At Biennial, Conservative Jews Look to Recapture Place in the Sun
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At Biennial, Conservative Jews Look to Recapture Place in the Sun

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How should Conservative Judaism cope with dwindling membership, growing intermarriage rates and society’s increasing religious and political polarity, while remaining true to its base in halachah, or Jewish law? Those are some of the vexing questions the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism will tackle when it convenes Sunday in Boston for its four-day biennial.

There are more: Who will replace Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, longtime chancellor of the movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, when he retires next summer?

It’s no accident that the opening plenary talk by Rabbi Harold Kushner is called “What does it mean to be a Conservative Jew?” That’s a question that will be on everyone’s mind at the Dec. 4-8 conference, says Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative movement’s rabbinic arm.

“What the movement is struggling to do is set a public position for the 21st century,” he says.

The challenge comes as Conservative Judaism, which once set the agenda for American Jewry, has lost its numeric edge, dropping from 43 percent of affiliated Jews in 1990 to 33 percent in 2000, according to the two latest National Jewish Population Surveys. Conservative Jews are older as a group than the Reform or Orthodox, yet they hold most of the key positions in Jewish communal leadership, contributing to the aging of that leadership.

Meyers insists the Conservative movement “is strong” and says enrollment in day schools and camps is up, even as the movement’s outreach to young adult Jews is languishing.

In an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of membership in Conservative synagogues and soften the movement’s image of being cold and unwelcoming to the intermarried, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the USCJ’s executive vice president, will unveil a far-reaching initiative on keruv, or outreach, directed primarily at interfaith families in Conservative congregations.

In the works for the past year, the initiative, described by Conservative leaders as much more forthcoming than the movement’s current approach to keruv, is being kept under tight wraps — though every movement leader, half a dozen congregations and selected outsiders already have seen it.

Epstein, the driving force behind the initiative, notes that in 1986 he headed the faction that pushed for promoting in-marriage rather than actively welcoming the intermarried. Now he’s spearheading an outreach approach that Charles Simon, head of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, calls “a major reversal” of the movement’s current attitude.

Insisting it’s “an evolution, not a reversal,” Epstein says he didn’t believe two decades ago that the Conservative movement “had the resources to both promote in-marriage and keruv.” But with intermarriage a reality, he says he has “come to the conclusion that whether we can or can’t do both, we must.”

Epstein says the new approach “goes beyond the idea of keruv as welcoming the intermarried,” but without transgressing any key Conservative values.

“There are many things that are permitted that we have not done,” he hints.

The initiative calls upon congregations to actively encourage conversion, particularly of non-Jews already in Conservative families.

“The process we’ve traditionally had, which makes it difficult to convert, was probably valuable at a particular time,” Epstein says. “While I’m not looking to recruit people off the street, for those who have already chosen to be part of a relationship with a Jew, we ought to be passionate and compassionate toward them.”

Epstein believes keruv is the biggest challenge facing Conservative Jewry.

“Our success here will determine not only the destiny of the movement but the destiny of American Jewish life,” he maintains.

The Conservatives are broadening their embrace of the intermarried just two weeks after Reform leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie proposed at that movement’s biennial that Reform congregations ask non-Jewish spouses to consider conversion.

Are the two approaches converging? Not really, Meyers says.

“Maybe at the edges Conservative is becoming more Reform,” he acknowledges, “but the two movements are distinctive. The Reform movement’s position is that each person and rabbi is autonomous and does their own thing, while we believe in halachah and mitzvot. We have a clear idea of how people should behave.”

“The Reform movement reaches out” and makes intermarried members feel comfortable, says Rabbi Moshe Edelman, director of congregational planning and leadership development for the United Synagogue.

“We’re saying, reach out and gather in for the sake of sanctity, of kedushah,” or holiness, he adds. “We’re not looking for a comfort zone.”

Edelman has been test-marketing the keruv initiative to groups within and outside the Conservative movement, and says it has gone through at least a dozen iterations as input from the test groups is incorporated.

Rabbi Mordechai Miller of Brith Sholom Knesseth Israel Synagogue in St. Louis, one of the congregations Edelman visited, says the new approach gives voice to what he has felt for a long time. Describing his congregation’s approach to outreach as middle of the road, Miller says he “hesitates to predict” the initiative’s practical effect on congregations, “although any position that is put in an intelligent and clear way is helpful.”

The initiative offers “a suggestion of approaches” rather than dictating policy, Epstein says.

“It’s called al-haderech,” or on the path, “rather than ‘this is it.’ “

That’s how it should be, Simon says — an outreach approach that incorporates the views of many people and institutions, rather than one imposed from the top down.

“Everyone in the movement agrees it’s important” to deal with outreach to the intermarried, “we just haven’t yet come to agreement on how it should be done, which is fine,” he says.

Epstein expects that the new openness will impact the movement’s Camp Ramah and Solomon Schechter day schools, both of which place restrictions on children of non-Jewish mothers. The day schools, for example, require such students to convert within a year of admission.

In addition to the keruv initiative, at the biennial the movement for the first time will hand out keruv awards, recognizing six congregations for their outreach efforts.

Discussion of Schorsch’s replacement, a hot topic among movement leaders and rabbis, will take place more circumspectly, in corridors and private meetings rather than plenary sessions.

The seminary’s search committee is still evaluating candidates. Despite an ever-changing short list that surfaces on the gossip circuit, committee members remain tight-lipped. Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., the former dean of JTS, and Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the rabbinical school at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, are two current favorites.

“Traditionally the chancellor has served as a unifying voice, the ‘rabbi’ of the movement,” Meyers says, but the next person to fill that position could take it even further.

The USCJ also will consider resolutions supporting immigration reform, religious freedom in the workplace and food programs for the poor, opposing family violence and congratulating the United Nations for its improved treatment of Israel.

There also is a resolution on reproductive choice, a carefully worded document that opposes any civil laws that would prevent an abortion that religious authorities have determined is halachically warranted — that is, where the mother’s life and health are at risk.

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