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Focus on Issues: Conservative Movement is Focusing on Strengthening Observance Level

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Conservative Judaism is turning back to tradition, judging by a recent convention of the movement’s congregational arm.

After years of breaking new ground in such areas as allowing the rabbinic ordination of women, the Conservative movement is putting new emphasis on strengthening its members’ commitment to observance of halacha, or Jewish law.

Nearly every speaker invited to address the recent conference here of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism spoke, in one way or another, about observance and educating congregants about Jewish tradition.

“We are moving to a recommitment to what Conservative Judaism stands for,” Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue, said in an interview.

“We’re prepared to deal with the idea of returning to serious Jewish living, realizing we can’t be all things to all people and maintain our integrity,” he said.

His constituents seemed to agree.

Despite the lure of sunny Florida weather, the roughly 800 congregation presidents, board members and rabbis who attended the biennial convention here last week crowded into conference rooms to listen to speaker after speaker talk about various aspects of observance.

In informal interviews, the congregants attending the convention from all over North America said that issues that have recently riven the Conservative movement, such as whether homosexuals are fit to be clergy, are not high on the list of priorities of their synagogues.

Instead, they were hungry to learn about Jewish tradition, about effective adult and family education within the synagogue, and about inspiring their fellow congregants to be more committed to observance.

Most sessions were standing room only.

There were sessions on “Spirituality Through Mitzvot,” or following the commandments, and workshops on such topics as tzedakah (charity), bikur cholim (visiting the sick) and tefillin, the phylacteries donned every weekday morning by observant Jews for prayers.

RANGE OF OBSERVANCE IS WIDE

There was a lunchtime mitzvah fair, in which booths lining a large banquet hall had people demonstrating, among other things, how to tie tzitzit, the ritual fringes worn by observant Jews to remind them of God’s commandments, and how to put up a sukkah, the booth erected outside one’s home during the holiday of Sukkot.

Conservative Judaism faces a paradox as old as the movement itself.

According to the Council of Jewish Federations’ 1990 National Jewish Population Study, more synagogue-affiliated Jews identify with the Conservative movement than with any other. Yet only a small minority of the movement’s estimated 1.5 million members live even semi-observantly.

The movement itself estimates that only about 10 or 15 percent of its synagogue members keep kosher and attend Shabbat services regularly.

According to a congregant at one workshop session, “Our congregational leaders are not shomer Shabbat or shomer kashrut, and the rabbis keep quiet on this. Where the rabbi is afraid to speak about God or halacha from the bimah (pulpit), it is no wonder that the congregation becomes wishy-washy.”

Even among the synagogue presidents and senior board members attending the convention, the range of observance was wide.

One synagogue president from Tennessee proudly reported that he and his wife attend Friday night Shabbat services with friends and then all go out to dinner together. Others described themselves as completely Sabbath observant.

The core of the problem, said congregants and organization leaders, is education.

“We don’t know who we are,” said Erica Raphael, president of Congregation Ohr Kodesh in Chevy Chase, Md. “Our laypeople are so uneducated about what Conservative Judaism is that they don’t know what the rules are.”

Congregation members and United Synagogue leaders acknowledged that their synagogues are losing members to Reform temples, which make participation easier for their congregants by having shorter Hebrew-school programs, for example, and making few demands in terms of observance.

A GUIDE FOR THE COMMITTED

“Halacha is not a marketing tool,” said Epstein. “Halacha must remain a guide for those who wish to be committed, rather than a reflection of current popular opinion,” he said in his speech to the convention.

“Parents constantly ask us to meet their needs. ‘Lower the educational standards!’ ‘Shorten the number of hours of religious school!’ ‘Have more informal activities instead of religious school!’ And, in frustration, we often succumb to the pressure,” he said.

“We are afraid that if we don’t respond positively, we will lose control and that parents won’t send their children to our religious school. But when we lower our standards,” he said, “we deceive our congregants.

“We cannot do more with less. We will not build Jewish identity and create Jews who live Jewish lives by reducing that which we give our children,” he said.

“We must not demean who we are in order to make ourselves more popular.”

In an interview, Epstein said that “we’re not in business to create a higher ‘bottom line’ at the end of the year,” in terms of our increasing number of congregants or number of affiliated congregations.

“Our mission is to change people, by not always giving them what they want, but what they need,” he said.

He said that the direction United Synagogue is moving in is to emphasize the standards of Conservative Judaism to its constituents. “Over the years we’ve been afraid to set demands of people, but there is a difference between setting expectations and demanding,” he said.

“When you don’t get the expectation, people don’t do anything. I wish our synagogues would express more disappointment when people don’t do” things the way they should, he said.

Because of the U.S. holiday of Thanksgiving, the JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published Friday, Nov. 26.

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