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In Search of a Leader

Can anyone save Conservative Judaism from itself?


by Amy Klein

October 6, 2005 | 8:00 pm

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary plans to retire in 2006. Can a new leader bring the movement together?

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary plans to retire in 2006. Can a new leader bring the movement together?

It is only the second Rosh Hashanah for Ikar, a new congregation in Los Angeles, and some 600 people will be attending its services at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Six-hundred people.

Not bad for this synagogue-less community that was started in April 2004 by Rabbi Sharon Brous, a 2001 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the flagship institution of the Conservative movement.

While the congregants will be praying from the Conservative prayerbook, and following the Conservative halacha, such as mixed seating and having prayers led by women and men, don't call them Conservative. Brous has not affiliated with the Conservative movement.

The same goes for Nashuva, which meets in a Westwood Blvd. church, and Kehillat Hadar on the Upper West Side in New York. Both boast mailing lists of 2,000 people, many of whom are in the coveted 20s and 30s demographic. Both define themselves as independent, egalitarian communities committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action. That sounds like the very definition of Conservative. But instead of calling themselves Conservative, Nashuva and Kehillat Hadar go by the term "non-denominational."

Call it the Conservative Crisis.

The Conservative movement has been losing members in droves over the last two decades: It went from claiming 40 percent of American Jewish households in 1990 to 33 percent by 2000, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

This from what was the largest Jewish denomination in America, one that served as the middle ground between the stringency of the Orthodox movement and the modernity of the Reform movement. In the 1990s both movements grew -- and the Reform movement became the largest denomination in America, surpassing the Conservative movement for the first time in 100 years.

The crisis came to a head this summer, when the de facto head of the momement, Ismar Schorsch, announced his retirement, setting off a search for a new leader -- one who must confront the challenge of dwindling membership, decide the movement's position on homosexuality, stop the flow of breakaway synagogues, and make people understand what it means to be a Conservative Jew. In other words, the movement is seeking a leader to save Conservative Judaism .

A Crisis of Leadership

So why didn't Rabbi Brous affiliate with the Conservative movement?

"We have a lot of people of very different backgrounds," she explained. "We wanted to celebrate the breadth and diversity of the community and not feel restricted by certain movement parameters."

Brous has nothing against the Conservative movement per se -- she's grateful for the in-depth education JTS provided -- but she wanted a community "that was creative, vibrant and spiritually awake, where Jews would have a sense of responsibility to the world and a real sense of the Jewish community." That she and others seek these goals outside the movement has to be disturbing for Conservative leaders. Reversing this trend, however, will fall to a new generation of leaders.

Early this summer, JTS chancellor Schorsch announced that he will be retiring in June 2006. The seminary in New York is the flagship institution of the Conservative movement. As head of the JTS for two decades, most observers agree that Schorsch has been impressively successful: He transformed JTS from just being a rabbinical school to a full academic institution of renown, whose five schools include a graduate program in Jewish education, which Schorsch sees as the future of Conservative Judaism. During his tenure, enrollment at the schools increased from 500 in 1994 to 700 today, as did the number of faculty from 90 in 1994 to 120 today. He oversaw the integration of women into the movement as cantors and rabbis in the 1980s, and, philosophically, he also defined what he saw as the seven principles of Conservative Judaism in his 1995 book, "Seven Clusters."

His JTS-trained Jewish rabbis and cantors have entered the Jewish world and done positive work for the movement. The number of Conservative day school students and campers has risen: 25,000 students attend Conservative Schechter Schools, and 25,000 more are enrolled in nondenominational Jewish academies. Conservative students now make up 25 percent of the national day school population, according to the seminary.

But with the modesty of a thoughtful, retiring academic, Schorsch has been reluctant to tell people what to do or -- some would say -- to lead.

"I think Schorsch's vision for the seminary was seminary-centered, more than movement-centered," said Rabbi Elliott Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism. "He saw it as his job primarily to foster the seminary, and that is what he did. He didn't see it as his job -- not his primary job --to be the leader of the movement."

There also are financial concerns for the movement, including conflicting accounts of the seminary's financial health. A story in New York's The Jewish Week cited unnamed faculty members as the source of a story about an alleged $50 million debt that had to be retired by selling property. School officials denied budget problems without specifically addressing the story's claims. Administrators insist the seminary's financial health is solid, with philanthropic contributions rising every year. There's no debate over the financial stuggles of the Masorti movement -- the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement. In June, Masorti eliminated the position of president, effectively laying off Ehud Bandel, its top professional staffer as well as the organization's professional spokesperson.

Within the movement, Dorff said, people are hoping the next head of the seminary will be a lot of things besides a fundraiser -- "a scholar, a warm person, a rabbi who is also a good administrator, someone who doesn't sleep.... The person you really want for this job is the messiah."

Schorsch's retirement next year, when he is 70, is likely to augur a generational shift. The heads of the three major arms of the denomination -- JTS, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents congregants -- all started their jobs in the mid-1980s and are set to retire in the next five years.

"What does the movement look like, five years from now, three years from now?" said Rabbi Joel Myers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, in an interview with The Journal. "What should be the driving vision of the movement? Who will articulate that? How it will be articulated?"

"How will the arms of the movement be brought together to plan collectively and collaboratively to reinforce the strength of the movement?" Myers continued. "That is the essential question."

Uniting the movement won't be easy, especially when different factions have determined that unity means seeing things their way.

Too Gay or Not Too Gay

For many, "vision" and "leadership" means resolving one looming and seemingly unresolvable issue: homosexuality, which is, in many ways, pulling the movement apart. Right now, the Conservative movement will not ordain a gay rabbi, and it will expel students who come out while they are in seminary. But it won't excommunicate ordained rabbis who subsequently say they are homosexual.

The last time the Conservative movement ruled on the issue was 1992, when the Law and Ethics Committee, the halachic arm of the Rabbinical Assembly that decides issues of law, issued a "Consensus Statement." It welcomed homosexuals into the community, but denied them admission into the seminaries and cantorial schools. The ruling left it up to individual rabbis and synagogues to decide whether homosexuals could function as educators or youth leaders or receive honors in worship and in the community.

In June, a group of Conservative rabbis set up a Keshet-Rabbis to influence the Rabbinical Assembly on changing its policy toward gays. Keshet-Rabbis, which uses the Hebrew word for rainbow, believes the next chancellor will play a part in what the Assembly decides when it takes up the matter next March.

In the tradition of Conservative Judaism, which believes in working within an evolving halacha to adapt to modern times, the committee must decide how to come to terms with the verse in Leviticus, which many take as a blanket prohibition of homosexulaity: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination."

Traditionalists in the movement, such as Schorsch -- and Jack Wertheimer, the JTS provost who is a front-runner to succeed Schorsch -- support the status quo. Although both men declined to be interviewed for this article, Schorsch wrote a letter to the Law Committee in 1992 warning that ordaining and including gays would be a major break from Jewish law, and would detrimentally ally Conservative Judaism with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the two liberal branches of Judaism from which the Conservative branch has always tried to distance itself.

But liberals in the movement line up with Gordon Tucker, the rabbi of the White Plains Jewish Center in New York, who is also considered a front-runner to follow Schorsch. Tucker asserts that if gays don't receive equal rights in the movement, they will leave. And so will other Jews.

That's also the view of Rabbi Benay Lappe, head of Chicago-based "Svara: The Yeshiva for Queers," who pretended she wasn't gay in order to qualify for ordination. She came out again after receiving her rabbinate certificate.

"Very few liberal Jews are going to align themselves with a movement that doesn't accept gays," Lappe said. "So the movement is losing respect, loyalty, affiliation. A lot of people are thinking, 'Why should I affiliate myself with this movement that I can't respect or give my allegiance to?'"

But others, like Dorff and Myers call the issue a red herring. They don't want to focus excessively on any particular issue, including the status of women in the movement, which also has come to the fore in recent years. While the Law Committee allowed the ordination of women in 1983, a recent study found that women rabbis earn less, lead smaller congregations, leave their first jobs earlier and apparently have much more trouble finding a mate than their male counterparts.

"When people talk to me about the gay issues or the women's issues, I don't think they're the crucial issues," Myers told The Journal. "Whatever the current internal debates are on certain social issues, that's going to be worked out no matter who the chancellor is. It's going to be worked out in terms of time, culture and society."

A Movement Divided

Whether one issue ought to be decisive is debatable -- think Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court nominee -- but factions have broken off from the movement exactly because of the movement's direction on a handful of key issues. For example, after the Conservative movement admitted women rabbis in the movement in 1983, the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ) formed from a group of splinter congregations.

UTJ is a modest entry in a long line of dissenters, the primary one being the Reconstructionist movement. It originally developed as a school of philosophy under the Conservative movement in the 1920-1940s. Reconstructionist Judaism holds that a person's autonomy overrides halacha. (But unlike Reform Judaism, Reconstructionists believe that a default position should be an adherence to halacha and tradition.) The Reconstructionist movement broke from the Conservative movement in the 1960s, forming its own seminary in 1968.

"You can date the decline of the Conservative movement to the Reconstructionist beginning," said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University. Sarna spoke at the Rabbinical Assembly last year, and read to its members a list of organizations that have seceded from the movement. This included the popular Bnei Jeshrun synagogue in New York, which judged the movement was too traditional, and Shar Hashamayim in Montreal, which felt it was too liberal.

The more serious problem, Sarna said, is the numerous Jewish startup communities, including Ikar and Nashuva in Los Angeles and Kehillat Hadar in New York, that don't even take the Conservative label, despite their similarities to the movement, namely, a focus on egalitarianism, an evolving halacha and an adherence to tradition.

Kehillat Hadar on Manhattan's Upper West Side is perhaps the best example. Hadar, which means glory, claims a mailing list of more than 2,000, most of whom are in the coveted demographic of the 20s and 30s. It defines itself as an independent, egalitarian community committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action -- a description that obviously evokes principles of the Conservative movement. And yet, while a majority of the people who attend grew up Conservative -- 60 percent, as opposed to the 20 percent who grew up Orthodox and 12 percent Reform -- the group insists on calling itself nondenominational.

Ikar and Nashuva in Los Angeles also follow traditional Hebrew prayers, have mixed seating and call themselves post-denominational, i.e., unaffiliated with any movement, even though Ikar's Brous and Nashuva's Rabbi Naomi Levy, like the leaders of Hadar, trained at JTS.

"The tragedy of the Conservative movement is that those who innovate want to cast off the Conservative label," Sarna said. "Whereas in Orthodoxy, the innovators are deeply concerned to hold fast to Orthodox label."

The evidence supporting his analysis is plain enough. Shuls on the cutting edge of Orthodoxy, like Bnei David-Judea in Los Angeles or Rabbi Avi Weiss' Riverdale Jewish Center in New York, which allow women's prayer groups, try not to cross any line that would exclude them from the Orthodox movement.

Sarna said that the Conservative movement -- and JTS in particular -- has spawned great innovations in Judaism, but "many of those who have been innovators want to chuck the label. It's a huge problem."

This modern-day reluctance to identify as Conservative may be reflected in the movement's apparent fundraising difficulties. Some people don't want to give money to Conservative Judaism, because they either don't know what it means to be Conservative or they do not like what it means.

A Crisis of Being

"I grew up between my local Reform and Conservative shuls. I went to Sunday school at the Conservative one," wrote a person who goes by the screen name Laya L. on the Web site, Jewlicious.com, which is discussing the future of the Conservative movement.

"No one in my class returned to that place after our bar or bat mitzvahs if we were given the choice. They failed to instill in us any sense of passion or joy about being Jewish. They failed to instill a sense of community between the members, or relevance to the real world in the stuff we were learning. In fact, I barely remember what they taught us," she wrote. "If Conservative Judaism worked, I really might not have much of a problem with it. But I know my experience isn't unique, and the Conservative movement keeps losing numbers for a reason."

Laya's experience isn't unique.

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population study found that nearly half of all adult Jews who were raised Conservative no longer consider themselves to be Conservative.

And Conservative Judaism also has failed to attract committed members. Only 10 to 15 percent keep kosher and observe Shabbat, most rabbis said, according to Rabbi Neil Gillman's book, "Conservative Judaism: The New Century" (Behrman House Publishing, 1993). That disconnect between the leadership and its constituents is causing dwindling numbers.

Gillman wrote that the Conservative movement's failure to attract passionate adherents -- and the fragmentation that resulted from constant tension between modernity and tradition -- can be traced to movement's origins. The movement, after all, was founded only as a traditionalist response to Reform Judaism's abnegation of halacha, which was embodied in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.

Conservative Judaism saw itself then as a stalwart against the recklessness of the Reform movement, while also being an innovator compared to what the founders believed to be backward Orthodoxy.

But this middle-ground movement never defined a coherent set of principles. By comparison, "the American Reform movement published a platform that articulated its ideological position clearly and coherently. Indeed, the Pittsburgh Platform was but the first in a series of platforms to be published during the next century. In contrast, it took Conservative Judaism over 100 years to prepare its very first platform: Emet Ve-Emunah was not published until 1987," Gillman wrote.

Of course, it was never the intention of the founders to have a declaration of principles. To be a Conservative Jew meant to appeal to "history and to the will of the community as sources of authority," said Rabbi Zechariah Frenkel, the ideological father of Conservative Judaism.

Gillman noted: "That complex and subtle message ... shares the ambiguity of all middle-of-the-road positions, it eludes clear definition, and it is inherently more complex than the polar positions."

In concert with the movement's tradition, the Law Committee does not typically issue binding rulings, as do Orthodox rabbis. The Law Committee can present both a majority and a minority opinion, either of which is enforceable by the synagogue rabbi. That is why there are some synagogues today that are not egalitarian -- they won't allow women to lead prayers. These rabbis haven't chosen to accept the minority opinion. As a matter of fact, there are only three standards of rabbinic practice that are binding in the movement: matrilineal descent -- if your mother is a Jew that makes you Jewish, a prohibition on a rabbi officiating at an intermarriage and a prohibition on a rabbi performing a re-marriage of a Jew whose first marriage has not been terminated according to accepted religious tradition (Even though the movement will not ordain openly gay rabbis that policy does not implicitly carry the inviolability of the three "fixed" standards.) .

This pluralism, this lack of a constitution, has today wrought a movement of Judaism that is often seen as anarchic, disorganized and lacking a clear vision. In other words, it has fueled the movement's identity crisis.

And yet, the disappearance of Conservative Judaism is not inevitable. Rabbi Brous, of Ikar, is considering an affiliation with the Conservative movement, now that her spiritual community has defined its own parameters.

"We had to make it clear to our community first who we are and what we are," said Brous, who can envision her congregants as trailbrazers for a re-invigorated Conservative movement. "I want other communities in the Conservative world to see that it's possible to be innovative, creative, dynamic -- to ask new kinds of questions of Jewish life, to not do things the way they always have been done and work within the Conservative movement."

Her evolution of thought is a hopeful one: "Ultimately what I care about is God, Torah, humanity and the Jewish people. The Conservative movement is not an end in its own right. I think the movement is a mechanism to get us there. And I think Ikar has more of a chance of impacting the movement by being in the movement."

In a way, though, the Conservative movement's crisis applies to all Jewish denominations; they are all forced to confront adapting the traditions of Judaism to modernity. The Orthodox, too, must deal with women's issues and homosexuality, just as Reform Jews must deal with the yearning for tradition. All of Judaism is seeking to increase membership, combat assimilation and evolve the next generation of leaders.

The right leader for the Conservative movement could become a leading voice of the faith, while also saving a movement that could otherwise subsist in persistent decline.

Its extinction would be a blow for for the thousands of unaffiliated Jews searching to re-connect to their tradition, to the hundreds of thousands of Conservative Jews today who are at various stages of affiliation and to the movement's 100-year legacy as a bridge between the Reform and Orthodox movements.

"The Conservative rabbi was traditionally the one who could talk to both the Orthodox rabbi and the Reform rabbi," Sarna said.

In today's increasingly polarized world -- of Democrats and Republicans, doves and hawks, screaming talk shows and extremists groups in all religions -- it is crucial for Judaism to consist of more than the extremes.

"I think that the center is very important for Judaism," Sarna said. "Otherwise, the left and right will split apart."

 

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