The assimilationists shied away from our Jewish holidays as obstacles on the road to their submergence among the majority because they were ashamed of anything which would identify them as a distinct group, but why must we carry on their tradition? … We must determine the value of the present and of the past with our own eyes and examine them from the viewpoint of our vital needs, from the viewpoint of progress toward our own future.
-Berl Katzenelson, Socialist Zionist Leader (1887-1944)
Shorashim, where I live, is an exurban gated community of 100 families, five minutes from the city of Karmiel and from the nearest Arab village, surrounded by olive groves, with a view out to the sea. It was founded as a moshav shitufi (commune) thirty years ago by young Americans who comprised a cross section of the liberal wing of North American Jewish life, and it was privatized 20 years ago. It is a congregation of the Conservative movement, which is manifest mainly in the fact that the kids belong to the No’am youth movement. The synagogue holds services Friday night and Saturday morning and on holidays, fully egalitarian. There is no rabbi; the synagogue functions by rotation of the various liturgical roles among volunteers. There are no dues, as the modest expenses of operating the synagogue are covered by the local taxes paid by all residents for local services. Highlights of the synagogue year (in terms of both spirit and numbers) are bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, the High Holy Days, the Purim Megilah Reading, and occasional communal meals on other holidays.
The conversation, among the active synagogue-goers, about whether the glass is half empty or half full, never seems to stop. On the one hand, in the good old days, there was a weekly rotation of families to present a story or game to attract the young children in the middle of the Friday evening service, a custom which died out years ago due to aging and burnout of the founders. And there are new families who clearly have no interest in the synagogue beyond their own kid’s bar/bat mitzvah, if that. On the other hand, there were always members who rarely came to synagogue – and among the “new families” there are a number who have become pillars of the cultural and religious life surrounding the synagogue, and others who just show up with encouraging frequency. The main locus of this debate is of course among the diehards of the synagogue committee, who always have a finger on the pulse and are constantly trying to interpret what they feel.
Recently, after still another round of this conversation, the committee decided to try a low-risk investment in pro-activism, and announced a pot-luck Friday night dinner after services, with a challah-baking workshop in the afternoon. After two postponements due to our own disorganization, 27 families signed up (about 100 people), filling the social hall, with a nice mixture of generations and social groups. I had staked out two seats for us at a table with friends, when Tami saw a new family sitting by themselves and dragged me off to do my civic duty. They turned out to be a young couple with four little kids, the father a gym teacher and the mother a police detective – who grew up nearby and went to high school with our oldest son. They are living (happily, somehow) in a 400-square foot mobile home unit while their house is being planned and built. They were attracted to Shorashim because of its location and its size, and only during their absorption process did they discover our religious orientation. They both grew up in secular or even anti-religious homes, and felt that the liberal traditional approach of Shorashim was an added attraction; they felt that they were missing something, especially in terms of raising their kids; they were happy that their oldest was involved in the youth group, and they welcomed opportunities like this dinner, to learn traditions that they might make their own. Their first question to us was: So, what is the difference between Reform and Conservative?
My impression is that while they may not be typical of their generation – neither is their story an uncommon one. It was a pleasant evening, and we went home reassured that the glass is at least half full.