Write No Requiem For The Conservative Movement

To live as a Conservative Jew in America in the 21st century is a blessing, not a curse.

11/15/13
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik is spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik is spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center.

In the forthcoming Winter issue of the Jewish Review of Books, a colleague and friend of many years, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, has written an article titled “Requiem for a Movement,” referring to the Conservative movement in the aftermath of the recently released Pew Report.  As one might imagine, the article has generated a great deal of “discussion” among my colleagues in the Conservative rabbinate.  I can only imagine that the lay leadership of our movement is similarly engaged.

Rabbi Gordis and his family have lived in Jerusalem for many years, and his passionate, personal and dramatic articles on life in Israel, particularly relating to terrorist incidents and the hardships inflicted by the intifadas, have gained him many admirers.  He is a gifted writer.  But along with those articles, he also wrote a controversial (and I think unfair) piece questioning the Zionist identification of Conservative rabbinical students, and now he has gone much further.  Essentially, Rabbi Gordis declares the Conservative movement as a whole to be goses– a term from Jewish law best translated as near death.  Having been born into a royal family in the Conservative movement -– the Gordis name is an iconic one in the history of the movement and its scholarship -– he claims that he writes this latest article with sadness.

It is not my intention here to attempt to rebut each and every one of Gordis’ indictments of the movement, because in truth, I agree with many of them.  In fact, almost twenty-five years ago, I myself delivered a rather stinging indictment of the movement along Gordis’ lines in a major presentation at the Biennial Convention of the United Synagogue in Toronto, in 1989. 

It seemed to me even then that the generation of rabbis and lay leaders in our movement in the immediate aftermath of World War II had been all too willing to mistake the demographic accident of the post-war baby boom with a genuine religious/spiritual phenomenon.  Orthodoxy was reeling post- Shoah, and the membership rosters of Conservative synagogues, both in city and suburb, were bursting at the seams with Jews looking for a traditional yet more modern setting.  There were more b’nai and b’not mitzvah than synagogues could reasonably handle, caterers were thriving, enriching themselves and the synagogues where they were located (remember when people actually wanted to have their family celebrations in synagogues?), and all seemed much more than good in the world of Conservative Judaism.  As our leaders saw it then, there was no need for those rabbis to preach and teach a Judaism that actually made demands of their “Jews in the pews.” So by and large, they didn’t.  It wasn’t about driving to synagogue, as Gordis mentions.  That was the least of the issues.  It was about creating a consciousness that living a religious life requires something of you.  God requires something of you.  The imperative of the observant life, which is predicated on the idea of obligation, got lost…

The Jewish world that we inhabit today did not emerge out of a vacuum.  It took decades to create, and we created it.  We own it.  We made big mistakes.  I said all this in 1989, and was rather roundly called on the carpet by many of my colleagues for airing those issues publicly. 

Rabbi Gordis– as one who was raised in the Orthodox world and came to Conservative Judaism precisely because of the ideology and approach that you so easily dismiss, I can name even more regrets than you about decisions that shaped this movement over the last forty or so years, and the results of those decisions.  I have spent the last thirty-two years of my life trying to deal with those results. 

But here’s the thing: writing a “requiem for the Conservative movement” makes for a provocative title, but it does an enormous injustice to the truth.  All around the country, and indeed around the world, including in Israel, Conservative/Masorti people like myself are working to create communities of meaning and spiritual power.  There are laypeople, of all ages, who are living a meaningful and committed life as Conservative Jews.  We are not dead, nor are we goses.

You mention in your article that the Pew Report makes no mention of committed Conservative Jews who, failing to find community within the Conservative movement, migrate to the Orthodox world.  But you fail to acknowledge how, even more significantly “under the radar,” there are countless young Jews, almost all products of Conservative schools, synagogues, youth programs and camps, who call themselves “post-denominational” but obviously are deeply rooted in both the ideology and practice of the Conservative movement.  To be sure, post-denominationalism will force changes upon the institutions of the Conservative movement, from synagogues to seminaries, but do you really think that the 18% figure who call themselves Conservative Jews is reliable when juxtaposed with the 30% who claim no denomination, many of whom are post-denominational?  Is it not more likely that we are living through a time of radical redefinition of ideological and movement affiliation, but not necessarily the death of the ideology itself?  The “independent minyan” phenomenon that is so densely populated by our best and brightest is the new incarnation of the Havurah movement that came to challenge the existing world of Conservative Judaism in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

 It was a challenge that needed to be engaged, and it indeed changed synagogues, not to mention Judaism itself.  But it did not signal the death of Conservative Judaism, or Conservative ideology.  Today’s post-denominationalism is also a phenomenon that needs to be explored, and responded to creatively.  But it is not yet time for our death notice.

The fundamental challenge of our movement in America remains the same today as it was a generation of two ago: to navigate the post-Emancipation tension between tradition and modernity.  What has happened in the years since Rabbi Gordis’ departure is that the tension in that dialectic has weakened enormously.  We Jews won.  Despite the stubborn persistence of anti-Semitism in certain quarters, the American experience is far more accepting of Jews and Judaism than any 18th century Jew could ever have imagined.  The question now is no longer “how do we get in.”  We’re in.  The question is, how and to what degree to we stay out?

To live as a Conservative Jew in America in the 21st century is, despite the enticing allure of an “alien culture,” a privilege that Diaspora Jews have rarely known.  It is a blessing, not a curse. The challenges that it presents are daunting for Jewish continuity, but its myriad opportunities for religious expression have generated creative religious forms that have enriched Judaism, even as they have challenged its traditions.  What Rabbi Gordis calls our “infatuation” with biblical criticism is part of a larger search for answers to precisely those questions that Rabbi Gordis says religion is supposed to be involved with.  How do I know what God wants and expects of me?  How am I to “hear God’s voice” without subscribing to a literal understanding of our ancient sacred texts?  What does “sacred” mean to me in the 21st century?  How do Jewish law, and millennia worth of Jewish customs and practices, afford me the opportunity to live a spiritually enriching and fully engaged life in a world that welcomes my involvement?  What does “obligation” mean in a world defined by radical choice? Yes, our “market share” is down, and we have great challenges before us.  But it is not because we are failing to ask deep and probing questions about meaning and faith.

Rabbi Gordis and other Israelis who lecture Diaspora Jews about their identity crisis are hardly in a position to boast about the state of religious life in Israel as some kind of model for us.  The struggle that we willingly engage to find meaningful religious expression in the modern era is not a regular feature of Israeli society, where the overwhelmingly secular population actively avoids religion and its leaders.  Their feelings towards religion are powerful, often visceral, and largely negative. 

There is no denying that, here in America, we face serious problems of alienation from Judaism, and our movement is hardly exempt from them.  But there is a significant difference between alienation and active dislike.  One doesn’t care; the other cares, but in a negative way.  Even the most casual perusal of Israel’s newspapers will lead one to understand where that negativity about religion comes from.  As regards religion and its practice, no–  Israel is no model for us.

Both as a proud Conservative rabbi, and as President of the Rabbinical Assembly, I would respond to my friend and colleague Rabbi Gordis that reports of our imminent demise are greatly exaggerated.  Every last one of us who has given the best years of our lives to this struggle, and continues to do so, understands the problems, and the gravity of the situation.  Our response, however, is not to buy burial plots, but rather to work diligently and with passion to try and secure a future for this movement that has nurtured us, and that we love.  These are indeed tough times for us, but the more appropriate response than a requiem is to roll up our sleeves and get to work, and that is exactly what we are doing.

editor@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

11/27/2013 - 09:10

Comments

First, many conservative shuls are filled with reform jews led by orthodox rabbis.

As to the many non-afficliated jews, they are just not buying what shuls are selling - especially at prices that range from one to two+ thousand dollars each year…no value added for them

When anti-semitism cranks up, then you will see a change.

As to zionism, we are along ways from WWII and the Holocaust - movie memory via Spielberg for many..not enough visceral force to support a movement..and the Israeli occupation and treatment of the Arab population is a total turn off for many as well. Are the Israelis the new centurions ? Who wants to buy bonds to support that army ?

here does the conservative movement stand on any of this ?

Tell me about the serious learning going on in conservative shuls today…tell about the over flowing minyanim…be serious - not many care….

So what are we left with ? Who are we left with ? and does anyone care ?

There is no doubt that the idea of Conservative Judaism, a commitment to Jewish law as viewed through a modern lens and a willingness to study Torah unrestrained by blinders, remains as alive and as meaningful for some of us as it ever was. And there is equally little doubt that the institutions that were supposed to champion that ideal have lost their way and are perhaps fatally distracted by the costs of maintaining the brick and mortar structures they have created. The economics of the times have forced them to accept all comers and to do everything possible to retain them, which often has meant compromising principles in the hope that this will satisfy the perceived desires of the tangentially affiliated. this in turn has disgusted the core constituency, which the Conservative leadership took for granted and felt had no where else to go. Well they are going, to independent minyanim and modern orthodox synagogues, undoubtedly having a significant impact on greater Judaism but a devastating impact on the institutions of Conservative Judaism. We can argue whether it is too late or not to reverse this trend, but we have to recognize that if we are to succeed, we are going to have to get out from under some very serious mortgages.

As a young family, a scholar, and a "foreigner" welcomed with open arms by the "old order" at Rabbi Skolnik's shul, I am less inclined to agree. Well said, Rabbi Skolnik! Yuo give us hope.

Rabbi Skolnik’s observations are shared by others with a revealing picture of the challenges, significance and benefits of the Conservative movement. The Pew study and Rabbi Gordis’ article “Requiem For a Movement” can only go so far to project what the evolution of the Jewish community in North America and the world may look like.

The Conservative Movement and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism succeeded in presenting an honest appraisal of its success and future challenges at their Centennial Convention Celebration held in Baltimore October 11-15 that I attended. The Conservative movement continues to serve many diverse voices that celebrate various traditional and new approaches to Jewish expression in North American Jewish life. It works very hard to offer a unique brand of pluralistic positions supported by leadership that provides a halachic guideline for religious practice with commitment to preserving Jewish life in the modern world.

I applaud the efforts of the Conservative movement to “conserve” the essence of Judaism in our modern age. This challenge includes my desire for a meaningful and engaging approach to the use of music in services and synagogue/kehillot life. This challenge also includes lot of Conservative movement soul searching for new models of governance, service delivery, outreach, inreach and exploring a new definition of synagogue as kehillah, a deep and sustaining relationship with community.

The Conservative movement operates like a conservatory of Jewish life where traditions are “conserved” and the Jewish heritage shared attractively. Any conservatory of value needs commitment, tending and guarding to survive. The music conservatory is devoted to the preservation, education, creativity and presentation of the musical art. The botanical conservatory is dedicated to the study, cultivation and public display of plants to beautify and benefit our planet. Similarly, the Conservative movement is entrusted to care and make use of a conservatory full of Jewish treasures that includes its own narrative of an impressive 100 year voyage and dreams of its future.

The Conservative movement asks its members to value the struggle to gain insight and appreciation of Judaism which remain endearing. In turn, it rewards the seeker a good platform in which to continue one’s journey regardless of destination or temporary resting place. This to me is what makes Conservative Judaism genuine, sincere and satisfying.

Cantor Alan Rubinstein

I don't think that Rabbi Skolnik said anything new. However, I differentiate between the philosophy of Conservative Judaism (which makes sense to me and provides meaning to my understanding of Judaism) and the "Conservative Movement," especially as it is represented by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Speaking from personal experience, my frustration is that the Conservative Movement (i.e. the United Synagogue) is not open to suggestions by many of its constituents to revitalize and recalibrate its priorities despite its claims to the contrary. Without being willing to take a long hard look at itself, rather than ignore ideas by those of us want to strengthen the Conservative Movement, there is the justifiable feeling that the Conservative Movement is in serious decline. Conservative Judaism will survive, albeit with another name and in another form. I doubt, however, that the same thing can be said of the Conservative Movement.

Dear Rabbi Skolnik

The article is excellent and this could really be the Conservative Movement's finest hour. All this provided it puts into effect many of the things you yourself have been preaching about for so many years: personal obligation in Mitsvot; High level education (do not dumb Judaism down); encourage greater ritual performance in your congregations. Egalitarian Halakhic is the mission of Conservative Jewry - unfortunately too few conservative youth and balabatim know what Conservative Halakha means. One should be conservative because of ideology - not because of convenience (fewer personal demands!)

The Pew survey shows that secular Judism is self destructing and that Reform movement would have also disappeared if not the erosion from Conservative into Reform. Accepting the intermarried (58%) into your synagogues has little effect on the next generation whose intermarriage rate is 20 points higher!!!! Pour your money and efforts into Ramah Camps, Youth Groups, Solomon Schechter Schools and Conservative Yeshivahs. Like the Orthodox, every corsevative youth should spend a year in Israel learning in a suitable institution.

Hazak ve-ematz.

"The struggle that we willingly engage to find meaningful religious expression in the modern era is not a regular feature of Israeli society, where the overwhelmingly secular population actively avoids religion and its leaders. Their feelings towards religion are powerful, often visceral, and largely negative."
That sounds like most American Jews to me...

What I find striking , though understandable, is the vastly different perspectives of those in and out of the pulpit rabbinate. Of course those with United Synagogue pulpits take the attitude that there is nothing that cannot be fixed with dedication. Those not in pulpits, without a public cheerleader role feel very differently. Interestingly too, laypeople without and with children have different perspectives, with families less willing to tough it out in the Conservative Movement without a supportive observant community.

This is a very fine, sensible and admirably restrained response to Daniel Gordis's over-the-top condemnation of Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Skolnik is right to distinguish between Conservative Judaism -- the ideology that will continue to speak to enlightened Jews -- and the Conservative movement, which has sadly been hindered by institutional complacency and disfunction. Creative and energetic expressions of Conservative Judaism are all around us, even though they may not be "branded" as such. There is still a need and a place for Conservative Judaism among those for whom other Jewish religious expressions either lack depth and authenticity, or openmindedness to the intellectual and ethical insights of modernity.

Conservative communities,Temples and Clergy are stuck in the mud and have been for decades. Calling conservative Jewry a "movement" is an oxymoron. Shuls are not the Bar-Mitzvah mills of the '60's and 70's. They have become aging, crumbling reminders (drenched in politics ) of what might have been. It's a shame how many unaffiliated Jewish families won't join a Shul (or private club for the president and his/her friends with fat wallets) because they fell unwelcome by the "old order". These institutions are a turn off for any progressive thinker. There is an expiration date looming and it's closer than we think. Don't fool yourselves.

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