A few years ago, for the Rosh Hashanah d'var Torah (interpretation of the week's assigned Torah portion or parashah), a congregant at my synagogue, Steven Weiland, began with this poignant question: “In what way am I Jewish?” While the answer might seem obvious in the context of his being honored to give the d'var Torah for High Holiday services at our Reconstructionist Synagogue B'nai Israel (BI, a pseudonym), I argue that Steven's question and subsequent answer exemplify not only his own personal experiences of Jewish identity, but also the discursive practices through which my largely academic congregation constructs and reconstructs Jewish community.
Riffing off the well-known poem “Pot Roast” by secular Jewish poet Mark Strand as an anchoring metaphor, Steven argued that the locus of his Jewish identity resided in his engagement with secular Jewish writers and literary critics. Through a poetic metaphor of the pot roast Shabbat dish, Steven illustrated how he engaged with his Jewish identity through his commitment to literary criticism and secular Jewish literary figures. Steven equated this process with his “becoming a land grant Jew,” meaning that maintaining Jewish identity in our small Midwestern college town necessarily entails an “interior quarrel” and “‘wrestling’ with Jewish identity” (Weiland 1994: 431). On that Rosh Hashanah, Steven exteriorized this interior quarrel to culminate his d'var by dialectically questioning his own logic or rationale: “In what way am I Jewish?” In answer, he completed the circle of dialectical self-questioning with a discursive sleight of hand: “In what way am I not Jewish?”
Steven's public (re)affirmation of being Jewish—not despite but because of his eclectic intellectual engagement with secular Jewish writers rather than Torah—is a prime (pun intended) example of what I call ‘wrestling with tradition’. Furthermore, I argue that Steven's public self-questioning about his Jewish traditions and subsequent answering exemplifies the major preoccupation of our congregation: discursively wrestling with tradition as a means to form, foster, and maintain Jewish community. Steven's eloquent and poetic literary musings in the context of Torah interpretation involve the interactive and public discursive negotiation of what is, can, or should be shared (or even counted) as Jewish practice. I argue that such wrestling with tradition—that is, (re)creating, questioning, and negotiating traditions in the context of our willfully eclectic and countercultural Jewish community—is achieved through discursive practices that perform contested sharedness through a collaborative questioning and often conflictual engagement with Jewish tradition. As such, it is both the central ethos and shared practice of our congregation and our means to create Jewish community.
At the heart of this article is the question of what makes BI a Jewish community in the face of diverging ways of belonging, including intellectual musings about pot roast and reading Torah on Shabbat. That is, what do we claim to ‘share’, if not particular Jewish practices or spiritual beliefs? Many congregants, like me, do not believe in God. Furthermore, many of us do not pray or attend weekly Shabbat services. One answer to this question was provided by another congregant, Sadie, who commented on an earlier draft of this article: “In the forefront of concerns for those who love and value their tradition is how and what type of Judaism is going to be carried on in the next generations” (l'dor va dor, or ‘generation to generation’). Her comment attends to the issue of how to honor and maintain Jewish tradition in the context not only of varying levels of faith but also of stark differences in ritual observance among our congregants. Steven, for example, does not usually attend Saturday Shabbat services. Although well known in the community and a prominent academic, he is far less active in BI than his wife, who recently served on the board. If he is not actively participating in devotional practices or being involved in the congregation, what then, indeed, makes Steven a member of the community?
To address these issues, I analyze how BI congregants discursively perform and contest sharedness through their active engagement, interpretation, and often public disagreements about how to create and maintain Jewish community. Wrestling with tradition does not entail shared beliefs or shared Halakhah (Jewish religious laws and rituals), or even a shared spiritual practice. Rather, it is in the discursive ‘wrestling’—for example, in debating Halakhah rather than necessarily following it—that our communal enactment of sharedness persists through intellectual and affective engagement with Jewish tradition. Does this involve a shared purpose? Yes, but not a very straightforward or given one. Needs and desires relating to our goal of sharedness must be negotiated at every turn to achieve, over time, the purpose of creating and maintaining Jewish community.
Through discursive and semiotic practices that include public discussions, focus groups, generating self-reflexive texts, surveys, and divrei Torah (scriptural interpretations), BI congregants engage in a variety of ways with being and ‘doing being’ Jewish as a means to actively negotiate a shared purpose. I argue that through these public interactional negotiations, congregants of B'nai Israel not only co-construct and (re)create spiritual community in the absence of a shared putative faith in God or shared practice of prayer. We also, in ongoing, overt, productive, and contentious discursive engagements with each other, negotiate and renegotiate a sharedness of purpose: to create Jewish community.
Ethnographic Background and Related Literature
The data for this article are comprised of ethnographic observations, recorded interactions, and over 30 collected oral histories. In my analysis of these materials, I consider how sharedness of Jewish community is co-constructed and fostered in BI, a congregation of mixed heterodoxic beliefs and heteropraxis. I draw upon cultural and linguistic anthropological theories and discourse analysis methods to understand what it means to share Jewish community when neither coherent beliefs nor particular spiritual practices hold the community together. Anthropological research on community has tended to emphasize shared experiences, including Durkheim's ( 1984) notion that large-scale communities are sustained by ‘organic solidarity’, the social cohesion that creates bonds between individuals. In this model, individuals are linked by mutual dependence and the fulfillment of reciprocal relations. In contrast, Anderson's (1983) ‘imagined communities’ model emphasizes ritualized practices (such as reading a national newspaper) that foster an ideological belief in community. The linguistic anthropological model, ‘communities of practice’, attempts to move the notion of community away from belief and toward praxis. In this view, communities are built from the ground up by individuals who engage in shared communicative actions and linguistic rituals (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet 1992).
Scholarship on the ways that American Jews have constructed community analyzes sharedness through a variety of practices, including communicative performance, ritual aesthetics, and traditions. Working in Orthodox Hasidic Brooklyn, Fader (2009) argues that socialization into communicative practices is the means whereby young Hasidic women both renew and reproduce religious adherence to Orthodox Judaism. Prell (1989) contends that ritual performance, and particularly prayer, is the way that a Havurah (Jewish fellowship) community creates a shared aesthetic for countercultural Jewish practice. Yares (2017: 1) analyzes how American Jews reinvented holidays such as Shavuot to broker the “reimagination of Jewish tradition to meet the intellectual demands of modernity.”
This article attempts to critically engage with the above scholarship through a critique of notions of ‘communal sharedness’ with respect to ongoing negotiations of both practice and belief. For example, whereas congregants in BI argue about prayer much in the way that Prell's Havurah congregants do, what is also actively debated is the need for prayer altogether. BI congregants engage in the negotiation of which Jewish traditions to embrace in the context of our strongly held communal purpose to create and sustain Jewish community. Such discursive wrestling, as I describe it here, includes (but is not limited to) discursive and semiotic practices, for example, creating new traditions, such as a women's seder, and generating highly interpretive scriptural interpretations.
B'nai Israel was started over 50 years ago by a handful of Jewish pioneers who, after originally starting an informal Hebrew school for their children, decided to create a lay-led independent synagogue. Founded by academics who moved from communities with larger Jewish populations to the small Midwestern college town where BI is located, this synagogue can be situated within a larger trend of Jewish migration to university communities, predominantly from the East Coast (Fermaglich 2020). Organized initially in 1970, BI can also be placed within the larger history of the American Havurah movement (ibid.; see also Prell 1989). Eschewing the local, more established conservative and non-egalitarian synagogue that was founded in 1918, this break-off group of mostly academics created a grassroots, lay-led congregation, emphasizing an egalitarian, intellectual approach to Judaism similar to the independent Havurah described by Prell (1989).
BI remained denominationally unaffiliated and without a rabbi for the next 18 years. As a ‘younger’ congregant (I am over fifty), I have been reminded repeatedly over my 10 years of membership that the founding families of BI did not need a rabbi because they did it all themselves: leading services, including reading Torah in Hebrew, delivering divrei Torah (or sermons), running the Hebrew school, and teaching each other as well in adult education classes. These same founding congregants even led their own children through the painstaking process of becoming b'nai Mitzvah (coming-of-age initiates), and they alone led High Holiday services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
BI has continued to thrive and remake itself over the years, unlike many other grassroots Jewish communities such as the first Havurah that disbanded after 50 years in 2011 (Weiner 2011).1 One pattern that enables BI to continuously recreate itself is by allowing visions of how to create Jewish community to change with the times and the specific needs of the congregants. For example, one of the main reasons BI formed as a synagogue in the first place was the need, as per the Jewish mitzvah (commandment), for a founding member to say Kaddish (the mourner's prayer) in the presence of other congregants consistently for a year, subsequent to the passing of his father. Likewise, BI's Chevra Kadisha (committee to ritually prepare the dead) was established only after a very young mother in the congregation tragically developed a fatal brain tumor and asked to be buried following Jewish Halakhic rites.
In the oral histories I have collected, this instrumentalism toward building Jewish community often translated to a ‘do it yourself’ ethos. Thus, many early BI members who were not particularly observant claimed that they were surprised to find themselves creating a synagogue. As one founding member whom I will call Jerry put it, “My wife and I would look at each other in services and say to ourselves, ‘Isn't it funny that a couple of atheists like us are leading services?’” Jerry then went on to note that leading services was far preferable to just sitting passively and listening, claiming, “I always said that I wouldn't want to attend any services that I wasn't leading.”
The ethos for founding a synagogue rather than a community center or some other Jewish structure was also instrumental in several ways. There simply was not enough money, or enough congregants, to establish a community center, which would require investment in a physical space. In the early days, BI relied on inviting the occasional visiting rabbi as well as renting space in churches and even bars on Saturday mornings. At a certain point, as noted in one oral history, the smell of cigarettes and stale beer became too much, leading congregants to bid on a cheaply priced local abandoned school. The congregation grew over the years but remains small at roughly 100 families. Furthermore, the number of Jews in the area has been steadily declining since the early 1990s such that the more established local conservative synagogue currently boasts only 200 families.
After almost two decades of existing as a lay-led, unaffiliated congregation, in 1988 BI hired a rabbi. Around that time, the congregation also affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement, which, although considered less than ideal by some congregants, was seen as the best fit for our egalitarian ethos. A father of four daughters, Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism in the 1920s, wanted Judaism to become egalitarian (advocating for women to become rabbis) and more progressive in general (Moore and Bush 2007). Similarly, even prior to our affiliation with the ‘Recon’ movement, women in BI have always literally ‘counted’ as part of the minyan (ten adults needed to read Torah) since the congregation's start in 1970.
Reconstructionism also suited the congregation's intellectual approach to Judaism, which is distinct from other non-traditional movements such as Jewish Renewal, which emphasizes embodied spirituality and mysticism (Barenblat 2012). Reconstructionism was founded on a modernist belief of Judaism as a civilization, rather than a religion, and encourages critical thinking rather than a strict adherence to Jewish religious law (or Halakhah). For Kaplan, modernization involved viewing Judaism as an evolving civilization that should accommodate change to suit the times. Reconstructionism therefore eschews revelation. The Torah is acknowledged to be a text written by human men and not the word of God; thus, all people whether Jewish or not are considered equal before God. Furthermore, under Reconstructionism, Halakhah is recategorized as ‘folkways’ and not as religious law, making the distinction between ritual and commandments (Moore and Bush 2007: 135).
Unlike Orthodox communities, BI, in common with other Reconstructionist synagogues, is open to intermarriage and counts Jewish identity as being inherited through the father as well as the mother. In contrast, however, to other Reconstructionist synagogues, decades after BI's founding, several highly active members had not converted to Judaism until the board decided in the early 1990s that only officially ‘Jewish’ individuals (by birth or conversion) could read Torah at b'nai Mitzvah.2 This spirit of inclusivity and accommodation that is typical of BI is particularly attractive to families like mine. Both my Jewish-born Peruvian husband and I, a convert, feel welcome and entitled to our own opinions about how and why we want to be Jewish, much like Steven's narrative about his childhood memories of pot roast. And although our synagogue comprises a lot of families like mine, with one Jewish-born partner and one convert, it also accommodates Jews of every stripe—some having been raised Conservative or Orthodox, and others coming from countries around the world, including Turkey, India, Colombia, Hungary, and Russia.
Our affiliation with Reconstructionism notwithstanding, BI continues to wrestle with tradition by openly engaging with the eclectic beliefs and practices of its membership. I propose that BI has continued to achieve Jewish community for 50 years not only through our shared vision for radical inclusion but also through a shared practice of intensive, public discursive interactions that enact a sharedness of purpose: to create Jewish community by wrestling with tradition. At a bar mitzvah I attended recently, the printed event program explained our synagogue's adherence to Reconstructionism, mentioning also that our congregation alternates between the Reconstructionist and Conservative siddur (prayer book). The program read: “Unlike Reform Judaism, Reconstructionism encourages members to adhere to traditional practices unless they have a carefully considered reason not to.” It then added: “Our Sabbath services alternate between the Reconstructionist prayer book and the Conservative prayer book. This week's service uses the Reconstructionist one.” The program made several aspects of our synagogue evident, including our rejection of Reform Judaism's approach to tradition, which is often seen by Reconstructionists and Conservative Jews as ritually diluted, as well as our lack of total adherence to Reconstructionism.
This radical eclecticism—inclusiveness combined with a strong sense of what we are not—encapsulate the ethos of BI which, over its 50 years, has attempted to accommodate members’ various desires and needs. When our initially non-affiliated congregation was founded, some members were used to using the Conservative siddur such that even after we affiliated with Reconstructionism in the 1980s, we continued to lead services with the Conservative prayer book half the time. Thus, I would argue that this creative mix is not simply an outgrowth of our current attachment to Reconstructionism, which actively encourages critically engaging tradition, but rather that BI's grassroots, communal, and congregational approach to Jewish community has changed profoundly as members have changed over time.
Recently, however, after our previous rabbi of 15 years retired, our community has come under renewed self-scrutiny in the context of our search for a new rabbi. Renewed instrumentalist and even existentialist questions have arisen. Do we need a rabbi? Do we advertise for one as a Reconstructionist synagogue? And, more urgently, (how long) can we afford a rabbi, given our falling membership? Like many Jewish synagogues in the Midwest, we are experiencing the pinch of declining populations of Jews throughout the region. And, poignantly, several of our older congregants have either moved or passed away.
Integral to these existential questions is, how long can we sustain our synagogue from a ritual or liturgical perspective? That is, for how long will we be able to maintain the required minyan of ten Jewish adults to read Torah on Saturday mornings, which might be considered a ritual minimum to even exist as a synagogue? The diversity, not only of belief but also of Jewish practices found among BI members, begs the question, does such diversity itself form a threat to the survival of the congregation, precisely because of different practices, such as a reluctance to attend prayers on Saturdays? That is, what does it mean to be a spiritual community when neither coherent beliefs nor practices are what hold the community together? And how do and how will we remain a Jewish community if newer members like me do not shift toward embracing some of the practices of our founders to become part of the minyan on Saturday mornings?3
To illustrate these discursive negotiations of sharedness, I turn to an interaction that occurred at a BI ‘transition team’ meeting to discuss whether and how to proceed with hiring a new rabbi.
“We Have a School-Shul Problem”
Our congregational co-president, Rachel, uttered these words while a dozen board members and congregants, me included, sat in the congregational social hall—a former elementary school cafeteria—for our transition team meeting. Rachel looked directly at me when she spoke them. As the only member present below 60 years of age, I had quickly turned into the ‘young’ representative for the ‘school’ half of this equation and thus seemingly the focus of our dilemma about how to maintain our congregation in the midst of falling membership numbers. The phrase ‘school-shul’ was often used at BI to describe the ways that our community was divided. ‘Shul’ was used to refer to the minyan or those congregants (many over 65) who led and attended Saturday Shabbat services. The term ‘school’ was used to describe those like me, who bring their children to the Sunday Hebrew school, attend services on High Holy days, and sometimes take part in cultural and adult education activities.
BI congregants’ active negotiation of sharedness and purpose encourages adherents in our Reconstructionist synagogue to engage with Jewishness and Jewish community through a variety of practices and spiritual lenses that may directly relate to Torah and scripture or, alternatively, to secular adult education and grassroots activism (tikkun olam). In addition to traditional shul activities, such as attending weekly Saturday morning services to read Torah and to pray, congregants engage in many activities that repurpose spiritual Jewish ritual as secular practice, such as textual analysis; or purely social activities, for example, bowling and book clubs; or even imported forms of spirituality, such as transcendental meditation on Saturday afternoons. BI thus espouses Jewish community that openly allows (but does not force) adherents to spiritually engage through a secular lens, even though our congregation includes very devout members as well.
That night, however, our discussion about BI's future was tinged with anxiety, with the feeling of impending doom or death. Seventy-five percent of our members are over 60 years old. Furthermore, not only are there not enough members in my ‘younger’ generation, our priorities and commitment to BI—at least as they were posed that night—are not that of the minyan. Responding to our co-president's comment, an older congregant stated: “I look around on Saturday morning, and it's the same group of us in services looking at each other asking, ‘Well are you going to do this portion of the Torah? Or should I?’ It really is becoming a small group of us.” Another congregant added: “The Rosenburgs are leaving—that's a huge blow. And Minnie and I, you know, our grandchildren all live in New York. At some point you want to live near your grandkids.” Fears that we are a ‘dying’ congregation wore heavily on each of us at that moment and had done so for a long time. Worse yet than ‘dying’, in some congregants’ opinion, we had begun seriously weighing the possibility of rejoining the nearby hybrid Reform/Conservative congregation from which our split in 1970 had created our congregation in the first place.
And yet, not too long after raising the school-shul issue for discussion, Rachel equivocated, saying that she hated to talk about our community as divided in these stark terms. She further pointed out that she had realized her distaste for this when she caught herself talking earlier in the evening about the minyan as if it were a separate entity from the rest of the congregation. Rachel's questioning of her own categorization of ‘shul’ versus ‘school’ evokes the ways that, to preserve the community, congregants feel an urgency to both publicly acknowledge divisions but also to encourage inclusion. And in that vein, our discussion that night was itself a meta-discursive contemplation on the maintenance of sharedness and community unity.
Looking at me pointedly during her entire statement, Rachel went on to reiterate that we were one community, we were all congregants and talking about ourselves as divided into shul/school or minyan versus non-minyan was part of the problem. I responded to her comments as follows: “For whatever reason, the school folks don't attend Shabbat services. This is a structural issue, and we can schedule our way out of this.” Let me be clear, when I used “for whatever reason” to explain why people like me don't go to Shabbat services, I was actually considering a few good reasons that ‘folks like me’ did not attend Saturday services, including a lack of belief in God as well as a preference for not spending both Saturday and Sunday at BI, the day scheduled for Hebrew school events.
Our discussion then turned to the structural issue of having Shabbat services on a day separate from Hebrew Sunday school. I publicly voiced a wish, also voiced by our former rabbi, that Hebrew school should be scheduled on Saturday mornings, so that there could be a more organic integration between school children learning to be Jewish and the adult minyan ‘doing being’ Jewish by reading Torah. Structural issues that impeded this vision were varied but included, first and foremost, soccer and other team sports events that almost always occur on Saturday mornings owing to the Christian culture of preserving Sunday mornings for church. But other, more local Jewish concerns also predominated. Although most of our Reconstructionist congregants chose to drive their cars to the synagogue on Saturdays, many of them also chose not to write on paper or use electronics at services on Shabbat, which constituted the mainstay of school activities. These seemingly incongruent but actually carefully pondered choices provide a good example of creative negotiation of tradition and modern living typical of Reconstructionist Judaism generally and of BI in particular.
As each impediment to combining shul and school was listed by congregants, other transition team members attempted to find a solution. And this problem-solving, “let's think our way through this together” approach is typical of B'nai Israel. For example, a congregant remembered aloud that many years ago, in order to satisfy a need for adult education, the board had voted it acceptable to write on paper on Shabbat so long as it was not in the sanctuary. I conceded that we could possibly have Hebrew school meet once a month on Saturday morning, and folks could forgo an occasional soccer game. And although my naive convert's suggestion that we have Shabbat services once a month on Sunday morning was rejected with friendly laughs, a serious discussion ensued about how to solve the issue: we could have services once a month on a Friday night and forgo Saturday morning services that week. Those congregants who felt it a spiritual necessity to read Torah on Shabbat (which can only occur certain days of the week that do not include Friday or Sunday) could go over to the congregation with whom we had split but with whom we were already conducting combined summer services due to falling numbers there as well.
Our discussion that night exemplified how congregants engage in negotiating sharedness in a community of mixed heterodoxy and heteropraxis. I propose that these public and explicit discursive negotiations are the means by which congregants at BI achieve such radical inclusion and eclectic notions of sharedness. And I would emphasize here that the work we did that night was discursive and performative; we have yet to make any of the proposed structural changes. These public, existential deliberations that are our means of forming community often involve poignant and even painful public soul-searching, as was the case at the transition team meeting. While discussing how to bridge the school-shul divide, our conversation turned to the future of BI, the subject of numerous discussions in the 10 years since I joined the congregation.
These discursive negotiations were not limited to debates on how to increase attendance; they were also illustrated strikingly well in the context of a board meeting to discuss whether and how to amend the incoming rabbi's contract to better describe expectations for his ritual duties. The below exchange exemplifies the processual, public debate similar to our discussion of the school-shul problem. In participants’ negotiations of the rabbi's contract, board members engage not only in an overt discussion of the incoming rabbi's ritual duties, but also in a discursive enactment of the congregation we are and would like to be in the future.
The Rabbi Question(s): What Does Leadership in a Congregational Synagogue Look Like?
Beyond the existential shul-school quandary that Rachel identified above, our search for a new rabbi caused us to do intensive soul-searching in the form of talking and writing about how we should represent ourselves to the outside Jewish world. In the six months prior to the board meeting that I analyze below, we conducted a survey of congregants to determine what kind of appointed leader, if any, we wanted: a rabbi, a cantor, a Jewish professional, or a Jewish educator. We also needed to decide if we wanted to commit to advertising with the Reconstructionist movement or to open our search up through non-affiliated status. Finally, we formed several committees, including the aforementioned transition team, to read resources, discuss values, and generate documents, such as a job description, that described our community in detail.
One of the products of our heartfelt discursive soul-searching was a document, co-authored by several congregants, entitled “Who We Are,” which was created to engage in thinking about how we wanted to represent ourselves to the outside world during our rabbi search. Initially, the document read: “We encompass believers and doubters and wrestlers with faith, and people of diverse views on such matters as prayer and Halakhah (Jewish law).” In response, our co-president Rachel had laughingly commented: “It's like Israel doesn't even exist, folks!” The document was amended to read: “We encompass believers and doubters and wrestlers with faith, and people of diverse views on such matters as prayer and Halakhah (Jewish law) and Israel.”
Such diversity of views extended in BI not only to engagement with Israel, which is often beyond debate for many Jewish congregations,4 but also about whether we really ‘needed’ a rabbi, even though the survey showed undisputedly that a vast majority of congregants wanted to hire one. Although our congregation had been moving toward accepting that we needed a rabbi, this was, perhaps surprisingly, not at all a foregone conclusion. As we younger congregants were reminded many times over the transition period, the founding families of BI had not needed a rabbi. In a fashion similar to the school-shul quandary, these public discussions about whether to hire a rabbi revealed that, in general, compared to the intrepid founders of BI who had ‘done it all’ themselves, members in my younger generation were very in favor of employing a rabbi. Reasons varied for doing so, but focused generally on needing a leader to help with life-cycle events, such as teaching b'nai Mitzvah.
Many senior congregants were also in favor of hiring a leader, tending to see the rabbi as central for leading services, providing pastoral care, and contributing to adult education. And still some of those same congregants who had not wanted to affiliate initially with Reconstructionism in the late 1990s still did not think we needed the ‘structure’ of a rabbi. In the end, however, the vast majority of members preferred to hire a rabbi to replace our retired leader. In our public deliberations about these matters, we also debated whether we wanted to commit to advertising only with the Reconstructionist movement or open our search up through non-affiliated status despite having been affiliated for almost 30 years. Again, the vast majority of congregants supported hiring a rabbi and advertising, at least initially, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.
Wrapping up this six-month process of self-examination, the board meeting that I analyze below was called to iron out the final steps to hire our new rabbi. Specifically, on that night in June 2020, we met via Zoom to discuss the contractual terms by which we would engage our newly hired rabbi, who is himself a product of our congregation in that his parents were and are still active members at BI. In particular, the discussion revolved around how to explicitly indicate the ritual expectations of the rabbi in his contract without being overly controlling of his vision or time.
At this meeting, a senior member of the congregation, Barry, took up the discussion of the difficulty of attaining a good fit or “marriage” with a rabbi at BI, given our congregational structure, even though we had already committed to hiring our current rabbi. As noted in the below interaction between a senior board member and the congregational president, the grassroots, congregational leadership style at BI has often made it challenging over the years for the congregation to ‘fit’ with a paid rabbi working for the synagogue. In what follows, I include portions of the transcribed exchange from this meeting to demonstrate the discursive process whereby congregants—and particularly long-term and respected members who possess deep Jewish and institutional knowledge—publicly negotiate how and why we engage in traditions and practices relating to the congregation. In this instance, the exchange between the senior congregant, Barry, and the congregational president, Simon, illustrates the active discursive work that goes into negotiating sharedness in terms of shared vision and purpose relating to ritual life. In fact, our discussion about the contract was less about an active need to amend it so much as negotiating the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of having a rabbi fit within our grassroots congregational style of leadership.
Prior to the exchange, the BI board (upon which I serve) engaged in a discussion of our bylaws, which stipulate that the synagogue “establish and maintain a Rabbi Liaison Committee,” relating not only to negotiating the rabbi's contract but also to acting as a go-between for the congregation and the rabbi. The discussion arose in response to a congregant's question regarding the role and composition of the Rabbi Liaison Committee mentioned in the contract, which was established under the previous rabbi and comprised of non-board members to assist the rabbi with congregational issues (and not as an evaluation committee). More specifically, our conversation revolved around whether and how to amend the contract to better fit the congregation's ritual needs, although it had already been signed by our incoming rabbi and was largely cribbed from the national Jewish Reconstructionist Federation. It is significant that, similar to the above discussion in which Rachel takes issue with her own categorization of the congregation as divided, Barry is publicly questioning and taking issue with a contract that he helped to write, as noted by Simon.
Barry: I mean it [the liaison committee] was really important for us at the beginning [when the first rabbi was hired] because we had never had a rabbi before. So we didn't know how to treat a rabbi back then. I don't know if we do now …
[Discussion turns to details of contract and especially how and where to specify the rabbi's role in ritual and life-cycle events, which in Barry's opinion is underdeveloped in the contract.]
Barry: On the ritual side, um, it really seems like a weak three bullet points here.
Simon: You're the one that drafted them, Barry! [laughter]
Barry: [reading from contract] “Share in planning, organizing, and leading religious services.” So it's as if he [the incoming rabbi] is not going to do anything in the services at all. I mean there's no expectation of what we would like him ritually to do at a service …
Barry goes on to discuss the types of activities that the rabbi could do to participate. Current president Simon and past co-president Levi agree on the issue of the contract and that they fully expect the rabbi to want to do the things Barry has mentioned, including d'vrei Torah, leading services, and participating in life-cycle events. But in the end, Simon and Levi argue for leaving the contract as it is in the interest of time, since nothing was set in stone as far as what the rabbi's job description would be, given that the contract, as per congregational bylaws, could be amended or replaced at any time. Simon also went on to say that the congregation would not prefer the rabbi to lead all the services, meaning that congregants in BI preferred to take an active role in leading services.
Barry: The biggest issue to me, ah, for this marriage to work well is for us to really agree on the power of the rabbi versus the power of the board.
Simon: In regards to?
Barry: Ritual matters, let's say. I mean, how much does the rabbi—ah, I mean, who's the boss?
Simon: Right, well we're not a Conservative congregation.
Barry: No, we're not a Conservative congregation. But those relationships, those relationships, I mean you don't have to be a Conservative congregation to have an authoritarian person, I mean, I know of many throughout [a variety of congregations], but, but, I think, um, letting the rabbi be a rabbi and letting him make ritual decisions because that's his degree, that's his world, that's his career, um, I think those kinds of issues are things that after six months, when we sort of revise this, and talk about visions and goals and that kind of thing, we can talk about that.
Simon: Yeah, no, you know I don't want to take too long but it's a good point. I mean this whole coming into a congregation that has a strong history of lay leadership, but we want a rabbi to be our spiritual leader, how do you balance respecting lay leadership and yet we want him to exert ritual leadership in the services. And similarly, yeah, it's value-based, it's consensus value-based decision making, he doesn't have unilateral power to make decisions on ritual matters, but at the same time I want to look to him for leadership in that. And you know it's not—I mean on one hand, it's kind of a democracy, but …
Barry: It's a delicate balance, my friend.
Simon: Right. I mean I want to defer to the rabbi. I mean it's his training, you know?
In the end, similar to our schedule for Shabbat services, the contract was not amended, although both the current and past presidents who attended this meeting agreed that the description of the rabbi's role in ritual and life-cycle events was underdeveloped. Rather than the legalistic aspects of amending a contract, the above conversation shows the high value our congregation gives to processual and discursive negotiations of the vision for sharedness, in this case in terms of the ritual life of BI as it relates to the rabbi's leadership. In this way, we not only ‘wrestle with God’ as Jews,5 but more centrally ‘wrestle with tradition’ in making and remaking ourselves as a Jewish community over the years through active and public discursive negotiation of sharedness.
By way of conclusion, I would like to jump backward several years to a beautiful moment during Rosh Hashanah in a pre-COVID context, when those congregants who wished could throw bread into a nearby lake in order to engage in tashlikh, or ‘throwing one's sins away’. Because I was raised strictly atheist by two ex-Catholics, I adore this ritual and love the opportunity to rid myself of the guilt that I have taken on by osmosis from my fallen-away parents. Sadie, a congregant who is both an epidemiologist and a poet, usually leads this ritual, and she always includes secular poems by non-Jews: as she says, “What would Rosh Hashanah be without a little Walt Whitman?” As we stood around reading poems and prayers together in the rare fall sunlight, I turned to Rachel and admitted that as much as I loved tashlikh, I didn't really believe in God. She said emphatically, “That's ok! There are so many ways to be Jewish, including engaging in social justice issues [tikkun olam]. My own grown kids are Jewish this way. They say, what kind of insecure and egotistical God would need to be praised constantly through prayer? They say that it's better that we protest than pray.”
As this conversation shows, congregants within BI purposefully and publicly negotiate sharedness relative to notions of Jewish community through practices and beliefs, both in key interactional moments, such as during board meetings, and over time in the five decades of the congregation's existence. It remains to be seen if these innovative kinds of measures can help us become what Hayim Herring (2012) has called ‘tomorrow's synagogue today’. Beyond scheduling issues, our very innovative and somewhat reconstructionist no-one-size-fits-all model for Jewish community fits Herring's vision to a T. And such eclecticism is certainly our strength in my eyes, but it may also well be our downfall relative to our falling numbers generally and our shrinking minyan. That said, our diversity of need, opinion, practice, and belief is described by Herring as futuristic, but is considered quite normal for our congregation—and has been so for the past 50 years.
My heartfelt thanks to congregants in B'nai Israel who generously shared their experiences with me as well as comments on an earlier draft. I am also grateful to the journal's editors and the anonymous reviewers whose suggestions were incredibly helpful for my revisions. All errors and omissions are my own.
Although the American Havurim movement might have had its heyday in the 1970s, a resurgence of interest in founding independent minyanim (minyan, pl.) throughout the United States beginning in the early 2000s has been noted by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer (2010).
Whereas intermarriage is often viewed as a crisis of “continuity” in Judaism, as Tenenbaum (2000) and Yares (2019) both note, current research indicates that Jewish community can be created and maintained through non-traditional means in line with that seen at BI.
Despite the recent resurgence of minyanim noted by Kaunfer (2010), which shows that American Jews are continuing to create new interpretations of how to practice Judaism, the school-shul rift is one that can be interpreted as a nationwide issue in the present day (Fermaglich, pers. comm.).
For example, in his marvelous book, Tomorrow's Synagogue Today, which the transition team read as part of our committee work, Hayim Herring (2012: 62) lists the issues necessary to contemplate prior to collaborating with others: first, “Love of the State of Israel”; second, “Respect for all people”; and, third, “Spirituality.”
‘To wrestle with God’ is the literal translation of ‘Israel’, a word that in the Torah stands in for ‘the Jewish people’.
Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. “Think Practically and Look Locally: Language and Gender as Community-Based Practice.” Annual Review of Anthropology 21: 461–490.
Fader, Ayala. 2009. Mitzvah Girls: Bringing Up the Next Generation of Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Fermaglich, Kirsten. 2020. “‘It's the Community That We've Made’: Jewish Migration to East Lansing, Michigan, in the Postwar Era.” In Wandering Jews: Global Jewish Migration, ed. Steven J. Gold, 179–209. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
Kaunfer, Elie. 2010. Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing.
Moore, Deborah Dash, and Andrew Bush. 2007. “Mitzvah, Gender, and Reconstructionist Judaism.” In Women Remaking American Judaism, ed. Riv-Ellen Prell, 135–152. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.
Weiland, Steven. 1994. “Looking for Lionel Trilling in All the Wrong Places, or Becoming a Land Grant Jew.” Antioch Review 52 (3): 416–431.
Weiner, Rex. 2011. “Whittier Celebrates the Last Hurrah of America's First Havurah.” Forward, 13 July. https://forward.com/news/139829/whittier-celebrates-the-last-hurrah-of-america-s/.
Yares, Laura. 2017. “Say It with Flowers: Shavuot, Confirmation, and Ritual Reimagination for a Modern American Judaism.” Shofar 35 (4): 1–19.
Yares, Laura. 2019. “Review of Samira K. Mehta, ‘Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States.’” Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 14 (1): 1–3.