Two Essays by Reuven Goldfarb

Below are two essays by Reuven Goldfarb (Shomer Emeritus, Aquarian Minyan), both included in his new collection, Trains of Thought: Essays, Articles, and Features. Reuven can be queried regarding its availability for single copy purchase by phone (510-868-0272) and via email at poetsprogress (at)

Thoughts or reactions? E-mail to pr (at)





Dear colleagues,

Can Renewal congregations be full service? (For that matter, can Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist ones?) Here's a fairly common situation. A member loses a parent. She wants to say Kaddish, but your congregation only meets once a week. So she seeks out a congregation nearby with a more frequent meeting schedule and finds a Conservative minyan that meets on Mondays and Thursday at 8 am, an orthodox shul that meets daily at 7 and Sundays at 8, and another orthodox shul that begins at 6:30 on weekdays and Sundays at 8. Both orthodox shuls have a women's section directly adjacent to the men's, with a low mechitzah and respect for women saying Kaddish. The Conservative synagogue is egalitarian both in seating and in granting opportunities for active participation.

Let's suppose she decides, for reasons of personal convenience — time, location, and dependability — to attend one of the orthodox shuls. After an initial period of adjustment, she grows increasingly comfortable there and begins to look forward to davening from an ArtScroll or Birnbaum Siddur. She enjoys the rhythm of the service, as it affords her an opportunity for deep reflection. She also finds the structure is comforting and that social games are at a minimum. No one badgers her to join or asks her for money, though out of principle she feels she ought to at least make a donation and does so, without becoming a member — yet. (This in addition to the amount she drops in the Tzedakah box every weekday she's there.) Another woman, about her age, also comes to daily minyan. She begins forming a friendship with her and discussing some of the issues that still trouble her about gender-defined roles in the orthodox world. She notices that the woman easily approaches the rabbi with liturgical and halachic questions and so she, too, begins to ask for explanations and for his opinions and advice.

Or say it's a man. Same applies, only in addition he is counted for a minyan and begins to be depended upon when a few of the regular attendees must miss a day or more. He begins to realize that just as the group is important to him, he is important to the group. People recognize him now and smile and nod or otherwise greet him when he arrives. If he is the tenth, they are especially glad to see him. When he seems lost in the service, someone will often discreetly show him the place. Or perhaps, focused on their own devotions, they will let him figure it out for himself. He begins to receive synagogue honors — an aliyah, hagbah or g’lilah, and the opening of the ark curtain and door.

He comes to realize that the liturgy is packed with a variety of prayers. He begins to classify them — the preliminary service, p'sukei d'zimra, kriyat Shema, Amidah, Tachanun, Torah, and so on. At some you stand, at others you sit, at others you bow your head. Sometimes you cover your eyes, and sometimes you kiss the scroll. Sometimes you vocally respond to a cue; sometimes you raise your voice; sometimes you lower your voice. Sometimes you fall silent, and sometimes you stand on your toes. Synagogue choreography gradually becomes familiar to him, and he notices that certain feelings are associated with each kind of vocalization and body position.

He walks a long distance on Shabbat morning to attend the orthodox synagogue's service and finds there a large number of families — many with young children and even adolescents — along with single people and unmarried couples who are somewhat formally dressed and who seem knowledgeable and motivated. The service is longer than on the weekdays and the pace more relaxed. There are joyous melodies which everyone seems to know and to which they sing along loudly, men, women, and children alike. The rabbi's D'var Torah is coherent and thoughtful. More than once he finds himself nodding in agreement as the rabbi makes his point and drives it home with examples from scripture and daily life.

What is happening here? We find that many individuals, not just the two in my sample, are not getting their spiritual needs fully met in the renewal congregation to which they belong — especially as these needs expand. They are going out into the wider Jewish community and finding alternatives to the alternative that first drew them in. Will Jewish renewal ever expand to meet the needs of these worshippers? Should it try? Is Jewish renewal a gateway and mainstream Judaism the destination? Is it possible that institutional renewal can remain the same while the renewal Jew continues seeking and goes beyond it? I think these are important questions for leaders in the movement for Jewish renewal to grapple with. I am sure I am not the only one on this list who has noticed these trends, thought about them a bit, and even walked that walk.

Should we say, "Zei gezundeheit!" (Go in good health!) or try to include more traditional norms in our spiritual offerings? Should we try to establish a daily minyan? What would that look like? Who would lead it? And so on. Personally, I like Geela Rayzel's response to an earlier email:

"Judaism needs a multi-dimensional key to unlock its richness. Some enter through Hebrew, some through Torah, some through Kaballah. I think renewal should be praised for offering a new facet of the key to the world for seekers to enter. Entry points are only doorways, not final destinations. Thanks to all who offer their gifts.

"GRR [April 27, '03]"

But that applies mostly on an individual basis. It does not answer the question of how the renewal community should respond to the changing — often radically changing — needs of its members.

I am interested in hearing your views.





[Written on 4 Iyar, 5763/May 6, 2003, and sent to the Aleph-Pnai-Or list on 5 Iyar, 5763 (Yom HaAtzmaut) / May 7, 2003]




(The Future of Renewal?)


Here's another hypothetical situation. Let's suppose your renewal community is the first one of its kind to put down roots in your bustling metropolitan community. Many spiritually hungry Jews are drawn into your collective embrace by your ecstatic services. Over time, some kind of governing structure is developed to schedule and organize events, keep track of funds, and make policy decisions. Eventually, the volunteers begin to feel over-extended, and so they hire a coordinator from among their ranks and begin paying a spiritual leader who can conduct services and offer classes. Just at this point another group forms, one with similar vibes but a slightly different agenda — perhaps more political or musical or meditative. This group requests that you not schedule your weekly Kabbalat Shabbat on one Friday a month, for just a few months, to help them get rolling. They rapidly acquire a strong following; in fact, many of your members start going to their services. The omitted Friday night becomes a permanent feature on your schedule.

Lo and behold, another group forms. This one also wants to borrow one of your Friday nights. By now you've wised up and ask them to hold their events in a neighboring town, where they already have a base, rather than compete in the same territory. Although these terms, "territory" and "compete," are foreign to your notion of renewal, you have to look at the reality of the situation. Your numbers are stagnating and your program committee is hesitant to schedule events when the other groups are having theirs, fearing a low turnout. Furthermore, this new group has money and is actually offering some of your key leaders tempting sums to come and take starring roles in their services. The band you have hired every year to play on Purim or Simchat Torah is offered double the money to play in the neighboring town. You are beginning to feel treated like a banana republic, even though the leader of the rival group is the biggest anti-capitalist around and preaches compassion and cooperation. Finally he begins scheduling events in your backyard anyway, but you suppose that his constituency does not overlap yours, at least not significantly. You're also infuriated by his group's advertising, which makes frequent slighting references to your style of renewal.

What else? Both groups are using your carefully crafted innovative liturgy with scant acknowledgement, slicing and dicing it to meet their perceived needs. You publicize their events at your events, but they won't publicize yours. Meanwhile, there is trouble at home — infighting in your chevra. Ego struggles, personality conflicts, rhetorical battles, and old grievances threaten to tear your community apart. But the neighboring communities, with their founders in control, seem immune to internal bickering. Members who don't like the hierarchical structure and its policies just leave. Your organization seems to have lost focus amid its wounds and resentments. What do you do now? If this were a board game, you could choose 1) go back to your roots; 2) go on the offensive; 3) call on a higher authority to intervene; 4) dissolve; 5) convene a sulha.

If this were an essay contest, I'd say, best reply wins a prize. Since I don't know what prize would be suitable and affordable, I'll offer a bracha and a chance to put the pilot plan into operation as a consultant. This honor can be declined, of course. But I would like some advice for this fictional community and its newly-elected Council, the situation of which, like it or not, might pre-figure the future of renewal.

[This open letter, which I originally composed on May 13, 2003, was never sent to anyone, nor has it been previously posted anywhere. What we did: found an excellent facilitator and worked on our internal inter-personal issues, especially those that interfered with our collective decision-making process. It took many years and many challenging sessions to begin to correct our dysfunctional relationships. However, good progress was made and greater stability achieved. Occasionally there has been some backsliding, but a general commitment to the good of the community has enabled it to cohere, to develop new programs and approaches, to attract new leaders, and, despite a steady turnover in membership, to maintain its viability. — Reuven Goldfarb, Shomer Emeritus, Aquarian Minyan]