Menu JTA Search

Conservative Jewish Leaders Seek ‘leaner, Meaner’ Movement

The Conservative movement is seeking to create a more educated and religiously committed membership, what one rabbi described as “a leaner, meaner Conservative movement.”

The focus comes as demographic changes — particularly intermarriage — erode the Conservative movement’s position as the dominant Jewish stream in North America.

While some fear Conservative Judaism is losing ground to the Reform movement — which has in recent years expanded through greater inclusiveness of diverse groups and a return to some traditional practices — few Conservative Jews are urging the movement to become more liberal or less demanding.

Rather the movement appears to be moving to step up demands on congregants and focus on a smaller, but more committed, core.

In a rare Washington convention combining five national Conservative bodies — the first time all had met together – – several major speeches this week focused on requirements and demands.

Speaking on “The Synagogue of the Future,” Steven Cohen, a sociology professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who has studied contemporary American Jewish identity, suggested that higher standards, along with a greater focus on personal meaning and spirituality, will strengthen the Conservative movement.

“At times of high anxiety about Jewish stability and continuity, our tendency is to demand less, become less judgmental and more inclusive,” he said.

“In fact, this strategy is counterproductive.”

Cohen cited research about churches by sociologist Laurence Iannoccone, who concluded that churches that demand more voluntarism and religious proficiency tend to be more vibrant and popular than ones that set lower bars.

“Yes, demanding more may mean discouraging some from joining our ranks; but fortunately, those who find us too demanding can turn to other valued Jewish choices for affiliation,” Cohen said.

“At the same time, those who come to Conservative communities will be drawn to places that exude a spiritual vitality, communal cohesiveness and serious religiosity.”

Cohen, like many others at the convention, also pointed out that while there is still a disconnect in observance between leaders and the rank and file, recent studies show that more Conservative Jews are educated and observant than at any time in recent history.

Younger members, particularly graduates of the growing number of liberal Jewish day schools and the movement’s Ramah network of summer camps, are often more observant and educated than their elders.

In addition, adult education participation is growing, both through synagogues and community-based programs like the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School.

Many in the field said they are noticing those changes.

Rabbi David Lerner of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in suburban Chicago, said, “I feel like we’re a leaner, meaner Conservative movement.”

“We have a more knowledgeable cohort that is more observant than their parents, but we’re maybe a little smaller.”

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s executive vice president, focused his speech at the convention around standards as well.

While it may be unrealistic to expect the majority of Conservative congregants to immediately become fully observant, Epstein said, some basic requirements can serve as a “springboard for further Jewish growth.”

What Epstein called his “Compact of Commitment” includes commitments to regularly give tzedakah, or charity, light Shabbat candles and have a Shabbat meal, recite the blessing over bread before each meal, avoid shellfish and pork if not keeping fully kosher, and engage in ongoing adult learning.

Epstein urged synagogue leaders to “become the beacon to inspire Conservative Jews to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life.”

“The goal must not be to lower expectations; but to create the ‘bandwagon effect’ of commitment to Jewish living — in which we are all involved and growing.”

Rabbis and others said they supported higher standards, but some said it can be a tricky balancing act to be simultaneously more demanding and more welcoming.

“If you demand more, your congregants have more respect for what you’re doing,” said Rebecca Holmes, executive director of Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass.

But Rabbi Debra Eisenman of Beth Tikva of West Boca, Fla., warned that people will rarely become more observant simply because they’re commanded.

“You can say it over and over, but they’ll do what they want,” Eisenman said.

Ultimately, Jewish behavior has to be “modeled” by the rabbi and demonstrated as something that will add meaning to people’s lives, she said.

“It’s important to listen to what people need, then to say it’s wonderful that you have those needs and this is how Jewish tradition answers them.”

Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach, Fla., agreed.

“When we talk about standards and demands, those are administrative words from an administrative mind,” he said. “I like words like compelling and enthusiasm. If we’re enthusiastic about something, we create a passionate, compelling experience that makes a standard meaningful.”

Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas said that synagogues need to make sure congregants feel a reason to become more involved and observant, before piling on rules.

The debate over requirements reminded him of a bitter dispute he encountered when he first came to his synagogue several years ago.

At the time, few people showed up for Shabbat services, but the old-timers were adamant about keeping a rule requiring all people called to the dais to recite the blessings before the Torah to wear a tie.

“I said, ‘Who are you going to enforce this will on?’ ” he said.

At the heart of the tension that sometimes exists between imposing standards and being welcoming is the issue of intermarriage.

Unlike the more liberal Reform movement, the Conservative movement actively discourages intermarriage, does not allow its rabbis to officiate at intermarriages and does not allow non-Jewish spouses to become synagogue members.

Seen as poor Jewish role models, intermarried Jews are often excluded from leadership positions. They are not allowed to be religious school teachers, and in some synagogues they are not allowed to serve on the board.

In one session at this week’s convention, a rabbi said she had turned down a pulpit position because some of the synagogue’s board members were intermarried.

And while leaders say they want to encourage conversion and do not want to lose Jews who intermarry, the movement has generally avoided reaching out to interfaith families, fearing that doing so would undermine Jewish prohibitions against intermarriage.

However, a small number of intermarried Jews are joining Conservative synagogues anyway, and several Conservative leaders are urging the movement to do a better job of welcoming intermarried families.

“An interfaith family striving to create a Jewish home and live by Jewish values has a place in my community,” Jeret of Palm Beach said.

“More and more, interfaith people are coming to me and saying that back East they were members of Reform temples, but they want to try Conservative now,” Goodman of Las Vegas said.

Goodman, who said he allows children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers to enroll in Hebrew school as long as they convert before Bar or Bat Mitzvah, urged the movement to “evaluate the way we approach interfaith families.”

“We have to be creative. Of course only Jews can be members. But why should we automatically defer to the Reform movement,” and make Reform the only address for intermarried families, Goodman asked.

Holmes said intermarriage is a “ticklish” issue, in which congregations need to make the non-Jewish spouse “feel comfortable, if not involved” while being “very up front at the beginning” about policies restricting non-Jews from leadership and ritual roles.

However, she said, synagogues can still encourage involvement in school or social events where participants do not have to be Jewish.

Judy Yudof, the new president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said synagogues can do a better job of making interfaith families comfortable, while retaining its principles.

For example, even if the non-Jewish spouse cannot become a member, the synagogue can still send out letters addressing the entire family.

“They can’t be members, but we don’t want to make them feel like they don’t exist,” she said.

If Conservative synagogues want to encourage intermarried families to live more Jewish lives, and to persuade the non-Jewish spouse to consider conversion, they must be more welcoming, she said.

“If we’re not welcoming, why would they want to be a part of us?” she said.

Ed Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, said reception to his display at the convention exhibit hall — his first time there — was warmer than he had anticipated.

In one day more than 40 participants approached his booth and expressed interest or support, he said.

While most people walk by and look surprised to see his exhibit, he said, “No one’s hissing.”

NEXT STORY