ORLANDO (JTA) – Delegates to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial apparently didn’t expect much when Arnold Eisen took the stage here last week, offering only tepid applause for the Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor.
Less than an hour later, however, they were on their feet, cheering a Conservative leader who has wowed movement audiences frequently since he took the seminary helm this summer.
Eisen’s speech on the opening night of United Synagogue’s biennial convention set the tone for an event that featured an energy missing in previous years.
More than any other arm of Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue has been roiled by the larger challenges bedeviling the movement – not just its declining membership rolls but the dilemmas posed by intermarriage, the difficulty of retaining youth and the seeming ossification of its message.
Not surprising, perhaps, the organization’s biennial convention hasn’t been distinguished by its dynamism – younger attendees at the Nov. 29-Dec. 3 gathering joked about the advanced average age of its 400 or so delegates.
But Eisen brought some vigor on Thursday, and the next night hundreds danced and joined hands during Sabbath services. On Saturday morning, multiple worship options demonstrated a willingness to experiment and innovate that many say has been absent of late.
Raymond Goldstein, United Synagogue’s international president, said the atmosphere was notably different from the 2005 conclave in Boston, where “a cloud was hanging over us” due to the impending decision of the movement’s law committee on whether to ordain openly gay rabbis.
“The mood is up,” Goldstein told JTA. “The mood is up.”
In his speech, Eisen delivered something the movement has been agitating for while watching its numbers decline and its position as the largest American denomination eclipsed by the Reform movement: a definition.
As is his inclination as a sociologist, Eisen offered no grand statements of theology but rather the comparatively simple suggestion that Conservative Judaism define itself by what Conservative Jews do.
“We are those Jews committed to full and authentic engagement with the Jewish people and the Jewish tradition, heart and soul and mind, as well as full engagement with the society and culture of which we are a part, again heart and soul and mind,” Eisen said.
For the most part, that definition is more aspirational than descriptive. Conservative Jews largely don’t live such lives, a point driven home in remarks the following evening by the United Synagogue’s excecutive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.
In a forceful address that surprised movement insiders for its directness, Epstein said Conservative Judaism was quite clear in its principles – it was Conservative Jews who were not living up to them.
“We don’t need more definitions of Conservative Judaism in order to make Conservative Judaism come alive,” Epstein said. “What we stand for is abundantly clear. What we do need is commitment on the part of Conservative Jews to live the definition. We have been too timid in declaring our vision.”
Despite the enthusiasm at the biennial, especially for Eisen, ample skepticism remains over how his and Epstein’s objectives would be put into practice.
Goldstein said he was doing his part to increase the level of Jewish practice in the movement by requiring those he named to leadership positions to commit to keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath, among other requirements.
One appointee, he said, had been forced to make his kitchen kosher before accepting the post.
Though a marked shift in emphasis from his 2005 address, when he urged greater outreach to intermarried couples on the margins of the movement, Epstein’s remarks generally were well received by the synagogue lay leaders and professionals in attendance. But it was Eisen who stole the show.
Over the past year, Eisen has emerged as the movement’s indisputable leader and the repository for its hopes of reversing a generation of decline.
In April, at the annual gathering of the movement’s rabbinical association, the Rabbinical Assembly, Eisen earned a similarly enthusiastic response as he laid out his assessment of where Conservative Judaism had come up short and outlined his plans for the coming year.
Last week, in his first address to leaders of the movement’s congregational arm, Eisen laid out in plain language 10 principles that should guide Conservative Judaism. Among them: learning Torah, building strong communities, tikkun olam, commitment to Israel and Hebrew literacy.
Eisen also reiterated his threefold agenda: articulating a clearer message about what Conservative Judaism stands for, improving the quality of programming and improving cooperation among the movement’s bodies.
Beyond the particulars, Eisen established a tone of confidence and optimism as he enjoined Conservative Jews not to see Judaism as a lifestyle choice, but to build strong communities and live lives of Torah.
As he has before, Eisen rejected talk of crisis and malaise, urging listeners to see that Conservative Judaism “got it right” and is an authentic bearer of the Jewish tradition.
“I listened to him absolutely mesmerized,” said Harriet Moldau from Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, Mass. “I think Eisen gets it.”
With further leadership changes looming – both Epstein and the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, are due to retire in 2009 – the future remains uncertain.
“He has an amazing vision for the future of the Jewish community,” Moldau said of Eisen. “I hope he gets to implement it.”