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Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Vanishing American Jew

Last Friday night I attended "services" at a Reconstructionist "synagogue" in Irvine, California. No, I did not lose my mind (yet).

The group of Israelis I was with for the 2-week educational course were invited to participate in a panel about higher education in Israel, and this took place at this "synagogue". As it was our last evening together, I wanted to come and say goodbye to everyone, so after going to a real synagogue for services, I walked over to this place. As it happens, I arrived there just as the "services" were starting, so I was lucky enough to witness the whole charade.

This was no regular Friday. On this particular Friday evening, the event was called "Shabbat Alive", an especially lively show. There was a male "rabbi" and a female "cantor", who coincidentally also happen to be happily married. Both wore a tallit and a kippah. The "rabbi" had a wireless microphone attached to his jacket lapel; the "cantor" used a regular microphone. The "cantor" played a guitar, in addition to being accompanied by two sidekick singers and a band consisting of three musicians, no less.

The "services" were a mishmash of songs, some completely secular (such as Halleluyah, an Israeli song that won the Eurovision song contest back in the 1980s), combined with bits and pieces from the siddur (prayer book). In the spirit of egalitarianism, some of the passages were recited in both male and female format. This was carried to absurdity: when the blessing over the bread - which, for some odd reason, took place during the "service" even though dinner had already been eaten by the congregation - was recited twice, once as "ha-motsi" (male) and once as "ha-motsi'a" (female). The congregation itself, an assortment of Jews and Gentiles, 200+ strong, were sat in a movie-like theater, facing the stage. I thought this was appropriate, as this was indeed more a spectacle than a prayer.

But the most suprising part for me was not the actual event. Rather, it was the reaction of my fellow Israeli friends, all of them secular. Some of them were more shocked than I was. To them, Judaism was purely Orthodox; in the spirit of Isaiah Berlin's famous words: the synagogue they do not frequent is an Orthodox one. So what transpired on the stage was nothing short of an abomination to them. One of my friends, a proclaimed atheist, refused to put a kippah on his head, saying he was so angry at the fact that the Jewish religion was being put to such mockery that he would not play along.

Even though halachically-speaking I shouldn't have attended this "service" (the hillul ha-Shem there was blatantly obvious), in a way glad I'm glad I did. Seeing with my own eyes what Judaism was reduced to in America was in many respects an eye-opening experience. Although from a historical perspective such aberrations were proven to be short-lived, it was still important to me to witness first-hand a symptom of "the vanishing American Jew" (the title of an excellent book by Alan Dershowitz).

If I were to look for a bright point in this story, I guess it is the following. There is some value to be found in these "religious" movements, as some Jews in America would have no connection whatsoever to Judaism were it not for the existence of the Reform or Reconstructionist movements. I heard from various people in the Jewish community in Irvine that there are many cases of the second generation (the children of the parent that married out) veering back towards Judaism, some even becoming practicing Orthodox Jews. So perhaps there is some sense and purpose in this madness.

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