Of late, it’s been depressing to be a Conservative Jew. News of demographic and organizational challenges have fed a frenzy of articles delighting in our imminent demise. Many of the criticisms of Conservative Judaism are rooted in serious and valid concerns. Many of them are criticisms that I’ve made myself for two decades now. But the glee with which some challenging statistics and personal complaints have been proclaimed, while examples of Conservative vitality are ignored or underreported, need some correction.
Two years ago, I received a call from a professor, Rabbi Walter Homolka of the University of Potsdam — Potsdam is the capitol of the State of Brandenburg, near Berlin — informing me that his university, one of the major public centers of learning in central Europe, was interested in creating a new rabbinical school to train Conservative/Masorti rabbis to serve the growing communities of Europe. Yes, you heard me right: Both the Progressive communities and the Masorti (Conservative) communities of Europe are growing. But their future growth is limited by the lack of educated leadership who can speak to them in authentically Jewish ways yet also share their embrace of modernity as contemporary Europeans. They need rabbis who share their worldview, engagement and values.
I flew to Germany a year and a half ago, accompanied by the chair of the board of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Melissa Held Bordy, and we conducted intensive conversations with the university about the Ziegler School joining with the University of Potsdam, which would be responsible for the academic part of the education while Ziegler would supervise the religious standards and denominational training for this new generation of leaders.
It would be as though UCLA or USC had offered to fund and maintain a rabbinical school as an expression of its core mission in the heart of its own campus!
Last week, those conversations were rewarded. After a beautiful Shabbat in an egalitarian, intimate and moving service led by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, a woman of vast learning and great warmth, at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue (the beautiful gold-domed building recognized as a living symbol of German Jewry), we launched the new rabbinical school: the Zacharias Frankel College. Already we have extraordinary young Europeans applying for our new program.
In an auditorium of this venerable building, hundreds of people — Jews and non-Jews from Germany and all over Europe, educators and academics from the great centers of learning, and members of the German federal and state governments — came together. We spoke of the great Jewish achievements of the past, and of the devastation of the Nazi regime, never to be forgotten. We affirmed that this open, vibrant approach to Jewish life retains the power to restore Jewish vitality across Europe and has much to teach non-Jewish Europeans, too.
Two days later, we gathered on the campus of the University of Potsdam and launched a one-of-a-kind institution, the School of Jewish Theology, which will teach Jewish religious texts and thought in the context of a modern Western university — not huddled in its own seminary or yeshiva, but out in the very apex of public learning. This school will house the two rabbinical programs: Abraham Geiger College (training Reform rabbis) and Zacharias Frankel College (training Masorti/Conservative rabbis). It will also serve hundreds of students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who want to benefit from a rigorous engagement with Jewish texts and study.
This double educational miracle embodies the best of Conservative/Masorti vitality — a joyous affirmation that one can be fully Jewish and fully modern, educated in the best of Western scholarship as a way of enhancing the depths of Torah learning, mitzvah observance and robust spirit.
In fact, there is considerable vitality that Conservative Judaism demonstrates every day, in its hundreds of congregations, day schools, camps Ramah, rabbinical schools, vibrant youth groups and introduction to Judaism programs. That very vitality, coupled with our tradition of intellectual honesty and Jewish passion, is what will save us.
The evening of the dedication, I gave a short speech, surrounded by German parliamentarians and government ministers, university presidents, ambassadors from several European countries, bishops and imams and rabbis.
I pointed out that after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, it took 70 years before Jews began to return to our ancestral home to rebuild what was to become the Second Temple. It took 70 years of mourning, grief and exile before we could begin the work of return.
It is now approximately 70 years after the Shoah, I said, and the work begins. This time the Federal Republic of Germany, with its magnificent educational system, is the ally of the Jewish people.
The vital response to the modern age — a response that embraces the values of democracy and freedom, that relishes the openness of deep engagement with every branch of human learning, and affirms that Judaism authentically grows to integrate the best insights and new knowledge while retaining faith in sacred learning and passionate observance — this cluster of values has animated Conservative Judaism for hundreds of years, leaving a record of great scholars, great communities and great creativity.
Our task is now to mobilize those considerable strengths and to honestly face the unique challenges of our own time. Based on what I see every day at the Ziegler School — our brilliant faculty, talented lay leadership and our equally magnificent students, and based on the redemptive affirmation I witnessed in Germany, I want to share this news from the rooftops:
We’re not dead yet.
Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union.