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Issue of Ordination for Women to Highlight United Syna Gogue Parley

Delegates to the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of America next week will hear and discuss among other topics, two reports on the status of Conservative Judaism, one of them dealing with the views of the Conservative laity on the much-debated issue of ordination for women, Rabbi Benjamin Kreitman, executive vice-president of the association of Conservative congregations, said today.

He said each of the expected 2000 delegates will receive a copy of a “Preliminary Report: A Survey of the Conservative Movement and the Issue of Women’s Ordination,” prepared by Dr. Charles Liebman, a sociologist who is an expert on Jewish issues, and Dr. Saul Shapiro, an IBM executive active in the Conservative lay movement. The convention will be held at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y. Nov. 11-15.

The Jewish Telegraphic Agency has obtained a copy of the Liebman-Shapiro report, in which the two experts predicted that Conservative Judaism would experience a decline in membership during the next one or two decades, and that the best basis for coping with that problem was a “minority” of Conservative Jews “most committed” to Conservative Judaism. Their data also showed that the more committed a Conservative Jew was to tradition, the more opposed was that Jew to ordination of women.

Kreitman also told the JTA that the delegates also will hear a preliminary report on a survey of ritual practices by Conservative Jews, prepared by Sherman Pomerantz, described by Kreitman as a data expert and as president of the United Synagogue Midwest region and chairman of its policy and scope committee.

Kreitman said Shapiro and Pomerantz will present reports of their studies to the delegates on Tuesday and that both Dr. Gerson Cohen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the Conservative school, and he plan to discuss both reports during the Tuesday session.

SURVEY DESIGNED TO PROBE FEELINGS

According to the introduction to the Liebman-Shapiro report, plans for it were approved by the Chancellor and funding for it by the JTS Executive Board last February. The report said that at the time

Some 4000 “usable returns” were received the Liebman-Shapiro report declared, adding the survey was designed to “probe the feelings” of a sample of lay people on the issue of ordination of women and to obtain more information on the ritual behavior of Conservative families. They said they found that slightly less than a majority–48.9 percent–indicated that ordination of women would make no difference to them. The report commented that “the most striking conclusion is that 53 percent of the men and 45 percent of the women do not feel very strongly about the issue.”

The report linked the relationship between lay attitudes toward ordination of women with the degree of traditional behavior among respondents. The report said that “in summary, those opposed to ordination are more observant Jews than those who favor ordination, are more committed to Conservative Judaism, and their children are more likely to be synagogue members in general and Conservative synagogue members in particular.” The authors wrote that “to jump ahead of ourselves, we are going to argue that Conservative Judaism must build itself around its traditionalist laity.”

SOME OF THE RECOMMENDATIONS

In their recommendations, Liebman and Shapiro declared that “given the present age and generational composition” of Conservative Jews, the movement “will experience some decline in members in the next 10 to 20 years.” Accordingly, they added, “our recommendation takes the form of seeking an answer to the question–where does the base for building a Conservative movement exist?”

They replied with the assertion that “the small minority of observant Jews who are also the most committed to Conservative Judaism provide the only real base for the future of Conservative Judaism” and that “this is the group that must be cultivated and encouraged to assume leadership positions.”

They added they believed that Conservative Judaism “must veer to the ‘religious right’ to preserve this ‘hard core’ and to attract the marginally Orthodox Jews who may be upset by Orthodoxy’s own move to the right, especially by its negative attitude toward the role of women in Jewish life.”

REJECT MOVE TO THE LEFT

The two experts rejected the view, believed substantial in the movement’s rabbinical component, that Conservative Judaism “must move to the left to retain the loyalty of the majority of its adherents who do not observe kashrut, who incline toward Reform, and whose children are not joining Conservative synagogues.” However, they asserted, “since the number of Reform Jews is growing and the number of Orthodox Jews contracting, Reform, not Orthodoxy, represents a greater potential membership pool” for the Conservative movement.

Nevertheless, they said they had not found any evidence that “If Conservative Judaism became more permissive with respect to Jewish law, it would generate greater commitment to Judaism in general or Conservative Judaism, in particular, although it might be true in some cases.”

The reference in the report to the need for haste in preparing it and the speedy response of Liebman and Shapiro in making the survey stemmed from adoption of a resolution by the delegates to the 1977 convention of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the association of Conservative rabbis, asking action for admission of women to the JTS rabbinical school.

The delegates withdrew that recommendation when Cohen promised to name a commission, composed of 14 members, representing all views in the Conservative movement, with himself as chairman, to study the proposal and make recommendations. Cohen promised the 1977 convention that he would commit himself to bring the commission findings to the JTS Senate, the academic policy-making body of the JTS, for action.

BACKGROUND OF THE REPORT

The commission, in its final report last January, submitted a recommendation to the 79th RA convention in Los Angeles, declaring it found no halachic reason barring women from the rabbinate and recommending admission of women candidates to the JTS rabbinical school. A vote was scheduled for last May 30 by the Faculty Senate on the commission’s report.

But early in May, Cohen said he had acceded to requests by faculty members to defer until early 1980 action on the commission’s recommendations. He said the May 30 vote. Had been postponed to permit more time for faculty debate. In an April 27 letter announcing the postponement, Cohen said he also wanted to make it clear “we expect to take a definite stand on the issue for the academic year 1980-81.”

The Liebman-Shapiro report accordingly was hurriedly prepared for the JTS faculty in anticipation of the subsequently cancelled May 30 vote. Later it was decided to make the Liebman-Shapiro report public at the United Synagogue convention. The JTS Senate will start a meeting at the end of next month to consider the Liebman-Shapiro report and the recommendations of the special commission on ordination of women.

Rabbi I. Usher Kirshblum of Kew Gardens Hills, expressed to the JTA his doubt that the full Liebman-Shapiro report and its recommendations would be presented unchanged to either the United Synagogue convention or to the JTS Senate. Kirshblum, a strong foe of such liberalizations as aliya for women in worship services and ordination for women, organized in 1975 a Committee for the Preservation of Tradition within the Rabbinical Assembly.

However, Kreitman affirmed unequivocally to the JTA that the full report, including the recommendation, would be made available to all convention delegates and presented in full to them by Shapiro.

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