More than 300 rabbis from around the world -- along with spouses taking advantage of a warm California vacation -- gathered at the Sheraton Universal March 30-April 3 for the annual conference of the Rabbinic Assembly (RA), the Conservative movement's rabbinic umbrella group.
It was a chance for the rabbis, along with rabbinic students from both the University of Judaism (UJ) and New York's Jewish Theological Seminary, to collectively regroup after a year that, in addition to the ongoing mission to keep Jews inspired, posed significant challenges for the movement: The not-yet-released 2002 Jewish population survey reported a drop in the number of Conservative Jews, and the situation in Israel meant that fundraising and public awareness of the Masorti movement -- Conservative Judaism in Israel and other countries -- was largely sidelined.
Just a few months ago, the movement's ongoing quest to combine halacha and contemporary values came under fire when the press launched a preemptive strike at the movement, which had been gearing up to address the question of ordaining gay and lesbian rabbis and performing same-sex commitment ceremonies.
Rabbi Reuven Hammer of Jerusalem, international president of the RA, acknowledged these challenges, while at the same time he found room for optimism.
"I believe that the news of our demise or even our decline has been greatly exaggerated," he said. "I visit your congregations, and I see signs of vitality, of increased learning and increased commitment.... I think that never before has our philosophy and theology been as clearly defined as it is today."
While the question of gay rabbis was left off the RA agenda because the movement's law committee will be examining the issues this year, a rabbi presented a resolution from the floor -- one that largely reiterated the movement's policy of welcoming gays into congregations and communities, if not the rabbinate -- but due to lack of time, it was not raised at the convention.
The issue is expected to be considered this year by the law committee. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, UJ rector who was on deck to take over that committee this year, agreed to defer his chairmanship for a year while the question is considered, because he has been a vocal proponent of change.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the RA, said this kind of struggle is emblematic of the vitality of the movement.
Believing in Conservative Judaism entails "a commitment to Jewish life with intellectual integrity, and that is what the movement tries to do, which often has it portrayed unfairly as not being clear in its message," Meyers told The Journal. "But it's a hard thing to do. It's hard to be committed to tradition and to learning, to a sense of God infusing your life, and still saying how do we measure that against what we know about the world around us, about our intellectual abilities to study and learn."
Hammer presided over a prolonged discussion regarding a resolution on Iraq, which eventually passed early Thursday morning, the last day of the convention. The resolution affirmed the "supreme value of peace and peacemaking," while also affirming the permissibility of war in response to "life-threatening aggression, current or anticipated."
The Executive Council also passed resolutions in support of Israel, pluralism in Argentina, stem-cell research and educationÂ and expanding the worldwide Masorti presence.
If the struggles were deep and eternal, so were the friendships that were being renewed in the hotel lobby, over meals and in text studies and workshops on everything from contract negotiations to ministering to families going through divorce.
Reunited classmates and colleagues scattered themselves throughout the hotel, exchanging ideas and experiences about how to bring in the vast numbers of Jews who are opting out of Judaism and how to continually inspire the ones who have opted in.
"There isn't a convention that I go to where I don't take away insights that I can bring back to my community," said Rabbi Steven Conn of Congregation Beth Shalom in Santa Clarita. "I am a better rabbi for what I gain from my colleagues."
"Or Hadash" ("New Light"), a new commentary on the Conservative movement's prayer book, "Sim Shalom," was unveiled at the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) last week. Written by RA President Rabbi Reuven Hammer, "Or Hadash," is a kind of beginner's service in print, but deeper, with historical context and contemporary commentary running alongside the prayers. "There's a great deal of interest in prayer today, more than there has been in the past," Hammer said. "These things are taken seriously by our congregants. "There's a lot more interest and understanding that the siddur is one of Judaism's basic books, like the Torah, and worth studying," he said. The rabbi anticipated that "Or Hadash" will be used during services and also for adult study. "This is a way to give the individual congregant the feeling that he or she is really part of this, and that they don't have to depend on someone else to tell them what to do." The commentary will be available soon for $45 from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Book Service. -- Debra Nussbaum Cohen, The Jewish Week