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Matters of Faith

Conservative steps toward change

Rabbinic intern Margie Klein instructs Milo Dantowitz, 3. Rabbinic intern Margie Klein instructs Milo Dantowitz, 3. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / October 3, 2010

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There has been a quiet revolution this year at Congregation Mishkan Tefila in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood of Newton. Since March, one of the oldest Conservative synagogues in New England has seen its leadership overhauled and its mission transformed.

The purpose of shifting the direction of the venerable 85,000-square-foot shul?

“To make sure we are here for the next 150 years,’’ congregation president Chuck Diamond said last week.

“The status quo was not an option, and we didn’t want to look back years from now and wish we had done these things.’’

Four of the synagogue’s six top leaders are new this year, including the head rabbi and an assistant rabbi for congregational learning. Mishkan Tefila also adopted its first new prayer book in half a century.

“We needed to generate some excitement and give people a reason to belong,’’ said Diamond. “We were constantly asking ourselves, ‘How do you move forward while honoring the past?’ You’re trying to be respectful of tradition,’’ he said, knowing at the same time that some members of the congregation will be upset.

Greater Boston may boast one of the nation’s most active and thriving centers of Conservative Judaism, but it has not been immune to a slow decline in membership over the past three decades. Nation wide, 33 percent of Jewish households identified themselves as members of the Conservative movement in 2000, down from 43 percent in the late 1980s, according to the National Jewish Population Survey.

The number of Conservative synagogues — about 760 nationwide, 27 in Massachusetts — has remained fairly stable during the past two decades, but most local temples have seen slow declines in membership in that time, according to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The reasons for the decline are complex, national Jewish leaders say, but include a tendency since the 1970s for Jews who marry non-Jews to leave the faith, or shift to more liberal, less ritual-based Reform synagogues.

Local leaders also speculate that the prohibitive cost of real estate in Conservative hubs like Brookline, Newton, and Sharon — compounded by the costs of synagogue membership and religious education — has probably cut into the young families participating in Jewish life.

Mishkan Tefila has a relatively robust congregation of about 540 families, but is far smaller than its peak in the late 1970s, when it had nearly double that number, Diamond said.

The High Holy Days might bring in as many as 2,000 people, but turnout at weekly Shabbat services had become so small that leaders moved them from the sanctuary to a downstairs worship room. Assembling a minyan — a twice-daily prayer session needing at least 10 people — was sometimes difficult.

Since his election to congregation president, Diamond said, his focus has been on rejuvenation. This spring, he and Mishkan Tefila’s other lay leaders took part in a series of difficult conversations about the future.

The decision not to renew the contract of an interim rabbi after several years of service, as well as other far-reaching changes, was tough, Diamond said, but “I had the support of 98 percent of the congregation. I felt very grateful for that. Many people were on the fence from the past few years, but they saw how committed we were to turning the ship around.’’

Diamond said he consulted with Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, president of Hebrew College in Newton, who recommended that Mishkan Tefila create a position focused on congregational learning — someone who would oversee a broad base of programming for members of all ages.

The congregation agreed, and this spring it hired Daniel Berman, a recent Hebrew College graduate, for the post.

Finding a new head rabbi looked to be a far more difficult task, until the congregation learned that Rabbi Leonard Gordon, of the Germantown Jewish Centre of Philadelphia, might be open to moving to Boston; his wife, Lori Lefkovitz, had recently become the Ruderman professor of Jewish studies and director of Jewish studies at Northeastern University.

Gordon said his task at Mishkan Tefila will be to approach the future with an open mind and look for creative solutions to meet the congregation’s needs.

“We want to create a lot of gateways to live active Jewish lives,’’ he said.

In the spirit of change, Mishkan Tefila — along with more than 100 Conservative congregations across the country — adopted a new prayer book, or mahzor, with English translations.

It is a more open, collaborative format than traditional books, which required a rabbi to preside. Gordon, one of its dozen coauthors, said the new book “is one that a three-times-a-year Jew, or someone who feels on the outside because they are in an interfaith marriage, or don’t have Hebrew, could pick up and feel engaged by, but wouldn’t feel condescending to traditionalists.’’

To round out the temple’s new executive team, Tefila also hired Lisa Kideckel as its nursery school director, and Tony Daniels as executive director, to join the temple’s veteran cantor, Aryeh Finklestein, and ritual director, Davin Wolok.

The new team has only been in place a couple of months, but things are already looking up, Diamond said.

At High Holy Day services three weeks ago, attendance at some sessions numbered about 1,500 people — a bump of about 25 percent over last year, he said.

Daniels, the new executive director, has created new displays for the synagogue’s grand entry hall. In addition to a longstanding showcase of rescued artifacts from a Jewish community destroyed during the Holocaust of World War II, the educators have erected a more contemporary display, using yarmulkes worn by the synagogue’s recently bar and bat mitzvahed young people.

For Rosh Hashana last month, worshippers were treated to a table full of apples and honey, traditional holiday foods.

“It was very festive and welcoming. It’s a warmer feel,’’ Diamond said.

Evolution is nothing new to the synagogue, which was founded as Mishkan Israel in Boston in 1858, in the first structure in Boston specifically built to house Jewish worship, according to synagogue officials. It merged with another Boston congregation to create Mishkan Tefila in 1895. In the 50 years that followed, the shul moved several times before opening for worship at its Chestnut Hill site in 1958.

Mishkan Tefila was not the only local Conservative synagogue to see a change in leadership this year.

In July, Temple Reyim in Newton welcomed a new head rabbi, 34-year-old Benjamin Shalva, to replace 20-year veteran Rabbi Scott Rosenberg, who moved to a synagogue in Ottawa.

Shalva, who worked in Virginia before coming to Boston, said his mission is considerably different than that of Rabbi Gordon a few miles away. Reyim is a far smaller institution and building, with about 215 member families.

“I wasn’t brought in to revolutionize the synagogue,’’ Shalva said. “The leadership and community doesn’t really want to change direction right now. It’s a wonderful shul with a lot to offer and a congregation of mensches that are looking out for each other. But one thing we are talking about is how to better communicate that to the greater Boston area.’’

Reyim attracted its usual crowd of about 500 for Rosh Hashanah, and saw an increase of 20 to 30 percent for the second day of services, said member Chuck Tanowitz.

The healthy turnout for his High Holy Day debut was gratifying, Shalva said, but he is mindful of the need to retain and attract members. “It’s not a good idea to assume what worked for Jews 20 or 30 years ago is what works now,’’ he said.

Reyim will inevitably change and transform, Shalva said, but its leadership wants to avoid being “hip or trendy just for the sake of it. . . . We want to ask what in Judaism makes people feel alive and moved, and how we can help 21st century Jews feel passionate about our traditions.’’

As president of Mishkan Tefila, Diamond was called upon to give a speech last month at Kol Nidre, a set of prayers and declarations that traditionally begins the commemoration of Yom Kippur — the holiest day on the Jewish calendar.

In his remarks, he described his delight and relief at the potential for a brighter future, but emphasized the seriousness with which the congregation must commit itself to the shul, including the history, traditions, and religious ritual that constitute Conservative Judaism.

“This should be the spiritual center of your universe. It has become mine,’’ he said. “These doors must remain open so our children and grandchildren can walk in our footsteps.’’

Matters of Faith is a series of occasional articles on religious life in area communities. Erica Noonan can be reached at enoonan@globe.com.

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