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As Schorsch Marks 18 Years at Jts, Some Say Movement Lacks Leadership

May 20, 2004
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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch blasts the Bush administration for going to war in Iraq, and predicts that his Conservative movement will not alter Jewish law to accommodate homosexuality.

“For the Conservative movement, the issue is whether one can be politically liberal and religiously conservative,” Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said in a mid-May interview with JTA. “I happen to think that’s possible and tenable.”

Schorsch, 68, has succeeded in balancing that nuanced world view during 18 years at the helm of the movement’s academic and intellectual bastion. On May 24, JTS will honor his tenure and his role as a leading voice in the centrist movement.

“By dint of longevity, maturity, prominence and scholarship, someone has become the most recognized spokesperson for the movement, and at this juncture it’s clearly Dr. Schorsch,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Wholberg of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington.

The tribute comes as Conservative Judaism is at a crossroads: Its educational institutions are flourishing and its synagogues are experiencing a renewed vitality, but some say a leadership vacuum is leading to a dwindling of the ranks in what was the dominant American Jewish movement as little as a decade ago.

While many Conservative Jews share Schorsch’s world view, the question hovering over the movement is whether Schorsch — or any single figure — can speak for Conservative Jewry at a time of intense soul-searching within the movement.

“Rabbi Schorsch has been a wonderful leader,” said Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, who is seen as a rising star in the movement. But “he is the victim of being in a position from which people over-expect. He just can’t be everything.”

Several rabbis who gathered at JTS last winter for a conference on the latest National Jewish Population Survey criticized the movement’s leaders — while not pointing fingers directly at Schorsch — for failing to articulate a strong vision for Conservative Jewry.

Their complaints came in the wake of NJPS results that showed Conservative Jewry falling behind the Reform movement in membership.

According to the NJPS, only 33 percent of 4.3 million connected U.S. Jews identified as Conservative. That represented a drop of 10 percentage points over the past decade, a time when the other major streams saw their ranks swell.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, head of the non-denominational Society for the Advancement of Judaism and co-author of the “Jewish Catalog” series that helped spawn the chavurah movement, said Conservative Jewish leaders wrongly focused on adherence to Jewish ritual rather than on the meaning of rituals.

“If people come to Judaism as something of meaning and value that adds to their lives, they will come to ritual,” Strassfeld said.

Yet Schorsch sees ritual as pivotal.

“The function of ritual is to serve as the vessel for the transmission of values,” he said. “That’s why religion works.”

Strassfeld said one example of what he calls misplaced focus came late last year, when Schorsch questioned the Conservative movement’s 1950 decision to allow driving on the Sabbath to encourage synagogue attendance. The change came at a time when many American Jews were migrating from cities to suburbs and lived further from their synagogues.

But Schorsch stuck to his guns.

“The more you drive, the less chance of creating a Shabbat community,” he said. “That’s what we failed to see. Sometimes we should be silent.”

Not many pulpit rabbis seem to share that concern, however, saying that driving on Shabbat has become so commonplace that it is no longer controversial.

Further, some point to synagogue revitalization efforts such as Synagogue 2000, a joint program with the Reform movement, and STAR: Synagogue Transformation and Renewal, as efforts that have reinvigorated congregational life.

It might make sense to think twice about the Shabbat driving decision near JTS on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where synagogues abound, but “in most of America it does not work that way,” Wolpe said.

Such public willingness to confront Schorsch may say something about his sway over the movement. But charges that the movement lacks leadership don’t move Schorsch, who called them a “knee-jerk reaction” to the population study.

There’s a “lament that ‘we got what we deserved,’ but I don’t think that’s a very deep analysis,” he said.

On the contrary, Schorsch points to education as one area where the Conservative movement is thriving: Of some 200,000 Jewish day school students around the country, 25 percent hail from the movement’s Solomon Schechter Day Schools or community schools largely funded and populated by Conservative Jews.

In addition, 8,000 Conservative youths attend Ramah summer camps, two new camps are going up in Northern California and Georgia and 70 percent of movement synagogue children attend congregational schools.

Meanwhile, JTS’ William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education, which Schorsch helped launch, is about to graduate 130 students, its largest class.

All non-Orthodox programs for Jewish educators at the other liberal seminaries together “don’t equal 130,” Schorsch charged.

“Jewish education is the growth sector of the Conservative movement,” he said.

While that growth is happening nationwide, many have noted a seeming cultural schism between the establishment New York seminary and the younger, more liberal University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

“I don’t think the pull of the chancellor, or any leader, on the East Coast has the same effect here,” said Conservative Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

The Los Angeles campus has stirred “competition and therefore some real life into rethinking the rabbinic school curriculum” in the movement, U.J. Rector Rabbi Elliot Dorff said.

When it comes to one movement debate, the seminary leaders diverge sharply.

Dorff, who wants to welcome gays and lesbians into Conservative congregations, remains highly critical of Schorsch’s warning that the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards should not revise the movement’s opposition to ordaining openly gay rabbinic students or holding gay commitment ceremonies.

That controversy has been stirring for several years, and is likely to continue at least until the committee hears arguments on the issue next March.

Schorsch feels the conflict was complicated by a Massachusetts court decision legalizing gay civil marriages, which sparked a rush of gay weddings in that state and also in San Francisco and in the New York town of New Paltz.

“This is an agenda formulated by secular society that confronts Judaism with an enormous challenge,” he said. But “since Conservative Judaism remains a halachic movement, it is not going to be able to accommodate everything secular society wants.”

Schorsch, who as JTS chancellor appoints five members of the 25-member law committee, said he has “been afforded the opportunity to express my views” on the subject to the panel.

“The law committee will stand its halachic ground and not support same-sex marriage,” he predicted.

Dorff agrees that the movement should not bend to cultural trends. But, he says, “if you’re going to have a legal system that affects people’s lives, you have to take into account what’s going on in people’s lives in order to make it relevant.”

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