DALLAS, Nov. 2 (JTA) — At their biennial convention here last week, Conservative Jews agreed to counter the movement’s demographic decline with a new resolve to nurture the needs of their more observant congregants. Central to that mission is to encourage all members to strengthen their adherence to Jewish law. Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, challenged members to inspire their congregations toward new levels of observance. “Most congregational leaders are committed to the synagogue functioning within the framework of halachah,” or Jewish law, Epstein said. “That is important. But we stray from both our vision and mission if we permit it to be sufficient.” “Our mission — indeed, our responsibility — is to motivate Conservative Jews to begin to live their lives based on halachah. Without serious commitment to that challenge, the promise that our ancestors saw in Conservative Judaism will never be realized,” he said. Epstein announced the formation of a new commission of rabbis, educators and lay leaders to come up with the right ways to inspire Conservative Jews to become more committed to “the evolving halachah” that is at the movement’s core. Other speakers celebrated successes in youth education programs and voiced interest in expanding initial efforts by the USCJ to lure back lapsed members and those who have gotten involved in other Jewish movements. Convention delegates heard a range of prescriptions for overcoming the numeric decline, from increasing the number of Conservative synagogues, to seeking converts, to placing greater emphasis on religious observance and marketing its benefits. The movement should “consider the seeding of new congregations,” said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “Our competitors are out there hustling. The Lubavitch and Reform are all over the place. We are not founding new conservative synagogues — particularly in new areas of settlement. We are waiting for people to come to us.” Schorsch predicted that the future of conservative Judaism would be decided in North America, not in Israel. USCJ President Judy Yudof said, “I think we need to issue a friendly challenge” to members. “We are not ashamed to articulate what it is we truly do stand for. And there’s positive value for ourselves and the movement in people being willing to assume that challenge for themselves.” “We’re not about to coerce anybody and we’re not about to disenfranchise someone,” she said. Yudof said Conservative Judaism is such a tolerant movement that “people sometimes forget that our standards are traditional, that we very much believe in kashrut and we believe in Shabbat observance.” She said, “We are willing to reinterpret the Torah in an appropriate manner to reflect modern times.” Yudof said Project Reconnect has met with early success. She and Jackie Saltz conceived and developed the program last year to identify and attract alumni of United Synagogue Youth and similar organizations to the movement. “Nothing less than a reaffirmation of the traditional posture of Judaism” is needed to reverse trends cited in the recent National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, said Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice president of the University of Judaism, in Los Angeles. “The same study shows that Conservative Jews are growing increasingly in their learning and their observance and intensity,” Artson said of NJPS in his opening address to the biennial’s 350 delegates. “We are becoming a leaner and less flabby movement. We are becoming finally a movement that takes our own integrity and the holiness of Torah seriously. Some may decry the lack of numbers. I do not. I celebrate our renewed strength and our living up to our convictions and our promise,” he said. Artson decried three destructive cultural trends: “Rampant materialism that produces spiritual barrenness;” “radical autonomy — that encourages people to look out only for themselves,” and indifference that leads people to “harden our hearts” toward the downtrodden. In Israel, said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, president of the Rabbinical Assembly in Jerusalem, “The biggest problem is not the decline of Conservative Judaism alone; it is the decline of Judaism within the Jewish state.” Few practice religion in Israel, he said, with rabbis and synagogues relegated to a much lower status than North Americans give them. In its most visible form, religion is part of the political process. Hammer advocated a stronger role for Conservative Jews in getting Israelis spiritually involved. “The growth sector, if there is one in the Conservative movement, is not in the creation of new synagogues,” Schorsch said. “It is in Jewish education.” Schorsch said 50,000 students are in Conservative Jewish day schools, representing one-quarter of all Jewish students in day schools. He said, “We as synagogues are failing to capture the products of serious Jewish education. We have invested enormous resources in producing more serious Jews.” The chancellor said that “entry-level Jews” get too much attention, while “advanced Jews” receive too little relevant programming. “What is it that conservative synagogues need to do to confront the shrinking population and the confusion in its marketing to two contrary constituencies?” Schorsch said. “We need to capitalize on our success. We need to recognize that we have moved in the direction of serious Jewish education.” “Synagogues need to calibrate their programs to capture that young population for future leadership. We need to produce more serious programming in our synagogues for advanced Jews.” Schorsch also suggested that Conservative Jews “intensify our efforts to convert prospective candidates for Judaism.” “Serious converts become serious Jews,” he said. The chancellor also recognized some of the movement’s mistakes. “We made a mistake to embrace riding on Shabbat,” Schorsch said, referring to the famous — or infamous — ruling by the Conservative movement allowing congregants to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath, otherwise considered a halachic violation of the Sabbath. “Congregants would have ridden in any case,” he said, “but to give sanction to it meant that we gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community.” Along with issue-oriented speeches, worship and discussions of abuse in synagogue life and homosexuality, convention delegates sampled kosher barbeque at a Texas ranch, attended a cantorial concert and ambled past dozens of Jewish wares’ booths at the Fairmont Hotel in downtown Dallas. Delegates arrived on Sunday to discover that one of the hotel’s two towers had been flooded by a pipe leak, forcing the hotel to shuttle a large segment of the visitors to another nearby accommodation. Most took the inconvenience lightly, especially after Rabbi Artson, in his opening remarks, pointed out that the weekly Torah portion was Noah.
USCJ at its biennial