Pluralism in Judaism

Joan Burstyn opened our program with a meditation inviting us to explore our memories and imagination as we visualized a familiar house; to recognize which of our senses became engaged; and to be aware of connections that come to us. She then asked us to share our experiences with another person. She also provided a handout that expanded on the meditation.

Background Information on Our Guest Speakers

Our moderator, Rabbi Rachel Ain, received her rabbinic ordination and her master in Jewish education degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In her current position as rabbi of Congregation Beth Sholom–Chevra Shas, Rabbi Ain works hard to infuse her congregants with a love of Jewish learning and Jewish living, teaching a variety of courses to adults and high-school students and serving as a consultant to the synagogue’s religious school. Within her synagogue and in the greater community, Rabbi Ain encourages collaboration, lay involvement, and a sense of commitment to the Jewish values of education and social justice. Since moving to Syracuse in 2004, Rabbi Ain has immersed herself in a variety of local and national endeavors: She is a trustee of Syracuse Jewish Family Service and of the Jewish Outreach Institute’s Board of Professional Advisors; a member of the Resolutions Committee of the Rabbinical Assembly; a member of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education; a member of the Rabbinic Advisory Committee for Masorti Olami (the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues); and a participant in a leadership training initiative for a selected group of rabbis in North America. Rabbi Ain is married to Rabbi David Levy, who is the Jewish chaplain at Colgate University and Hamilton College, and with whom she has one son, Jared.

Gwen Kay was born and raised in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She received her BA from Bowdoin College and her PhD in the history of science and medicine from Yale University. Gwen teaches American history, women’s history, and the history of medicine at State University of New York (SUNY) at Oswego; she also teaches the history of medicine in a LeMoyne College–Syracuse University–SUNY Upstate Consortium. Gwen is the author of Dying to be Beautiful: The Fight for Safe Cosmetics (2004). She is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom–Chevra Shas, where she currently serves as executive vice president. Gwen resides in Syracuse with her husband, Jef.

Barbara Applebaum received her doctorate in the philosophy of education, in 1994, from the University of Toronto. She is associate professor in Cultural Foundations of Education at Syracuse University. Barbara’s academic research focuses on diversity issues as they pertain to education, and she teaches courses that examine race, gender and sexuality from a philosophical perspective. Barbara has lived in Syracuse for about four and a half years and is an active member of the Young Israel Shaarei Torah synagogue and community. She is a mother of four and a grandmother of three.

During her 21 years in Syracuse, Joan Burstyn has been active in the Syracuse Jewish Federation in various capacities: as a member of its board, as chair of its task force on Jewish education, and as chair of its former Jewish education committee. Joan is a member of Congregation Beth Sholom–Chevra Shas, where she recently served as vice president for adult programming. A former dean of the School of Education at Syracuse University, Joan is now professor emerita of education and history, as well as research professor of education. She has published two articles on Jewish education and given presentations at annual national conferences of Jewish educators. Joan currently produces radio programs for Women’s Voices Radio on WAER FM 88.3. Joan taps into her experiences as a former member of the Reconstructionist Congregation Dor Hadash in Pittsburgh and as the mother of Rabbi Gail Diamond, who trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Joan has two other children and five grandchildren.

Francine Berg is the cantor of Temple Society of Concord. She is a music teacher at H.W. Smith Elementary School, where she serves as director of the Rainbow Kids, an international chorus of H.W. Smith children that participates in many community programs throughout the year. Fran is vice president of leadership for the Syracuse Jewish Federation; vice president of Syracuse Jewish Family Service and of the local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women; and president of the Signature Band and Music Camp in Syracuse. Fran also volunteers as the music director for Camp Healing Hearts and as the Jewish clergy at Hospice Memorial Services.

Introduction and Overview—Rabbi Rachel Ain

Rabbi Ain began by setting a general context for the speakers who would follow. She explained that Judaism is a community united through time and space. Thus, the experiences and writings of past generations are reinterpreted in the present context, and Jews worldwide are connected through rites and prayers performed at the same time. Judaism is monotheistic, believing in one God; doubt is human, however, and even committed Jews may question the role of God in everyday experience.

There is a saying in the Rabbinic tradition that “the world stands on three tenets”:

•     Torah—Jews are required to study the Torah and the Law and the narratives written by past generations, and they are responsible for acting on the principles found there.

•     Prayer— Jews must be committed to Jewish worship and prayer life and to conversation with God, self, and the community.

•     Social justice—Jews must be involved in social justice and perform acts of loving kindness.

Thus, Jews must be engaged in Jewish learning, Jewish worship, and Jewish living. Rabbi Ain said that incorporating these into one’s life is fun—but also work.

Rabbi Ain explained that Judaism was never monolithic. Even 2000 years ago there were Sadducees, Pharisees and Essenes. Later, various communities, such as Sephardic and Ashkenazi, had differing beliefs and practices. Until modern times, Jews lived in fairly closed communities. During the Enlightenment they had to determine how to interact in the larger world. The Reform movement, the first significant offshoot, began in Germany in the 1800s and was brought to America by immigrants. The Conservative movement arose in response to the perceived liberalism of the Reformists. The Orthodox organized when they felt that the Conservatives were not conservative enough. In the 1950s the Reconstructionist movement arose out of the Conservative movement. There is fluidity to these divisions, with changes occurring over time, and with individuals moving from one community to another. There are differences in the groups’ prayer life, in their understanding of Jewish law (as vote or veto), and in their concept of the roles of God (as commander or convener), the clergy, and the laity.

Rabbi Ain turned to the panelists and asked each to explain why she belongs to her particular community.

Conservative—Gwen Kay

Gwen was raised Conservative by parents who themselves were brought up in Conservative households. Even as a child, Gwen became aware that a woman could be a rabbi and participate fully in the spiritual life of her community. Thus, Gwen knew that she need not be limited by her gender. Her challenge has always been to integrate her religion with her secular life. In college she taught Hebrew school. She continues to try out new things: by reading, by becoming more thoughtful and prayerful, by striving to do more. There is always room to grow, and for her, Conservative Judaism feels both comfortable and challenging.

Orthodox—Barbara Applebaum

Barbara declared that she is an unorthodox Orthodox Jewish woman. She stringently adheres to the Sabbath, keeps a kosher home, covers her hair as a symbol that she is married, and strives to raise mundane acts to acts of holiness. Her adherence to traditional rites makes the Sabbath different from other days, giving it meaning beyond the ordinary; it becomes peaceful and intensely spiritual and provides a connection to God. In Jerusalem this difference in days is instantly noticeable, as all commerce and travel cease at dusk of the Sabbath, ushering in a period of intense spirituality. Barbara is aware that God is always with her, and she is perpetually thankful for blessings.

Reconstructionist—Joan Burstyn

The Sabbath, Joan said, picking up on Barbara’s description, becomes something out of time, providing an opportunity to forget the pressures of everyday life and to reflect. Joan explained that in her life, she has been a member of synagogues of all four branches of Judaism. As a young child, she was raised in an Orthodox home; as she became older, her family moved away from Orthodox Judaism.

Joan felt that the Reconstructionist movement frees individuals to experience Judaism through their emotions as well as their intellect. As a Reconstructionist, she could make a difference in the way her community interpreted practices that define being a Jew. The community could incorporate contemporary life into their services. Whereas all Orthodox and many Conservative congregations prohibit the use of musical instruments in their religious services, Reconstructionists include a variety of musical instruments in their worship, and they encourage the community to include contemporary poetry and art and even to act out stories of the prophets using their own personal experiences. The past guides, but does not rule, current practice. Still, the connection with the past is strong, and the feeling that Reconstructionist Jews have for Jerusalem and the foundations of the religion is very important.

Reform—Francine Berg

Francine explained that she grew up in Geneva, New York, in a Conservative synagogue with an excellent cantor who really involved the children. Francine’s parents were nonobservant, even changing their last name to a non-Jewish one. Despite this, they sent her and her brother to Hebrew school, and the two children introduced religious practices into their home. Francine sang constantly with her mother (who had been a professional singer) and at her synagogue on Friday evenings and at the Saturday morning teen services. When her family moved to Syracuse, she continued her involvement in religious music, but her Conservative temple would not permit her to be a cantor. Colgate University, however, needed a cantor for the High Holy Days, and when none was available, Francine was hired. Her first service as a cantor was an overwhelming spiritual experience that moved Francine to tears in the retelling.

In 1980, Syracuse’s Reform temple had an opening for a cantor, and after interviews and an audition, Francine was hired. She had some difficulty adjusting to the Reform service, which at the time used no Hebrew and discouraged head coverings during worship services. Since then, some of the old rites have been reintroduced, and Reform congregations are being afforded more choices for designing worship services to meet the needs of their diverse members. Although the traditional Reform movement still includes no Hebrew in worship services, her temple now uses Hebrew for some of the traditional prayers, and head coverings are optional.

Francine expressed gratitude to Rabbi Theodore Levy of Temple Society of Concord for giving a woman the opportunity to lead the worship services. Rabbi Levy was noted for his social activism: He started the Syracuse Interreligious Council (now InterFaith Works of Central New York) and provided office space for it at the temple.


Rabbi Ain summarized the presentations by pointing out to us that all four strands of Judaism are attempting to connect to something larger than the self. She then asked each panelist to explain how she connects spiritually, in what way she personally lives her Judaism.

Gwen explained a tradition that she has practiced since her childhood in Tennessee. Every Friday, at the Sabbath dinner, each family member would reflect upon and relate the highlight of his or her week. This was a nice way to think about the best thing that had happened and to share it with people who cared about and were happy for each other. She continued this tradition with a non-Jewish roommate and continues it still with her husband. This reflection provides a way to reconnect, think of the week, and appreciate the good things.

Joan related an event from her daughter’s wedding. The end of the Sabbath is traditionally marked by Havdalah, a ceremony in which a braided candle is lit. The day before the wedding, her daughter’s guests assembled outdoors, waiting for the three stars that announce the Sabbath’s end. At that point, they lit their candles and joined together in the Havdalah service. Then all of them, at the same time, snuffed out their candles—a moving celebration of the end of the holy Sabbath.

Francine said that she lives out her Judaism by being involved in her community: being a cantor, teaching, participating in Meals on Wheels, and serving on a variety of committees. These activities are her way of making a difference and giving back to her community.

Barbara acknowledged that she is not without conflicts with her Orthodox community. She is not in agreement, for instance, with the negative treatment of gay and lesbian individuals. Because she has her feet in two different worlds, she can interpret one to the other, explaining and respecting differences. She added that doubts or conflicts are not bad; they give her the opportunity to foster respect for differences.


In response to questions from the audience, Rabbi Ain explained that an “observant Jew” is any Jew who follows the practices ordained by the governing body of the denomination with which she or he is affiliated. Each movement has its tenets of practice, and each has members who are nonobservant. Joan added that being observant is a choice, so Judaism is her own, not just inherited from her parents.

Barbara was asked how she deals with gender separation, such as men and women not praying together or women not being allowed to hold religious offices. She explained that she was raised Orthodox and has no aspirations to pray together with men or to hold an office. There are some issues with which she struggles, however, such as her feeling that women should be permitted to be cantors.

In response to a question, Joan explained that the local Reconstructionist community is small but organized. The congregants meet at St. David’s Church, with which they have a good relationship. They “rent a rabbi” when one is needed. Lynda Fuchs added that this group has been organized for three or four years.

Rabbi Ain explained that every synagogue has a different feel, and she wants people to affiliate where they are comfortable. There are a number of issues that people consider: Does the congregation have an organ and include music in the service? Does the congregation have a full- or part-time cantor? How much lay leadership is permitted? How much Hebrew is used? How much Torah reading is included in the service? Rabbi Ain’s main concern is that people affiliate and be connected to a community.

Joan pointed out that some of the distinctions between the four movements discussed by today’s panelists are American constructs and are not the same in some other countries, such as Britain (with which she is most familiar). Some of these distinctions are based on local issues, such as whether to use Hebrew or the vernacular in the worship service. In Israel, where Hebrew is the vernacular, language is not an issue, although other points of Jewish law are important and can be divisive.

Rabbi Ain cautioned that we should not take the distinctions that have been discussed as black and white. She urged us to remember that the practice is fluid although the principles are nonnegotiable.

Danya Wellmon thanked the panel for sharing so personally. Then she asked about the unity of the Jewish community. Do temples come together to celebrate rituals or community events?

Rabbi Ain explained that there are some limitations to celebrating High Holy Days together; for instance, traditional Jewish Law has prohibitions against driving or carrying. The community does come together to commemorate the Holocaust and celebrate Israel, and nearby congregations take part in Purim festivities with each other.

Joan added that the Syracuse Jewish Federation is an umbrella organization that organizes community activities. Francine said that her temple is trying to create joint projects and is having a Mitzvah (an act of human kindness) Day, when everyone goes out into the community to do good deeds. Joan also mentioned the Jewish Music and Cultural Festival held every June at Clinton Square.

Sherry Chayat asked the panelists to speak of moving moments when they realized their spiritual gifts.

Barbara revealed that she had not always been observant. She remembered eating a sandwich during the Yom Kippur fast—but shaking as she did so. She recalled ordering a McDonald’s burger and milkshake (it is forbidden to consume meat and milk together)—but eating them separately. Her spiritual moment came when her mother was near death. Barbara was unable to travel to be with her mother until her teaching duties were finished for the semester. Finally she was able to fly home and spend a day and a half with her mother before her mother died. That time was precious to both of them, and Barbara felt that a higher power helped her mother hold on until Barbara could reach her. That spiritual realization was profound.

Joan spoke of having had several spiritual experiences. She related one in particular: the death of her mother when Joan was 23. Joan had been in revolt against religion; she did not like the division into separate groups and preferred to think of shared humanity. Joan grew up in England during the Holocaust and knew that if Germany invaded England she would be sent to a concentration camp. She felt that if we could get rid of religion, we would not be divided and could find a way to have a conversation among us all. After her mother’s death she needed a way to express not only her grief but also her connection to something beyond herself, a way to affirm that life had some purpose beyond herself. Because her family was Jewish and expressed themselves in the context of their religion, she found herself pulled toward Judaism. She could not reach out to others unless she knew where she was herself. Then, when she met those of other religions, she could listen without feeling that they should share her way.

An audience member said that her son attends Syracuse Hebrew Day School, along with children of many ethnicities, and has received an excellent education. She said that when he gets to be a rebellious teenager, she wants him to know what he is rebelling against!

In response to a question about Messianic Judaism, Rabbi Ain declared that a belief in the divinity of Jesus is outside the boundaries of Judaism. That is absolute.

Another audience member asked if the Jewish community reaches out to mosques and churches. Francine said that her Rainbow Kids chorus, with children from all over the world, is her personal interfaith effort. Gwen said that the food pantry at Temple Society of Concord is open to all. Others spoke of various partnerships with churches: Congregation Beth Sholom–Cheva Shas has an annual Thanksgiving celebration with Pebble Hill Presbyterian Church; the confirmation classes at Dewitt Community Church visit Friday evening services at Temple Society of Concord; six neighborhood congregations in Syracuse, including churches, synagogues and the mosque, combine for religious services at a Baptist church, sharing prayers and music. Ann Eppinger Port mentioned the National Council of Jewish Women, which promotes social action projects around the world.

Rabbi Ain said that her congregation is holding a Mitzvah Mall, where the children will have booths explaining and promoting organizations (such as Vera House, the ASPCA, and the Israeli Ambulance Service) that are involved in social justice and doing good deeds. Adults will view these presentations and choose where to direct their charitable donations. Rabbi Ain said that because doing mitzvot (good deeds) is one of the principles of Judaism, Jews do it well!

In response to a question about Kabbalah, Joan said that Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative women can now study Kabbalah if they wish to do so. Mysticism is coming back into focus, with the Chasidic movement being most involved. Traditionally, Kabbalah study was open only to men—and then only after they reached the age of 40 so that the man, before dealing with the transcendent Oneness, would have a clear view of his own self