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Rabbi shares insights from two Jewish traditions

Rabbi Tamar Molino

Rabbi Tamar Malino

Rabbi Tamar Malino has her feet in two traditions of Judaism—Conservative and Reform. 

It’s not new to her.  She grew up with her feet in two denominations because her family was a member of two congregations, both Reform and Conservative. 

“It suits my religious needs.  Some days I crave a traditional service and other days I prefer a less traditional service,” she said.

Tamar is rabbi for Spokane’s two Jewish congregations for this year, spending 75 percent of her time at the Conservative Temple Beth Shalom (TBS) and 25 percent at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El. 

Based on how the arrangement works, it may continue.  She is a candidate to serve as the long-term rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom. 

Tamar believes the community benefits when the two congregations work together.

“We need the religious communities to be stabilizing, supportive places that can challenge people to realize that life is more than sports, TV and social media,” she said.

Jewish families have the same human concerns that come with different stages of life: teens surviving hormonal times, using social media in healthy ways, aging gracefully, having an empty nest, how to live meaningful lives, how to parent young children, rebellious children or super-active children, she pointed out.

“Part of synagogue life is to help people find resources to deal with life challenges,” Tamar said. 

“What wisdom does a 3,000-year-old tradition bring about rebellious children or respecting the wisdom of people who are aged?  What wisdom does it offer regarding the responsibility of the family and the community to care for elders?” she asked. 

“Most issues are age old.  Just the technology is new.  There’s much to be said about exploring life today in the Jewish context,” she said.

The Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations recognize the intensity of the time when children enter teen life.  It’s a time of increased privileges and responsibilities, so they need at the ages of 12 and 13 to be able to make ethical decisions.

Jewish education also helps young people understand the Torah and liturgy.  Children start learning Hebrew in the third grade.  The Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations are the culmination of their studies.

Temple Beth Shalom also has a high school program and adult Jewish study programs, because study of the Torah is obligatory and a life-long endeavor, Tamar said.

“We can never know enough.  We are expected to do some study every day.  Torah study means revelation,” she said.  “It’s a way to communicate with God.  The Bar and Bat Mitzvah say that the teen knows how to study and is ready to study.  It’s not the end of study but the start.”

The Reform congregation does not have Hebrew School, so children learn from tutors or attend Hebrew School at TBS Wednesday afternoons.

Tamar started as a consultant in education with Emanu-El soon after she came to Spokane five years ago. 

In 2011, she became its part-time rabbi.  She has also been director of the Spokane Area Jewish Family Services.  During her temporary leave of absence from it, Marilee Kinsella is interim director.

Through working with Jewish Family Services, Tamar has come to know people and has developed relationships with many people in the Jewish community.

She served a congregation in San Diego for eight years and served as a student in a small congregation in the Washington Heights area of New York City while studying at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.  She also worked two years at the Jewish Community Center in the San Francisco area.

Coming to Spokane has been a different experience for her, because the Jewish community here is a small, tight-knit community of about 250 families.

“There are many positive aspects to the small community, but there is also a sense of isolation in contrast to New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago,” said Tamar, who grew up in Greensboro, N.C., in a small Jewish community, but one that was twice the size of Spokane’s.

Because about half a percent of the world’s population is Jewish, she said, “we experience being a minority, and feel it more in Spokane.”

Given that isolation, she was grateful that the community rallied and supported Temple Beth Shalom after its building was defaced by graffiti during high holy days in the fall.

Tamar discussed dynamics of working with Spokane’s two Jewish congregations that are part of two denominations, Conservative and Reform.

While they worshiped together for some services during the high holy days this fall, they generally worship separately.  When they worship together they consider whose rules to follow.

She described some differences between and similarities of each of the traditions.

Conservative worship is mostly in Hebrew, and the language metaphors are ancient and classic, speaking of God as Father and King, Tamar said.

“There is tremendous beauty in that,” she said, “but at times I also need Marge Piercy or Marcia Falk poems that are contemporary words, retelling traditional themes.

“There is a tension between authenticity and the ability to speak to contemporary reality,” she said, noting that one difference between the movements is balance.

The Conservative tradition is more concerned about authentic commitment to follow dictates of traditional Jewish law, she said, and about authenticity, tradition and meaning in liturgy.

In the Reform tradition, the emphasis is on autonomy and individual choice in practicing ritual that is meaningful, creative and flexible.

The former, Tamar said, has more emphasis on obligation, while the latter is more about individual choice and meaning, while being obligated to follow ethical dictates.

“Temple Beth Shalom identifies as a liberal Conservative community, which means they include a breadth of practice,” Tamar explained.

For example, part of the Conservative tradition is not to use musical instruments, but occasionally Temple Beth Shalom does, understanding that music enhances  worship.

The Reform congregation uses musical instruments regularly.

“The prohibition against using musical instruments comes because they were used in the temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed,” she said. “They are not to be used until it is restored.  People in the Reform tradition do not seek to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.”

There is consistency in both traditions in following “tikkun olam,” the call to heal or restore the society and world.  Both movements seek to serve.

The Religious Action Center of the Reform movement in Washington D.C., lobbies politically with a liberal or progressive bent, she said.  The Conservative movement does not have a comparable organization. 

Tamar said there are approximately 12 dually affiliated congregations across the United States.

The Union for Reform Judaism has 859 congregations affiliated with it.  The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has 1.2 million members in more than 550 congregations.

Previously, Orthodox comprised 20 percent of Jews in the United States, Reform 40 percent and Conservative 40 percent. Now Reform are 40 percent and Conservative 28 percent, as the number of unaffiliated Jews has grown because of interfaith marriages.

“Reform Jews welcome interfaith couples. Conservative communities are more ambivalent about this, and encourage conversion,” said Tamar. “There is constant conversation on that in local, regional and national levels.

Another difference is that Conservative Jews consider only people born to a Jewish mother or those who have converted to be Jewish.  Reform Jews consider people Jewish if they were born of a Jewish father or mother, were raised as Jews or have converted.

“It makes a difference about who can do specific rituals,” Tamar said.

Women have been ordained by Reform congregations since 1973 and by Conservative congregations since 1985.  In the Orthodox congregations, women cannot be ordained.

Both the Reform and Conservative movements nationally ordain gays and lesbians, the Reform since 1990 and the Conservative for more than three years.

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