European Conservatives, the new kids on the block, making strides

Patrick Aidan wraps tefillin on his son Patrick at the boy's bar mitzvah at Adath Shalom, a Masorti congregation in Paris, in September 2009.  (Jan Sekal)

Patrick Aidan wraps tefillin on his son Patrick at the boy’s bar mitzvah at Adath Shalom, a Masorti congregation in Paris, in September 2009. (Jan Sekal)

LONDON (JTA) — A recent survey of British Jewry showed a decline in every Jewish denomination since 1990 except for two groups: the strictly Orthodox haredi and the Masorti, or Conservative movement.

Over those 20 years, both have nearly doubled.

Researchers behind the report, published in May by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, understood the haredi growth: Strictly Orthodox Jews have large families, and almost all of them join synagogues. But why were the British Masorti numbers up?

They’re up across Europe. Over the last three years, the number of Masorti communities on the continent has increased by 50 percent, from 20 to 30 congregations. It’s still the smallest Jewish denomination in Europe, but it’s growing the fastest.

Masorti leaders say it’s because they’re the new kids on the block.

“Unlike the Conservative movement in the United States, where they are the establishment, the mainstream, in Europe we are young, exciting, the new thing, experimental,” said Rabbi Chaim Weiner, the London-based president of Masorti Europe, the umbrella body for Conservative communities in Europe. “Each of our communities grows from year to year.”

There are 12 Masorti communities in Britain, six in France, and one each in Brussels, Stockholm, Lisbon, Bern, Prague, Budapest and the Dutch city of Almere. Spain has a few, as does Germany.

Despite the growth, the overall Masorti numbers pale compared to the Orthodox movement, which dominates religious life across the continent. Masorti is also much smaller than the Progressive, or Reform movement, which claims 150 affiliated congregations in Europe, including 80 in Britain.

Masorti draws from both those movements, Weiner says, attracting disaffected Orthodox Jews as well as Reform Jews interested in more tradition.

Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, chairman of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, says that at least in Britain, Masorti growth comes primarily from the Modern Orthodox community, which has declined by a third since 1990, according to the study.

In fact, the first British Masorti congregation, New London Synagogue, broke away from an Orthodox congregation in 1964 and the third, Edgware Masorti, broke away from a Reform congregation in 1980.

Masorti Judaism in Europe is closer to the Canadian or Israeli model of Conservative practice, although some of the communities — like in Prague, which is led by an American rabbi — look more like their U.S. counterparts. This affects everything from egalitarianism to attitudes toward intermarriage.

About half the British Masorti synagogues maintain gender-separate seating during worship, but most European Masorti communities do not. Four of the movement’s 15 or 16 European rabbis are women.

By the same token, attitudes toward intermarriage are more lenient on the continent but less so in Britain, according to Michael Gluckman, executive director of the British Assembly of Masorti Synagogues.

“We’re still a bit more traditional than in America,” Gluckman said.

Bernard Weil of Adath Shalom, the oldest Masorti congregation in Paris, says that while he and other congregants drive to synagogue on Shabbat, they would never think of offering a Shabbat parking space to new members — a membership incentive he said he heard about from American Conservative Jews.

Conversely, even those communities like Adath Shalom that are not made up primarily of English speakers try to cater to them.

“Especially at Yom Kippur, some of the service is in English,” Weil said. “Religiously we’re closer to the Orthodox; socially we’re closer to the Liberals,” or Reform Jews.

Potential converts to Judaism, as well as Jews involved in mixed marriages, are among those most often drawn to Masorti communities in Europe, Gluckman said.

Five years ago, a European-wide Masorti beit din, or rabbinic court, was established to standardize conversions and other Jewish legal procedures. It’s all part of the movement’s struggle to parlay its recent growth into permanent strength.

“For the movement to thrive in Europe, each small community has to be able to provide the full range of rabbinic services, from conversion to divorce,” said Weiner, who heads the new Masorti rabbinic court.

“Even a few years ago, people didn’t believe it was worth making a commitment to us,” he said. “Now our profile has crossed the threshold, and communities are coming to us wanting to join.”

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