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Arnie Eisen to Conservative rabbis: Yes we can

Neil Rubin, editor of the Baltimore Jewish Times, reports on the appearance of Arnie Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, at the annual convention of Conservative rabbis – and offers plenty of his own advice:

While Conservative Judaism is in no danger of closing up shop, it must redefine and recapture its niche on the contemporary Jewish scene. Rest assured that if not inspired now, tomorrow a large percentage of the children and grandchildren of present-day Conservative Jews will be Jewish in name only.

For me, chief among the concerns is that Conservative congregations — entrenched in institutional leadership and programming — are struggling to make themselves relevant to large numbers of teens, young adults and young families.

Yes, there are efforts to stem this tide, including here. And yes, some people with children find deep purpose in synagogue life. (I’m one of them.) Yet the numbers in study after study speak for themselves.

Those surveys show that what works with younger Jews is volunteerism and social action.

Rubin says Eisen is on to the problem – the JTS chancellor acknowledged that the Reform and the Orthodox are light years ahead when it comes to political activism.

“Young people, feeling at home in their country, expect to have Judaism matter here and all over the world, and they are dismayed when it does not,” Eisen said. “We need to know that our community is active. We need to know that our people have maintained faith with [Judaism's] compassion and righteousness.”

According to Rubin, Eisen went on to recall that many of the movement’s present-day leaders were “once inspired –– and driven to meaningful debate –– by JTS’ Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s passionate embrace of civil rights and the Vietnam War protests.” If not for Heschel, “Many of us might not be here today.”

Rubin ended his column on a hopeful note:

If Dr. Eisen can succeed –– and it will take years –– the Conservative synagogue can again be a venue of debate with integrity, which leads to action. If that does not happen, Jews will continue to be at the forefront of social causes, as they have ever since Emancipation itself began in the late 1700s. But sadly, our synagogues will have missed a wonderful opportunity.

A good start, he urged, would be to simply pick one issue and make it the cause of Conservative Judaism. With all that faces our nation, how hard should that be?

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