NEW YORK (JTA) – Several Toronto synagogues are grappling with whether to leave the Conservative movement’s synagogue association and create a separate Canadian body.
Congregation Adath Israel voted last month to reject an agreement, negotiated collectively by five Toronto synagogues and ratified March 16 by the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, that would have provided $288,000 over three years to the organization’s Canadian region.
A second synagogue, Beth Tikvah, voted April 10 to remain in United Synagogue, rejecting the recommendation of its board to secede from the organization.
Three others – Beth Tzedec, Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am and Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda – are due to decide shortly.
Under the terms of the agreement, United Synagogue would have provided $116,000 in discretionary funding to the region for the 2008-09 fiscal year, according to a memorandum obtained by JTA. An additional $96,000 would be provided the following year, and $76,000 the year after.
In addition, the central body would create a Canadian Public Policy and Social Action Committee in response to complaints that the American-dominated United Synagogue does not reflect Canadian priorities.
“The amount we were spending on dues could be better spent locally and under local control,” Avrom Brown, Adath Israel’s president, told JTA. “And the draft agreeement that was proffered didn’t go far enough.”
Concern about the future of Canadian congregations in the movement has been expressed openly since well before the decision in late 2006 to permit the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. Many worried that the decision would fracture the movement and alienate its international affiliates, which are often seen as uncomfortable with the movement’s liberalizing trend.
Sources from both the synagogues and United Synagogue insist that religious ideology was not at issue and was mentioned in passing, if at all, in the negotiations. Discussions focused primarily on issues of governance and finances.
Paul Kochberg, the Canadian region president, disputes the notion of Canada’s more traditional bent.
“To make such a sweeping statement about a distinction between two countries just ignores the reality of the pluralism that is available in both countries,” Kochberg said.
Nevertheless, there are indications that non-financial considerations informed the thinking of leaders of both Adath Israel and Beth Tikvah. Both are traditional Conservative congregations where women do not receive synagogue honors like being called to the Torah, a policy at odds with the dominant practice among American Conservative synagogues.
A report to the Beth Tikvah membership recommending against ratification cited the “philosophically different” way Conservative Judaism is practiced at the synagogue as one reason to break from United Synagogue.
“USCJ no longer effectively represents our synagogues within the Conservative community,” the report said. “It has diluted its position in the movement by moving to the left. In its attempt to be all inclusive, it has made more traditional synagogues such as Beth Tikvah feel marginalized.”
Rabbi Steven Saltzman of Adath Israel echoed a similar theme, telling JTA that while religious differences were not the main issue, his congregation feels increasingly marginalized by the movement’s trajectory.
Beth Emeth is also traditional, and its board will be discussing the issue at a meeting Tuesday. Beth Tzedec and Beth David do permit women to be called to the Torah. Officials of those synagogues did not respond to JTA’s request for comment.
United Synagogue leaders say they were surprised that Adath Israel and Beth Tikvah officials recommended against ratifying an agreement they themselves had negotiated, suggesting to them that issues other than governance and finances may have been at play.
“It seemed that those issues were not the things that drove the decision for that congregation to withdraw,” United Synagogue’s international president, Raymond Goldstein, told JTA. “I guess we felt that the issues were not fully on the table.”
In the aftermath of the gay decision, Conservative leaders labored to stress their commitment to pluralism, emphasizing that differences in religious practice were a source of strength. Members of the movement’s law committee, which adopted three contradictory opinions on the subject of gay rabbis, portrayed the divided rulings as a sign of vitality.
But cracks appeared in the facade almost from the outset. Four members of the law committee, objecting to the adoption of the more liberal opinion, resigned in protest. Arnold Eisen, who was installed several months later as the chancellor of the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, has said repeatedly that pluralism is insufficient to define and hold the movement together.
Even more ominously for the traditionalists, several of the movement’s younger, more liberal rabbis have begun to speak openly of their contempt for pluralism, arguing that they should not be expected to tolerate discrimination against women and gays – practices they consider unethical.
“When Roth, Levy and Rabinowitz resigned from the law committee, what they said was the inherited halachic position can’t exist with a progressive halachic position,” said Menachem Creditor, a Conservative rabbi in Berkeley, Calif., and a leading proponent of gay ordination.
“I think they might be right, that a purposeful pluralism can’t come with all options,” Creditor said. “It can’t be everything to everyone.”
Among more traditional congregations, statements like that are seen as a retreat from the ethos of Conservative Judaism, which historically has described itself as a “big tent” where opposing views can coexist.
“More and more recently, at least to me, it becomes clear that the big tent is collapsing into a little tent,” Saltzman said, “and that those of us who are on the right are regarded as archaic, as behind the times and not in the mainstream of the Conservative movement.”
Creditor became a lightning-rod figure on this issue when at the 2005 United Synagogue biennial in Boston, he accused the movement of “institutional misogyny” for permitting non-egalitarian congregations, a statement that particularly irked the Canadian congregations.
In the aftermath, United Synagogue’s executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, defended the movement’s pluralistic commitment, a position he and Goldstein reiterated in an e-mail after news broke of Adath Israel’s decision to leave the umbrella organiaztion.
“The Conservative movement is based in pluralism,” said the e-mail, sent to a list of synaoguge presidents. “Wide as our range of religious beliefs is, there are still some so extreme that they fall outside our boundaries.
“Equally, we understand but regret that not all members of all congregations are comfortable with pluralism. We cannot please everyone. If we were to try, the movement would stand for nothing and have little depth.”
Toronto-area congregations have been discussing their dissatisfaction with United Synagogue for well over a year. In January 2007 they adopted a document, “Revitalizing the Conservative Jewish Movement in Canada,” that laid out plans for “an autonomous Canadian association” of Conservative synagogues.
Of the 27 synagogues in Canada that belong to United Synagogue, 19 are in the Canadian Region, which encompasses the country’s eastern district.
The document also included a resolution, adopted by the boards of the five synagogues, committing them to seek affiliation for their new association with United Synagogue. If that failed, they would seek alternative affiliation. If that failed, they would found an independent Canadian Conservative organization.
Saltzman said an alternative affiliation is not an option and that plans would move forward for a separate Canadian association. He predicted Adath Israel would not be alone.
“I believe that there will be other synagogues in Toronto who decide to leave the United Synagogue,” Salzman said. “I don’t have any inside information per se, but I believe it will happen.”
JTA correspondent Ron Csillag in Toronto contributed to this report.