I think that this one-sided conversation I am going to have with you is far too complex to limit our religious assimilation down to the beautiful melodies that I grew up singing. However, I was having a beer/cider with one of my favorite rabbis in the community. We tend to discuss American Judaism on the nerdiest of levels. As I was on a rant – typical behavior on my part – I spewed something out, “American Jews, like myself, sometimes battle between the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements. I assure you much of it has to do with our love for catchy Debbie Friedman tunes and summer camp memories. The problem is that I feel like I’m at a rock concert when I go to some synagogues and therefore prefer more conservative shuls for prayer because I am not looking for a camp environment within brick and mortar.”
Then it dawned on me. For many of my friends and I, we find it “strange” seeing these cantors strumming their guitars in the middle of a Rosh Hashanah service or on Yom Kippur. Even as a kid, my Reform synagogue limited the amount of instrumentals. However, at camp I sang Friedman’s tunes and still find myself gravitating towards those tunes on any given day. In many ways, her music shaped my Jewish views of prayer. As I have hit adulthood, many of the Conservative synagogues have become similar in practice to the Reform and Reconstructionist. It seems as though the older I get, the more similar they seem – the way we pray is not so different from one place to the next.
Now, I don’t need letters explaining to me the differences in religious movements and history of each movement’s founding. I know what they are – I promise. However, if you’re in search of a stark difference in prayer, you’re almost required to attend a more traditional/Orthodox place of worship. Here you have the ability to identify clear differences between other movements. This meshing makes it harder for this Goldilocks to find a synagogue that is “just right” (in regards to prayer). Another caveat, this is not a commentary on any person or persons within these movements and none is “better” than another.
It sparks my curiosity to know if this shift in prayer has in any way shaped the use of the label “Just Jewish” for millennials. Is it because our places of worship are great, but do not offer a unique experience, unlike any other in the area? Many of us go to a specific place because we like the rabbi or the cantor, but how many of us have been to multiple venues? I speak personally when I say the thing that sets these places of worship apart, for me, is the sermon delivered by the rabbi, typically not the service itself.
If it all starts to look the same, does it matter that it stemmed from historically different rationales? Why is it that prayer is not drawing our OC community to synagogues, and does that matter when we are drawn in by such great community?
Prayer has changed within the past 30 years. Yes, it has changed since the beginning of Judaism, but prayer has changed rapidly and is continuing to change. As the rate of interfaith marriage and assimilation rise and synagogue membership is on the decline, I think it is imperative that our Jewish community questions if the way we pray and how we value prayer has any role in these major shifts for OC’s Jewish community.