Masorti minus prize preachers

col-lipskiSAM LIPSKI

LAST Shabbat, I went to a kiddush at my shul, Melbourne’s Kehilat Nitzan. It was a bittersweet occasion, and not only because there were two styles of herring – shmaltz and pickled – and two styles of cake – honey and plum. There were mixed feelings of sadness and gratitude because we were farewelling Rabbi Ehud Bandel, the shul’s first rabbi, who had led us for the past five years, and was now returning to Israel.

There was sadness – because in a very personal way he had won the hearts and minds of the hundreds who had come to say lehitraot, and who knew they would miss him greatly. But there was gratitude, too, because he had touched and guided so many, memorably and warmly, through the important life-cycle moments that matter.
For much of the past five years, anybody Googling “Conservative Masorti Judaism in Australia” would have found Rabbi Bandel’s reflections on his Aussie congregation. Acknowledging that while “most Australian Jews have not yet heard about us”, Rabbi Bandel said that once anybody came to Nitzan, they felt they had found their place.
“The synthesis between modernity and halachah, innovation and conservatism, egalitarianism and traditional prayer and, above all, our welcoming non-judgemental spirit, is the answer to their spiritual search and needs.”

Up to a point, Rabbi Bandel was right. Especially about egalitarianism and traditional prayer. Visitors familiar with the Orthodox shuls in which they’ve grown up, often to their surprise, find themselves at home in Nitzan because the service is in Hebrew. And basically the same as they’ve known. Even when they don’t understand the Hebrew all that well, or even at all, the traditional siddur’s words – and tunes – exert a mantra-like power. But visitors also notice the difference: girls and women at Nitzan participate fully as congregants, prayer leaders and Torah readers.

In practice this means that those families who haven’t experienced Liberal Judaism’s egalitarianism – which preceded the Conservative version in Australia – or who aren’t comfortable with the Liberal service, cannot only sit together, but sing the traditional tunes together, follow the Torah reading together, and be called to the Torah together. For many women and their families doing this for the first time, it’s something to cherish and remember. So egalitarianism alongside tradition has undoubtedly been a significant factor in Nitzan’s growth.

The truth is, however, that for many, Nitzan’s main attraction these past five years has been Rabbi Bandel himself. The first native-born Israeli to be ordained as a Masorti rabbi, the president of the Masorti Israel movement for a decade, and a vice-president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, Ehud Bandel had acquired an international reputation by 2005. Then, through a combination of good management and good timing, not to mention sheer mazal, Kehilat Nitzan “won” Rabbi Bandel’s services. It was a turning point in Conservative Judaism’s Australian history.
Although Conservative Judaism – until recently when it started to decline – had been the largest stream among American Jews, it had never caught on in Australia. This was always puzzling because the majority of nominally Orthodox congregations were, as measured by most congregrants’ actual observance, or lack of it, far closer to the American Conservative synagogues.

Then, in the 1990s, Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins at Sydney’s Liberal Temple Emmanuel started a small Masorti/ Conservative minyan as an alternative offering. As it developed, it helped change “Temple Emanuel” into today’s “Emmanuel Synagogue”, which houses Progressive, Masorti/ Conservative and Renewal minyanim. In its early Emanuel days, the Conservative minyan interested Melbourne academic Professor John Rosenberg, who was living in Sydney. When he returned to Melbourne, he thought it was worth a try, and some 11 years ago became the fledgling congregation’s first president.

Starting its Shabbat services in the Kadimah, ironically beneath the photographs of passed Yiddish writers and Bundist worthies that adorn the walls, Nitzan had its tentative beginnings and sometimes struggled for a minyan. But it gained a foothold, benefited from strong lay leadership, and became the first stand-alone Masorti/Conservative congregation in Australia. And then, just when it needed to move to another level, it lucked in with Ehud Bandel.
The question for the future is an intriguing one: Is Nitzan another boutique minyan, boosted by an outstanding rabbi, but just one among many that have formed in Melbourne and Sydney over recent years as an alternative to the big shuls? Or, against the trend in the United States where it’s in decline, will Masorti/ Conservative Judaism thrive Down Under? I think that answering that question might need another kiddush.

Sam Lipski is the chief executive of The Pratt Foundation and a former editor-in-chief of The AJN. His column appears monthly.