A Synagogue’s Evolution

Rabbi Jan Uhrbach of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons will unveil a new prayer book for the High Holy Day services this year.

(September 2, 2010) Things seem to be anything but conservative these days at the Conservative Synagogue in Sag Harbor — at least in the usual sense of the word. Spend a few minutes with the rabbi of the congregation and you may begin to discover a whole new meaning to the word. Evolution, among other progressive ideals, said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, is how she and her group define conservative.

For starters, Rabbi Uhrbach is a woman, which, while not unheard of, is rare, and the conservative synagogue has just taken another leap that is unheard of — they have asked Aaron Weininger to join Rabbi Uhrbach during the High Holy Days.
Morgan McGivern
Rabbi Jan Uhrbach of the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons will unveil a new prayer book for the High Holy Day services this year.

Mr. Weininger happens to be the first openly gay rabbinical student admitted to the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. Rabbi Uhrbach said that this is a big deal. Rules had to be changed over a long period of time just for Mr. Weininger to gain entry to the seminary.

Just as the seminary made changes, the conservative synagogue made some changes of its own, and is preparing to unveil a new prayer book, “Mahzor Lev Shalem,” for the upcoming High Holy Days. The book, whose title includes the Hebrew words for “heart” and “peaceful,” could be considered a new take on traditional Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur teachings and readings, said Rabbi Uhrbach.

“It’s based on the middle-ground tradition that has always been that the tradition evolves,” she said, adding, “That’s the ethos of the new prayer book. It doesn’t take out anything uncomfortable or challenging, it engages it.” She said the conservative movement embraces current culture and progresses to face new trials by asking questions and answering them through new interpretations of old texts.

“It’s about contemporary formulations of conservative ideals,” she said.

In addition to traditional prayers for the country and the State of Israel offered during Rosh Hashana, Rabbi hrbach said the new book offers prayers for healing, suffering, and social justice. But personal issues are also addressed, like loneliness and depression, and for people who are caregivers to elderly parents.

Yizkor, which can be roughly translated from Hebrew as “remembrance,” is a prayer recited traditionally during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and while the conservative synagogue remains true to this convention, it has changed it slightly to meet what Rabbi Uhrbach sees as the real life identity of her congregation. The new book, which is filled with contemporary poems and the thoughts of secular and devout Jews alike, offers prayers for partners, in addition to husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, and other family members.

“I think it is important to understand that not every family is comprised of married people or husbands and wives,” she said.

In the margins on the pages of the book there are annotated notes and material, such as a prayer offered in memory of a parent who was hurtful, which Rabbi Uhrbach said is helpful to many who struggle with the memories of a less-than-perfect parent. The Jewish tradition of seeking knowledge, she said, is seen throughout the book, and some of the margin notes argue directly with the text.

The book also seeks to draw in those who are new to the faith or have simply attended synagogue infrequently. The rabbi said that many services tend to be either “incomprehensible or dumbed down.” Those who do not speak Hebrew will find every prayer and song written in English and transliterated.

“People want more. They want to be inspired and challenged, not to just come on High Holy Days and leave feeling empty,” she said.

Even in its physical state, the synagogue is an intangible ideal, she said. The group meets in a back room of the Old Whalers Church on Union Street, and sometimes at St. Andrew’s Catholic Church on Hampton Street. There is no building that belongs to the rabbi’s congregation.

While she admits that not having their own building can sometimes cause practical difficulties, she said that not having a place of their own has spiritual and moral implications that she sees as a good thing.

Interfaith cooperation is strengthened, she said, since both those of the Jewish faith and those of the Presbyterian faith share a building. And since the Old Whalers Church is also used by a number of community groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers as well as providing a space for a weekly Latino church, the result is a diverse community.

Plus, she said, in this time when many people are struggling financially, asking worshippers to provide financial support for what she calls duplicative infrastructure poses a moral dilemma to her mind. “It becomes easy to have an edifice complex,” she said. “That’s not what it’s about.”

The congregation is usually asked to make contributions to local food pantries during Yom Kippur instead of providing money to pay for a building. Rabbi Uhrbach said that in Hebrew, synagogue translates not to the physical place of worship, but to the community itself. “We don’t have a building but I think we have the most beautiful synagogue in the Hamptons,” she said.

Rosh Hashana services begin on Wednesday night at 6:30 in the main room of the Old Whalers Church, and services will continue on Thursday and Friday mornings.

(Tags: Hamptons, Church, Synagogue)