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Reform Leader’s Swipe Sparks Angry Rebuttals from Conservatives

March 3, 2004
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A top Reform rabbi is predicting the death of Conservative Judaism, drawing protests from the Conservative movement’s leadership.

The objections surfaced this week in response to an essay by Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. The essay argued that within several decades Conservative Jews likely will move either to the more liberal Reform movement or to the more traditional Orthodox world.

Major wedges between the modernist movements will force this exodus, Menitoff argued, including the Conservative movement’s opposition to intermarriage; its ban on ordaining homosexual rabbis and on same-sex marriages; and its opposition to patrilineal descent, all of which the Reform movement supports.

The Conservative movement may continue to attract those for whom Orthodoxy remains “too restrictive” and Reform “too acculturated,” but a more likely outcome will be “the demise of the Conservative movement,” Menitoff wrote.

“If the Conservative movement capitulates regarding these core differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism, it will be essentially obliterating the need for its existence,” he wrote. “If, alternatively, it stands firm, its congregants will vote with their feet.”

Conservative leaders called the argument “delusional” and the product of “immature” analysis.

“His description of the future is rather silly,” said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.

The essay “is an immature look” at the currents shaping American Jewry, he said, “or maybe it’s wishful thinking.”

Unusual in its bluntly pessimistic predictions, Menitoff’s essay comes as Conservative Jewry, which once dominated the American Jewish landscape, is facing major challenges.

In the past few years, the movement has been split over major issues, including its stance on homosexuality, and some rabbis have accused the movement’s leadership of lacking vision.

Menitoff’s predictions came in a January missive to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1,800 members. He later outlined the premise at a joint meeting of the western chapters of the rabbinical group and its Conservative counterpart, the Rabbinical Assembly, in Palm Springs, Calif., in January.

Within a few decades,”you’ll basically have Orthodox and Reform,” he told JTA. “This is in no way an attack, it’s just a reasonable analysis of how things could work out.”

“I hope I’m wrong,” he added. “I’m just looking at the landscape and providing a perspective.”

Some signs lend weight to Menitoff’s theory. Last September, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey found that of the nation’s 4.3 million Jews with some religious or communal connections, the largest group — 39 percent — identified as Reform, while 33 percent called themselves Conservative.

That represented a major decline from the 43 percent the Conservative movement polled in the 1990 NJPS. By contrast, the Reform movement rose during that period from 35 percent, and Orthodoxy grew to 21 percent from 16 percent. The Reconstructionist movement rose to 3 percent from 2 percent.

Menitoff also pointed to the disparity between attendance at the Conservative movement’s 2003 biennial convention in Dallas, which some 500 people attended, and the Reform summit in Minneapolis, which drew nearly 5,000.

Conservative movement officials rejected Menitoff’s point.

“That’s just not a measure of success — their convention is structured differently than ours,” said Sarrae Crane, director of the Conservative convention, which is aimed principally at the movement’s leadership.

Though Menitoff lamented the blurring of denominational lines as the result of “extreme assimilation” — 44 percent of Jews do not align with any movement, according to the NJPS — his Conservative counterparts felt they were being attacked.

“It’s his delusional thinking that creates this scenario,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm.

“The Talmud says prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and given to children and fools,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, one of the Conservative movement’s two main seminaries. “No one can predict the future.”

Artson and others pointed out that a century ago, many predicted the death of the Orthodox movement and were proven wrong.

“I would tell him to be very cautious,” Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, said of Menitoff. Many once said “Orthodoxy would not be able to withstand reasoned science and critical scholarship,” Schorsch said, but “all the pundits proved to be rank amateurs.”

Conservative leaders also maintain that their movement’s communal organizations are thriving.

Of the approximately 120,000 students in Jewish day schools, more than 50,000 are in the Conservative movement’s 70 Solomon Schechter Day Schools, while 8,000 youngsters attend the movement’s Camp Ramah system each summer.

Another 20,000 youngsters participate in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization, and many adults are “engaged in lifelong Jewish study,” Schorsch said.

Rabbi Toni Shy of Temple Beth Israel in Port Washington, N.Y., said it would be wrong to dismiss the Conservative movement so quickly. Her synagogue has 270 families and 150 children in its religious school.

“The devotion of the parents to having their children receive a solid Conservative education speaks volumes,” she said.

Rela Mintz Geffen, president of the non-denominational Baltimore Hebrew University and a Conservative scholar, also rejected Menitoff’s argument.

If “there are clear lines of demarcation” between all of the movements, and they maintain theological differences, “I don’t think they will merge,” she said.

More likely, she added, is that traditionalists in the Conservative movement might merge with the modern Orthodox movement.

But Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, agreed with Menitoff. In 2001, Shafran wrote in Moment magazine that the Conservative movement was a “failure.”

“It does seem the Jewish community is heading for a crystallization between those who affirm the full truth of the Jewish religious tradition and those who, to one degree or another, don’t accept that,” Shafran said.

Shafran, however, hopes for a very different result: that more Jews will join the Orthodox, whom he calls “pre- denominational,” to “access the entirety of the Jewish religious heritage.”

One of Menitoff’s Reform colleagues, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, disputed the essay as well.

Conservative Judaism is “a movement filled with so many vibrant congregations that whatever its problems, I don’t believe its future is threatened,” said Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the Reform movement’s congregational arm.

Ironically, Yoffie bolstered a point made by Menitoff — that many “off-duty” Reform rabbis pray in Conservative synagogues, while Conservative rabbis sometimes pray in Orthodox congregations.

“I’ve prayed in Conservative synagogues with some frequency, and on that basis alone there is ample reason to believe there will remain a separate and viable movement,” Yoffie said.

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