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Conservative Movement or Coalition? Its Leaders Ponder Just Who They Are

March 17, 2005
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Is Conservative Judaism a united movement, or is it more of a coalition of approaches to Jewish observance? That’s a question some Conservative rabbis are asking after taking a long, hard look at the state of their stream during a convention last week in Houston.

“I think that we’re forever looking for that magic ideology, and the thing is, we’re not necessarily united by a common ideology — but we are united by common values,” said Rabbi Perry Raphael Rank, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic arm.

“Maybe we need to look for a slightly new language in the way we describe ourselves,” he added. “I think a better way of looking at who we are as a movement is that we’re a coalition of different approaches to Torah, God and Israel.”

Since its inception, the Conservative movement has walked a fine line between adhering to halachah, or Jewish law, and embracing modernity and a modern approach to religious observance. Its legal scholars have in some instances hewed strictly to traditional interpretations of the legal code and in others have adapted it to more current thinking.

The movement, for example, has said that driving an automobile on the Sabbath, prohibited according to a strict halachic reading, is permissible in order to attend worship services at a synagogue. On the other hand, the movement voted in 1992 against ordaining openly gay rabbis and officiating at same-sex marriages, although those positions also are being debated.

With its numbers in decline and its population aging, some observers outside the Conservative fold have predicted the movement’s ultimate demise. And while Conservative leaders strongly dispute such dire prognostications, there seems to be a growing consensus among them that the stream needs a serious shot in the arm if it hopes to thrive alongside its revitalized Reform and Orthodox counterparts.

“I see that this is a call to action rather than a cause for alarm,” said Judy Yudof, international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm.

“Conservative Judaism resonates, I feel, with a majority of Jews. We just haven’t been very good marketers for our message.”

Denominational leaders are now indicating that they would like the movement’s disparate arms to work more closely together in articulating a vision.

“Because our movement is not hierarchical, it requires a different method of working together when we all sit and plan,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, the R.A.’s executive vice president. “I think that’s what is meant by ‘more of a coalition.’

“The question before us always is, ‘How do we all get on the same page, focused in the same direction?’ “

“It would be good to have what in contemporary jargon would be called a ‘strategic plan’ for the movement in which we all have a clear role and a clear plan of action,” he added.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, only 33 percent of 4.3 million affiliated American Jews identified as Conservative. That represented a drop of 10 percentage points over the past decade — a period during which Reform and Orthodox ranks swelled. This finding represented the first time since the inception of such surveys in 1971 that Reform Jews outnumbered Conservative Jews.

Further, the report found, nearly half of all adult Jews who were raised Conservative no longer consider themselves to be Conservative.

But leaders insist it’s not all downhill for the movement. They cite an increasing number of day schools and day-school students as a sign of strength.

In addition, a large New Jersey synagogue recently decided to appoint a woman to its senior rabbinic position, the first time a woman has held a job at a Conservative shul with more than 500 families. Leaders called the move “groundbreaking.”

Indeed, said Rank, “the statistics only tell partial truths.”

“There is this corpus of anecdotal evidence and some statistical evidence as well” that the core of “serious” Conservative Jews is increasing, said Rank, also the spiritual leader of Midway Jewish Center in Syosset, N.Y.

Still, in an address that spurred much discussion at the assembly’s convention in Houston last week, the leader of the Conservative movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary said that despite successes in the educational realm, many Jews raised in the Conservative movement are “often off at Orthodox shuls.”

Much of the substance “in our shuls is geared towards ‘entry-level’ Jews and not ‘advanced’ Jews,” Rabbi Ismar Schorsch said on March 6, according to a spokeswoman for the Rabbinical Assembly. And while these “advanced” Jews remain intellectually Conservative, they have trouble finding satisfaction at Conservative shuls, he said.

Yudof said the Conservative movement suffers from a problem that the other denominations do not face.

“We do such a good job of inculcating the values of the Conservative movement in our young people through our organizational youth groups, that frequently they return to homes and synagogue communities that don’t support the values they have come to embrace,” she said.

Perhaps this is what Schorsch was referring to when he spoke of a significant “disconnect” between Jewish education in the movement — which he said was vibrant and strong — and its synagogues. He suggested several remedies for revitalizing this realm of Jewish life.

Among them, he stressed the need to reaffirm the validity of halachic boundaries. He also cited both Chabad and Reform in saying that the American Jewish community is hungry for charismatic leadership and ideas.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer, immediate past president of the assembly, also stressed the importance of community in retaining Jews in the Conservative movement.

“You can’t lead an observant life all by yourself,” he said. “There has to be a community. I think that it’s important for synagogues to increase the level of their adult education programs so that we have more and more people who are really Jewishly knowledgeable in our congregations.”

Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University who delivered a plenary address at the convention, said that Conservative Judaism, which once was supposed to be an inclusive tent representing most Jews to the right of Reform, has become narrower and more constricted in recent decades, leading to its shrinking appeal.

“In religion, a centrist movement, if it seeks to remain healthy and grow, needs constantly to widen its circle of adherents,” Sarna said in his address. “Tragically, the Conservative movement’s circle over the past four decades has, instead, narrowed and constricted.”

Sarna cited break-off movements such as Reconstructionism and the havurah movement as evidence of Conservative’s narrowing appeal. He also mentioned the explosion of nondenominational minyanim — many founded and run by people from the Conservative movement — that in recent years have begun to attract young Jews in droves.

Sarna, though, said that the movement could take heart from the resurgence of Reform and Orthodox Judaism, both of which were able to effect large turnarounds after years of declining vitality.

Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, senior rabbi of -Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., said that the Orthodox movement’s growth has to do in part with the high birthrate in that community.

A substantial portion of the Reform movement’s growth, he said in an interview, can be traced to that movement’s decision to accept as members non-Jews who have married Jews, along with people who are not Jewish according to a strict interpretation of halachah.

“That has given energy to the Reform movement and that is something that we have to recognize. But we, the Conservative movement, don’t agree with it,” said Wohlberg, who is an officer of the assembly.

“People have always said that it’s easier to live on the right or the left — the middle requires a lot more thought and more analysis,” he added.

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