Talking To Conservative Rabbis: What’s In A ‘Movement’?


Since the beginning of January, I have been on a tour of North America and have seen over 400 Conservative rabbis face-to-face or conducted extensive phone interviews with them.

What am I looking for?

I have been reaching out to my colleagues with the question: “As a rabbi, what are you are trying to accomplish in your community? How does your Torah inspire your community to bring change in their lives and the world?” In the aggregate, their stories are a lens on the Conservative movement today.

We need to return the discussion of “movement” in American Jewish life to its true meaning. A “movement,” whether it be Zionism, civil rights, chasidism or Conservative Judaism, is about powerful ideas that unite and motivate people to come together with a compelling commitment to build towards a vision of the future. A movement inspires people to believe that the work of their lives can create change in the world and this conviction sustains their commitment through the ways and times that flawed human beings working and living together inevitably will disappoint one another.

Why fight for a “movement” when many claim that this concept has passed its time? Some of our most talented and creative thinkers eschew the concept of Jewish religious movements. And yet, as the menu of individual programs and initiatives being generated by small organizations multiplies, no one has adequately answered the question of how a “supermarket” of projects — minimally, if at all, connected to established communal institutions or to one another — actually creates committed Jews and enduring Jewish communities.

We in the Conservative community, and indeed, in the larger Jewish community, have been confusing the Conservative “movement,” with Conservative “institutions.” The Conservative movement is a set of values and ideals. Conservative Judaism teaches us that we are obligated to make ourselves more decent people and to make our world a more just place. Conservative rabbis teach that Judaism lives in committed, caring communities, where ritual and ethical mitzvot are both viewed as sacred. We aspire to a Jewish life, lived fully in a complex and multivalent world.

The Conservative movement opens its doors to wherever people are embarking on the path and we challenge all involved to keep growing further. Hebrew language, Torah study and commitment to Israel are challenges we lay squarely before our community. We embrace the realization that if we are “commanded” or obligated to mitzvot, that commitment applies to the ritual precepts as well as the ethical ones.

Resources are more scarce and all over North America; the synagogue, our most sacred gateway to Jewish life for centuries, is under myriad stresses. But my colleagues speak with excitement, hopefulness and gratitude that when momentous events in people’s lives lead them to explore Judaism, rabbis are blessed to be present with something significant to offer.

In a meeting this week of a small group of Conservative rabbis, they spoke of Torah study, of Hebrew fluency, of meaningful encounter with Israel and her people, of the profound and urgent need in communities to help people learn to take care of one another. Underneath each endeavor was the text, the community, and the goal of helping people internalize the actions of Jewish life.

The urgent need to distinguish between “movement” and “institution” does not belong exclusively to the Conservative community. In part, because Conservative Judaism was such a pervasive and defining framework of 20th-century North American Jewish life, it has become the midrashic vehicle through which the larger Jewish community is telling its uncertain story of transition and change. The promulgation of Conservative Judaism, a learned, committed Jewish expression that is vitally committed to the larger community and society, is one of the greatest gifts we can give to future generations.

Our national Conservative organizations and institutions are not the “movement”; they are over 100 years old and in urgent need of rethinking. The ideals of our movement, by contrast, are as relevant and inspiring as ever. If we keep talking about bricks and bylaws rather than about the vision of the “movement,” we can’t effectively build the institutions we need.

The challenges we are facing in the Conservative movement belong to all of us in the larger Jewish community. Our task is to clarify and revitalize our vision for the future while sustaining the power of the large networks of community that still hold so much potential for bringing Judaism forward into the 21st century.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, the rabbinic arm of the Conservative movement.