Conservative Jews On Movement’s Jerusalem Stance: ‘This Is Not the JTS I Know’


President Donald Trump’s move last week declaring Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, accompanied by plans to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, was met with euphoria in some Jewish circles and concern in others. But the Conservative movement’s support of the announcement, with little qualification, left many young insiders confused and disappointed, signaling yet another tricky balancing act for the middle movement on a defining issue.

“I thought the Conservative movement represented me — then I read their statement,” said Sylvie Rosen, a junior studying at the Barnard/Jewish Theological Seminary double degree program, referring to the statement posted last Thursday on JTS’ website. Rosen grew up attending the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah in the Rockies and a large Conservative synagogue in downtown Manhattan. Despite her close ties and desire to remain an active member of the movement, the statement left her feeling “shocked, hurt and confused.”

“I thought the Conservative movement represented me — then I read their statement.”

JTS’ statement thanked President Trump for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and welcoming “our president’s commitment to helping forge a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.” The statement also referenced the Jewish people’s divine claim to the “Holy City.”

The statement elicited a slew of online responses, with the majority of Facebook commenters expressing dismay and disappointment over the statement’s lack of balance and nuance, though a significant number applauded it.

“Thank you JTS! Exactly what we need to hear!” reads one comment on the lengthy and impassioned thread.

“This is absolutely shameful. Don’t expect any donations from me when I am an alum,” reads another.

JTS’ stance lands amid a backdrop of unqualified support and praise for the Jerusalem announcement from the Orthodox camp; Nathan J. Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, told The New York Times last week that he “never thought the U.S. should be an honest broker” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The response was more tempered and critical from the Union of Reform Judaism, with its president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, voicing significant “concern” that the “ill-timed” and “unilateral” decision would undermine or exacerbate an already precarious conflict. (In a later statement, the URJ, which was criticized for its response, walked back the criticism, commending the president for “affirming the importance of moving the peace process forward.”)

A JTS representative told The Jewish Week that the institution “absolutely stands by the statement,” noting that its original version said there is “work ahead” to allow for a peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism issued a statement on Friday afternoon applauding President Trump’s move and affirming the institution’s commitment to a two-state solution but questioning the “purpose of the recognition at this time.”

“We’re hearing from people frustrated that the statement is too effusive, and we’re hearing from people who don’t understand why we equivocated at all,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ’s CEO. “The fact that nobody’s happy shows that it was a good statement,” he joked, noting, in seriousness, that he believes the “vast majority of people are satisfied and understood the nuance we strove to achieve.”

“The fact that nobody’s happy shows that it was a good statement,” he joked.

Still, the clarification from Conservative leadership did little to placate an agitated base. Rosen, working with a team of other Conservative Jews, most of whom were in their 20s and 30s, began circulating an online petition to express “dismay” toward JTS and USCJ’s statements.

The petition, which began circulating on social media Saturday night, received over 250 signatures within 24 hours, including prospective JTS students, alumni, 30 Conservative rabbis and several community lay leaders. (The petition now has over 300 signatures, 40 of whom are Conservative rabbis.)

“It is especially because of our high regard for our institutions that we are so disappointed by their responses,” the petition reads. “We believe that support for President Trump’s announcement is both politically shortsighted and morally unsound.” The move, they say, makes a two-state solution more difficult to attain, ignores Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and risks exacerbating violence for no gain.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the human rights organization T’ruah, expressed her grave disappointment in the movement’s stance. Rabbi Jacobs, who separately issued a statement boldly criticizing President Trump’s Jerusalem announcement as “counterproductive,” was ordained by JTS and still affiliates with the Conservative movement.

“Our tradition has a lot to teach us about the dangers of flattery and kissing up to non-Jewish rulers who do not have our best interests in mind,” she said. Still, she encouraged young Conservative Jews alienated by the Jerusalem statements to “stick around and make your voice heard.”

“Any movement does eventually have to respond to the voice of its members,” she said.

Indeed, a younger generation of Conservative Jews appears eager to speak out.

“The Conservative movement is part of who I am,” said Allen Lipson, a recent graduate of the Columbia/JTS joint degree program and a collaborator on the petition. Lipson grew up going to a small Conservative congregation in Rockland County, was a camper and staffer at Camp Ramah Nyack, and served as president of Columbia’s Conservative minyan. He is “seriously considering” applying to JTS rabbinical school, but the statement left him “ill at ease.”

“I was so deeply disappointed,” he said, pointing specifically to the first line, which began, “We at The Jewish Theological Seminary … .”

“I had to speak up,” he said. “The ‘we’ did not include me, and staying silent meant tacitly accepting the statement.”

“The ‘we’ did not include me, and staying silent meant tacitly accepting the statement.”

Aron Wander, 24, another petition collaborator, agreed, saying it was important for him to speak out because JTS and USCJ “are moral centers for the Conservative movement.” Wander, who is the third generation in his family of committed, Conservative Jews — his grandmother worked at JTS “her entire life” — said he’s sticking with the movement.

“I grew up in this movement and I am committed to its success,” he said. “This is not criticism I voice lightly. This movement has invested in me — now I’m going to hold them to the standard they’ve set for themselves.”

About the statement on Jerusalem, he said, “I am not rejecting the idea that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel — Jerusalem is and should be the capital of a Jewish state. But any changes to the status of the situation should be done through the lens of comprehensive negotiations. If not, it will only inflame the situation and take us further from peace.”

Wander and several others pointed to what they see as a “generational divide” that finds a younger cohort of American Jews “far more willing to criticize Israel.” He later noted that petition signatories span the age spectrum, indicating that such a divide is not necessarily the primary force at play.

Rabbi Mira Rivera, who received ordination from JTS in 2015, signed the petition and said the statement, “did not represent the JTS I know, or the Judaism I know.” Rivera is the mother of two adult children, and represents an older age cohort equally dismayed by what she sees as an “wholly irresponsible” move on the part of the Conservative movement.

“I am loyal to the Conservative movement’s stance on keeping Shabbat, and not officiating intermarriage. But a statement like this? No.”

“I am a dues-paying member who holds the tenets of Jewish law and practice close to my heart,” said Rivera, who works as a chaplain for ailing Holocaust survivors. “I am not some renegade, rogue rabbi.”

She continued: “I am loyal to the Conservative movement’s stance on keeping Shabbat, and not officiating intermarriage. But a statement like this? No.”

Rivera seemed to think a generational divide is at play. “Some of the zekanim are slow on the action,” she said, using the Hebrew term for an older generation. “We’re looking to the young people for leadership. They are acting as our communal conscience.”

Mike Schwartz, another signatory, grew up going to his Bridgeport, Conn., Conservative shul daily and “multiple times” on Shabbat. “Synagogue was a huge part of my life,” said the 31-year-old Brooklyn resident. He once planned to become a rabbi, but became an analyst instead. And, though he used to be an “annual donor” to JTS, he has decided to stop unless he sees “significant change.”

“Jewish organizations across America are saying, ‘Where are the young Jews?’” he said. “Well, we’re here. And we are clearly expressing our opinions … . If our institutions continue to ignore our dissent, they run the risk of making themselves irrelevant.”

JTS’ statement on Jerusalem, he said, “completely overlooks the fact that Jerusalem is contested and the Palestinians also claim Jerusalem as their capital. Changing the status quo on just one side is lighting a fire under people who already feel desperate.”

An alumnus of the joint Columbia/JTS program, he said watching the movement fall “out of touch” makes him incredibly sad.

“I don’t want them to fall into oblivion,” he said, pausing. “But if the Conservative movement fails to listen to the potential future leaders of its causes and institutions, we will establish our own institutions to satisfy our needs.”