of creativity and innovation.  Ramat Shalom exemplified and excelled at Rabbi Schwarz’s four propositions. Serving as hazzan there gave me the sense that Judaism was alive in ways it had never been before.  

Eighteen years late, I moved to northern California and experienced another Jewish culture shock. The spiritual malaise of America was certainly evident, particularly among the Jews I encountered. The local “only-game-in-town” synagogue was struggling. The congregation had been there for decades; founding and long-time members still ran the show. An insular, somewhat out-of-touch, tribal Judaism permeated the culture, out of alignment with not only “covenantal” Jews but, also with the generally progressive California worldview. The neighboring counties each had similar synagogues – populated mostly by seniors, with a smattering of young families who came and went based on the educational needs of their children, ultimately disappearing after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah of their children. For the ensuing fifteen years I served in a variety of pulpit positions, eventually receiving rabbinic smicha from ALEPH.

While not formally identifying the four propositions of chochma, tzedek, kehilla and kedusha in the essays, these were the pillars on which I attempted to create a culture similar to that of Ramat Shalom in the communities that I served.  To some (unquantifiable) extent, I succeeded. Kedusha seemed most accessible, as I had control of the bimah and rituals. Chochma was also within my purview; teaching and scheduling other teachers. Kehilla was a double-edged sword, as the community had long-established cliques and social circles. Tzedek – nice in theory, tough to get participation. All in all, some things worked and some didn’t.  I’d like to think I planted seeds in somewhat fertile soil.

I found Rabbi Sid’s description of tribal and covenantal Judaism to be spot-on. Being clear on that earlier in my career would have been invaluable. Music, creative rituals, education and innovative programming alone will not transform a congregation from tribal to covenantal.  It is imperative to be able to identify the origins of any given congregation’s communal ethos. Ramat Shalom was created from the ground up by Jews in their 30’s and 40’s who were looking to Judaism to help them shape meaningful, relevant lives in the context of spiritual community. The California synagogue was started by seniors who were very much tribal Jews, even if they might have contested that label.

 

Five years ago, I retired from synagogue life. Returning to the east coast, I quickly discovered that disengaged Jews are not confined to California; neither are unengaging synagogues. It is clear that the strategies of the twentieth century do not speak to much of generation X and Jewish millennials. Developing and implementing new strategies is imperative. To that end, colleagues and I have founded Bayit: Your Jewish Home, an initiative offering tools for the Jewish future. We are curating, publishing, innovating and organizing in the areas of all four of the essay’s propositions.

I’m keenly aware that “the gap between tribal Jews and covenantal Jews is not exclusively a generation gap.”  The need to reconnect and serve those under 45 is paramount for the survival of growth of Judaism into the future.  And there are a large number of disenfranchised, unaffiliated and disengaged Jews in their 50’s, 60’s and beyond in need of a Jewish home. Many of those who were turned off by the Jewish communal strategies of 20th century decades ago, never found their way back and are unaware of what Jewish life can offer.  

These days, we live in two locations (St Augustine, FL and Sullivan County, NY). Both have lots of unaffiliated, disengaged, adult Jews. Neither has a synagogue that appeals to me.  My intention is to start a havura in one or both of those places. My hope is, that with a more intentional approach, incorporating some of the propositions of Rabbi Sid’s essay, we might be able to create a purpose-driven Judaism that will inspire.  

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Rabbi Bella Bogart is a prayer leader, teacher, musician and healer, with over 30 years of congregational experience. She holds a vision of the wisdom and vibrancy of our heritage as a profoundly relevant Judaism for today and tomorrow.

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