In an age when non-Orthodox Jews are often described as becoming more liberal and the Orthodox as becoming more stringent, the Union of Traditional Judaism is ready to tap into what one member called “the great unserved market of traditional Jews.”
A “silent majority” of fully observant, philosophically flexible Jews pray at as many as 100 synagogues that remain unaffiliated with any of the major denominations in Jewish life, according to Rabbi Ronald Price, executive director of the UTJ.
Originally an outgrowth of the Conservative movement, UTJ is a Teaneck-based organization that claims 10,000 individuals and eight congregations as members.
At UTJ’s conference, held May 7-8 at the Teaneck Jewish Center, Price and about 100 UTJ members discussed what it means to be a traditional Jew in these religiously polarized times.
Their chief challenge, said speakers, is to turn their organization from a protest group into a movement.
It has been a dozen years since the founders of the movement, Rabbis David Novak and David Weiss Halivni, along with Saul Shapiro, a market researcher, met at the Jewish Theological Seminary to discuss their discontent with the Conservative movement’s impending decision to permit the ordination of women.
When they organized as a protest group, they called the nascent organization the Union for Traditional Conservative Judaism.
Today it has dropped the Conservative part of its name. Although it has retained its Conservative members, it has broadened its mandate as well as its name to include members of the Orthodox world who find themselves feeling disenfranchised by the turn to the right in their communities today.
In discussing their mandate at the conference, UTJ leaders decried the excesses that, in their view, have overtaken Jews on their right and on their left. They discussed the boundaries that define them as “traditional,” rather than liberal or Orthodox Jews.
Those who describe themselves as traditional Jews generally belong to synagogues that have either mixed seating or a mechitzah separating the genders, but do not allow women to be called to the Torah.
They do not believe that Jewish law permits women to be counted as part of prayer quorum, or minyan. They have no interest in tampering with God-language to make it gender inclusive or to include matriarchs with the patriarchs at various points in the liturgy, and they generally pray from the Birnbaum siddur or a similarly traditional prayerbook.
It is the congregations of these Jews who have stayed faithful to what modern Orthodox and Conservative Judaism meant 25 years ago whom the union wants to attract as members.
In the last year or so, since it began bringing congregations in as members, the UTJ has gained eight synagogues that describe themselves as traditional. Price said his group hopes to bring three or four more aboard each year.
The UTJ today has a small rabbinical seminary and a rapidly expanding menu of services, including youth conferences.
The group offers its services from its tiny offices located on the main shopping street in this northern New Jersey town, which is populated with kosher restaurants and a growing population of observant Jews.
The group has an annual budget of nearly $500,000, according to Price, reflecting an increase of support by 25 percent to 30 percent in the last 18 months.
And the UTJ has only begun to try and tap into “the great unserved market of traditional Jews,” as Shapiro, one of the founders, dubbed it.
Price said the need for such a group can be measured, in part, by the 25 non- UTJ congregations which have sought help in finding a traditional rabbi.
There is “a real divide” between the leadership of the Conservative and Orthodox denominations and their constituency, Price said.
“The lay community is looking for tolerant leadership open to the community in which they live,” he said.
UTJ officials said they want to be a bridge between the movements, not a divisive force.
Some asserted, however, that the Conservative and mainstream Orthodox organizations have tried to hamper their growth.
After a drift to the left, the Conservative movement has begun actively courting more traditional congregations and working to convince those already within the movement to stay, said Miriam Klein Shapiro, president emerita of UTJ.
Klein Shapiro is a Jewish educator working for the New York Board of Jewish Education and the daughter of one of the Conservative movement’s most prominent teachers and scholars, the late Rabbi Isaac Klein.
“They wouldn’t be doing that if they didn’t see us as a threat,” said Klein, who refused the opportunity to become one of the first female rabbincial students at JTS.
“And to tell you the truth, I’m not sorry if that’s the influence we’ve had on them, though it may not be so good for us as an organization,” she said.
Mainstream Orthodox bodies have taken an even stronger stand.
The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America recently expelled one of its members for co-chairing the UTJ’s rabbincial fellowship, called Morasha, though many of the RCA’s other members hold dual membership with more right-wing Orthodox groups.
Likewise, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly tried to boot out the other co-chairman of Morasha, according to Bruce Ginsburg, the Conservative rabbi involved. But in the end, the Conservatives backed off, he said.
The rabbi ousted from the Orthodox group, Mark Kunis, said he is in the process of moving forward with a lawsuit against the RCA.
Several speakers at the conference lamented what they described as excesses in the Orthodox world.
Rabbi Jeffrey Rappoport, the outspoken editor of Kosher Nexus, a newsletter distributed by the UTJ about developments in the kosher food industry, said heightened concerns over insects in vegetables have led some Orthodox rabbis to label certain vegetables altogether unkosher, he said.
He cited a restaurant that had two kashrut supervisors, or mashgichim — one employed solely to check the vegetables for bugs.
Another speaker said a noted rabbinical school in the right-wing segment of the Orthodox world refuses to accept men as students if they have secular academic degrees.
When it comes to the status of women in the religious context, UTJ seems committed to furthering the discussion of the roles women can serve within what they view as halachic constraints.
The group is establishing a commission to look at ways women’s roles can be expanded, officials said.
Female UTJ members are prominent in every role in the organization not limited by halacha. Klein Shapiro was the organization’s second president and the organization’s conference was co-chaired by two women.
At a session at the conference titled “Empowering Women in the Halachic Community,” speaker Adena Berkowitz outlined some of the developments in segments of the Orthodox world that include increasing acceptance of women’s prayer groups.
So many women are studying in Israel to become certified to represent plaintiffs and defendants in religious courts, or batei din, that Israel’s chief rabbinate felt compelled to increase the requirements for certification – - out of fear that too many women would begin to serve in this role, she said.
Rabbi Irving Greenberg, arguably the foremost moderate in Orthodoxy today, was Sunday’s keynote speaker.
Although opposed to the organization at its inception, Greenberg now supports its goals.
He,too, spoke of the excesses which he sees plaguing the Jewish community and spoke of the UTJ today as an effort “to restore the very inner dialectic of the covenant which was torn apart, and the elements pitted against each other.”
He described the challenge facing those who describe themselves as traditional Jews as being to live “B’tzelem Elokhim,” or in God’s image, by developing their Godlike capacities for compassion and justice, to strive for “a higher state of kedushah,” or in God’s image, by developing their Godlike capacities for compassion and justice, to strive for “a higher state of kedushah,” or holiness, by viewing others, too, as created in the image of God.