Rumors of the Conservative movement’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, according to Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the movement’s de facto intellectual center.
While admitting a number of challenges facing the 100-year-old movement — including lack of funding and declining membership — Eisen made a case for why it still matters during a recent lecture at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino.
“These are not bad days for Conservative Judaism,” he said.
During a Nov. 20 event that drew approximately 300 attendees, the movement’s leader declared that Conservative Judaism — and, even more broadly, Judaism — needs to be more in tune with contemporary thinking and embrace experimentation.
Eisen’s appearance came on the heels of a recent one-two punch of negative publicity: the Oct. 1 publication of a Pew Research Center survey indicating that less than 20 percent of today’s American Jews affiliate with the Conservative movement, and the much-buzzed-about article by scholar Daniel Gordis titled “Requiem for a Movement,” forecasting the demise of the Conservative movement that was published earlier this month.
Without ever mentioning Gordis by name or making any specific references to Gordis’ essay, which appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, Eisen defended his movement against the prediction that Conservative Judaism is on the verge of extinction.
“Enough, enough with calling us dead,” he said. “It’s ridiculous, and it’s offensive. We’re not dying, and we’re not dead.”
During his speech, Eisen presented many ideas to bolster the movement, including creating more intimate worship spaces and stressing the importance of live music.
It’s also essential, he said, to increase the participation of people in the pews. Somewhere along the line, services in the Conservative movement ceased being communal experiences and became more akin to “performances,” with congregants being reduced to the role of observers.
Other issues abound: There are too few early childhood centers; not enough Conservative rabbis staffing the positions at campus Hillels; and Camp Ramah, the movement’s network of summer camps, is not as well attended as it should be, he said.
Its problems aside, the Conservative movement’s seed, the idea that gave birth to the movement — namely the notion that a rigorous commitment to halachah and an immersion into modernity are not mutually exclusive approaches to life — is one worth preserving, said Eisen, who has led JTS for seven years. Previously, he served in a tenured position at Stanford University, where he worked in the department of religious studies.
While not shy about critiquing his own movement, he also sprinkled in veiled swipes elsewhere. Eisen said the Reform movement does not sufficiently challenge its adherents, and accused the Orthodox movement of occasional insularity. In an obvious poke at the ultra-Orthodox way of cutting itself off from other movements, he summarized the words of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber when saying: “How do you expect to talk to God when you can’t talk to the person sitting next to you?”
The evening featured Eisen’s 45-minute lecture, followed by a one-on-one dialogue between Eisen and VBS’ Rabbi Ed Feinstein, during which the men discussed a range of topics.
Regarding interfaith marriages, Eisen said that perhaps Conservative rabbis should come up with an unofficial way of wedding such couples, a way that is different from — and does not conflict with — Jewish law but reflects the rabbis’ desire to be inclusive.
Another subject that came up was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the late Conservative icon, whose involvement in secular social justice movements makes him an appealing figure among the youth today, Eisen said.
Throughout the night, Eisen spoke passionately and confidently, once or twice pounding the lectern behind which he was speaking. He rarely paused during his talk. Tall and lean, with gray-white hair, he gave off the air of an esteemed New York novelist.
Near the end of the evening, the two rabbis on stage also discussed Eisen’s affinity for the synagogue. Academicians and clergy don’t often mix, Feinstein said, and he complimented Eisen, who is in his early 60s, on breaking the mold.
When Feinstein asked Eisen what he wants his legacy to be, it was like pulling teeth from a man who appeared to prefer to discuss what he can do now. But, ultimately, he gave his answer: He would like to know that he had played a part in helping the Jewish community realize that it is living in the best of times — that no time in history has been friendlier to the Jews.
“I have a sense that we are wasting our inheritance,” he said.