United Synagogue biennial: Reading the Eisen and Olitzky tea leaves


Earlier we published the Jewish Exponent’s preview of the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

One particular wrinkle in the program caught the attention of Stewart Ain at The New York Jewish Week: A panel discussion on the future of the Conservative movement includes a bunch of top professional leaders of the movement — but not Arnie Eisen, the chancellor the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Ain was knocked back and forth like a tennis ball trying to find out why:

Getting an answer as to why Eisen wouldn’t be appearing with his colleagues proved difficult this week. After all, when he took over at JTS in 2006, he said he wanted to help revitalize the movement.
Asked about Eisen’s conspicuous absence, Rabbi Paul Drazen, who is in charge of the convention program, said simply: “He was invited to be on the panel.”

Asked why he is not, the rabbi replied: “Ask the seminary.”

A spokeswoman for the seminary said Eisen would be delivering a dvar Torah and leading a work session the next morning. But pressed as to why he would not be on the panel, she replied: “Ask the United Synagogue; it’s their convention.”

She added that Eisen was traveling and unavailable for comment.

For what it’s worth, our informed sources confirm that Eisen was indeed invited, but say the word back to United Synagogue was: Eisen will only participate if he serves as the moderator.

We asked a seminary spokeswoman if that was true and, if so, why. She sidestepped, insisting that there was no story here, since Eisen was playing a major role in the conference.

The seminary spokeswoman has a point: It would seem silly to argue that Eisen was in any way snubbing the conference or the attendees — he’ll be there, and is set to take part twice. At the same time, over the years there has been plety of discussion and debate about the role of the seminary and the chancellor, historically seen as the movement’s flagship and leader, respectively. Along those lines, Eisen’s decision not to participate might be of some interest.

That said, perhaps more interesting than Eisen’s not taking part in one particular panel discussion, is the inclusion on the program of Rabbi Kerry Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute.

Olitzky and the JOI are generally seen as being on the side of the spectrum arguing for a pretty opening and welcoming approach to unaffiliated Jews, and intermarried families in particular. Seeing him speak at a Reform movement event would not be a shocker — and he’s also spoken in some more liberal Conservative venues. But the United Synagogue has generally be seen as one of the more traditionalist arms of the movement — especially on maintaning its ban against intermarriage.

No one is suggesting that Olitzky’s presence means the ban will be lifted. But it certainly reflects the continuing shift away from the days when Conservative synagogues would deny memebrship to non-Jewish spouses and not include their names on mailings to the homes of intermarried congregants. It suggests that the discussion is now about how — not whether — to reach out aggressively to intermarried and unaffiliated families.

Here’s how JOI is touting Olitzky’s first speaking gig at a United Synagogue convention:

A New Phase in Outreach to Jewish Intermarried Families? 

December 3, 2009—American Jews have been intermarrying at very high rates for almost 30 years.   This has forced the Jewish community to initiate new methods for welcoming and including these families in Jewish life.  To facilitate a deeper conversation on the subject, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has invited Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, executive director of the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) and one of the nations leading practitioners of outreach, to lead a session at their upcoming Biennial Convention and offer guidance on new approaches to welcoming intermarried families into the Jewish community.  The session will take place on Monday, December 7 at 10 am at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, 2349 West Marlton Pike, Cherry Hill, NJ.

Known for his creative approaches to outreach, Rabbi Olitzky believes the Jewish community can benefit from examining a variety of perspectives on welcoming the intermarried in our midst.  “The world is moving very quickly and we must have the right tools in place to engage interfaith families,” he said.  “The Conservative movement understands that its outreach strategies need to stay fresh and innovative if they want to continue to serve the growing diversity of today’s Jewish community.”

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