Changing Conservative Judaism


We can complain about the shrinking of the Conservative movement. And we can take pride in Conservative successes of the past. But if what we have been doing until now is not sufficient for the future, what can we change?

Here is one small suggestion: We can improve our training of rabbis by sending out our rabbinical students to visit great synagogues with great rabbis. Let the students see what can be accomplished in the pulpit (or elsewhere) by rabbis of vision and energy. Ever since I became a Talmud professor, the person in my mind whom I always try to emulate is the JTS professor, a master teacher, who drew me in to the study of Talmud. And ever since I started leading High Holy Day services, I keep in my head the rabbi who inspired me year after year with her High Holy Day services. So to help us realize our full potential, we need role models. If students can visit at least five excellent rabbis in the course of their training, chances are that they will find a mentor to inspire and guide them.

Another reason to send students on field trips is that they are grappling with serious issues, such as does one add musical instruments to services in order to bring people in, or does one hew to tradition and allow only human voices in song? Writ large, how does one balance the often-conflicting goals of adherence to halacha and getting people over the threshold of the synagogue? Seeing how practicing rabbis address these matters will help students think things through for themselves.

To test these ideas, several JTS rabbinical students and I went to Washington, D.C., recently to spend Shabbat at Congregation Adas Israel. I frequently attend services there when I visit family in the area. At Adas, we sat in the round at a Friday night “Return Again” service led by Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt (JTS ’06) with the accompaniment of several instrumentalists. We swayed and sang and allowed the music and melodies to enter our Sabbath souls. Rabbi Holtzblatt later told me that she created this monthly service just a year ago and it already draws over 150 people of all ages each time it is offered.

The next morning we attended services in the main sanctuary, where Rabbi Gil Steinlauf (JTS ’98) commanded our attention non-stop. This energetic rabbi does not sit on the bima but circulates among the participants to see how they are faring and what he can do to keep them focused. From time to time, he calls their attention to a paragraph in a prayer, or he breaks into a melody to get people to hum along with him. Instead of a sermon that morning, he asked us to join someone sitting nearby and read aloud and discuss nine verses of the Torah portion. That would prepare us to join the general discussion. I soon found myself analyzing the leadership crisis of the golden calf episode with someone who used to be a high U.S. government official.

Perhaps the best part of our Shabbat experience was the hour we spent with Rabbi Steinlauf after Kiddush, asking him questions about what we saw and hearing his vision for the future. Among other things, he said that congregations should not get “stuck,” that to reach this generation of Jews we need to meet them where they are, that we should encourage each person to identify that aspect of synagogue life that she likes most and then help her strengthen her connection to it.

This rabbi recently led a major renovation of the synagogue’s physical plant. He is particularly proud of the new “third space.” Upon entering the synagogue, one immediately sees, walled in glass, a bet midrash fitted out with great Jewish books, newspapers, computers, tables and chairs, a coffee machine, snacks and an aron kodesh (ark). This, he explained, is neither home (first space) nor work (second space) but an inviting third space in which to spend time before, after, or even during services. And it is succeeding in pulling people in. Like his colleagues, Rabbi Steinlauf wants to attract congregants and retain them. But that alone would not make him feel he has done his job. He wants them to actively engage with Jewish life.

The JTS students walked away inspired. They learned new methods of serving the community as rabbi. As Mindy Fischer, one of the visiting students, wrote to me: “Rabbi Holtzblatt’s spiritual use of music, and Rabbi Steinlauf’s penchant for ‘provoking’ discussion to foster positive change, is a model for dynamic revitalization of Conservative congregations.”

I think that says it all.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman is the E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the founder of Ohel Ayalah, which runs free, walk-in High Holy Day services for Jews in their 20s and 30s, and moderately priced Passover seders for Jews of all ages.