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Leaving Disappointed, But Not Despairing
Shrinking Conservative congregations, like B’nai Sholom in Rockville Centre, will one day regain members, says outgoing Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz.
Staff Writer
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His congregation has steadily declined in membership over the last 15 years, dropping from between 600 and 700 members to less than half that number today.

“It’s not a shock,” said Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz, spiritual leader for the past 37 years of Temple B’nai Sholom in Rockville Centre. “It’s where the Conservative movement has been heading for many years.”

In fact, he said, what his congregation is experiencing is emblematic of what is happening in Conservative synagogues nationwide. In the last decade, the movement reported last year, the number of Conservative congregations dropped from 800 to 650.

In a candid interview in his office two months before his retirement, Rabbi Schwartz spoke of his disappointment with the Conservative movement for not “living up to its own tenets,” but also of his belief that it will one day witness a resurgence.

“I don’t think the Conservative movement is dead or is destined to die,” he said. “It just needs an infusion of Yiddishkeit — to go back to the basics I grew up with.”

The Conservative movement “has never developed a sense of community as have the Orthodox,” said Rabbi Schwartz, 69, a graduate of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. “The leadership has been trying to get back to basics in education and prayer, but we are just not a davening [praying] community.”

His synagogue has daily services both morning and evening “with or without a minyan,” he added. “It’s a struggle, but I refuse to call off daily services. I don’t want to water-down what is important — to be a praying community.”

Were he to end the daily minyan, it would send a signal that “those things are not important.

“An Orthodox parent would not think of not sending his children to yeshiva; a Conservative parent does not think of it. The same is true with the observance of Shabbat. The Orthodox automatically observes and goes to shul — it’s part of their psyche. It never became that way in the Conservative movement.”

Rabbi Schwartz hastened to add that he is “not embarrassed to be a Conservative Jew and a Conservative rabbi. I’m proud of it; I love Conservative Judaism. …

“This is the way Conservative Jews should be — going to shul, davening everyday, observing Shabbos and kashruth. These are all intrinsic to Conservative Judaism, but in the Conservative movement there is not enough daily practice to form a cohesive community.”

As a result, Rabbi Schwartz said he is having difficulty finding a new home in Nassau County now that he will be moving out of the parsonage next door to the synagogue in which he and his wife raised their three children.

“We want to rent and to be within walking distance of a shul,” he said. “We don’t want black hat. … How many people when moving into a community ask if there is a Conservative shul and Conservative Jews? Contrast that with any Orthodox person.”

Asked about the future and whether he believes more Reform and Conservative congregations might consolidate and run separate prayer services under one roof — as is the case at one Miami synagogue — Rabbi Schwartz said: “The location is not the issue.”

“The problem is not the building, the problem is the depression that sets in when walking into an empty shul,” he explained. “My issue is that we are just not davening. An authentic Orthodox Jew davens at home. … Conservative Judaism has to revitalize itself in the religious, davening and spiritual sphere.

“We have to go back to the roots of Conservative Judaism — Shabbos, kashrut and shuls. These are the pillars of Conservative Judaism and without them the spiritual structure will collapse.”

Who is responsible for the shift away from those areas?

“I don’t know who’s to blame,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “We rabbis talk about it and feel we are a failure in not being able to bring people to shul. I wish in my career I would have been able to do so, but somehow it just didn’t catch on.”

Last Update:

04/02/2012 - 17:08
Conservative Synagogues, membership declining, Temple B’nai Sholom
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I am a Rabbi in Reform/conservative merged congregation in Western P.A.
I worked for Rabbi Scwartz at Temple Bna'i Shalom in 1998. I was his Assistant (although in these circles officially It was AKa "The Shamos".
Rabbi Scwartz is a strong Rabbi, with the right idea. The problem is with todays world. Every thing is either or, which makes the Conservative movement difficult today. At that shul itself was the perfect example. This had nothing to do with Rabbi Scwartz, because I believe if he had his way he would have done things differently. The Bna'i Mitzvah class of that Synagogue had this part time schedule where the kids were allowed to come late due to secular activities in School. Having been a High School Athlete myself, I understood the importance of allowing Kids that opportunity to join in sports and other activities. Still, that was just a mickey mouse way of doing it. In a Bna'i Mitzvah year Judaism must be stressed as TOP priority. No one should rule out sports or other activtities, but I will tell you this from experience. If youare talented enough in secular activities there will be room made for you! Meaning that if you are not, than it should be put off till your Bna'i mitzvah is complete! The Orthodox communities don't have this problem (although there is more problems than would be normally considered) but Mitzvah is stressed. In the Reform movement it is understood that Judaism is considered more a nationalty than faith, despite the idea that some reform venues are becoming more conservative. The big problem is to many people are considering Judaism a come as you are party. Trying all these NEW WAVE idea's. Conservative gets caught up with that, as its union does not have a grasp on what the true signature of the movement was to begin with. Conservative Judaism at first was created out of the wish of Husbands and wives and families wishing to sit together in services. A group of people wanted to worship traditionally, but did not feel a Michitza (barrier between Men and woman in Shul and other aspects) should be warrented. Over the years the movement has got caught up with change toward Egalitarian, toward driving to services, to using micraphones. The more and more times change, the more and more it appears the conservative movement chages with it. That lack of consistancy is really what has crippled the movement at present. Perhaps as Rabbi Scwartz has conveyed the right idea's will return which was at one time a very strong foundation in the Jewish venue!

The problem is obvious. Conservative Judaism encourges laxity in observence including laxity in regular prayer. If everything is optional, why bother at all? You can attend the temple 3 days a year, and be considered a good Conservative Jew.
Could this be viewed as an indication that the Conservative movement is spiritually bankrupt? If a popular rabbi with a congregation of several hundred members can not get a minyon of his congregants to pray there is a problem. If not for prayer what is the purpose of a synagogue? It apparently wasn't lack of people that caused the closure, but lack of commitment to their faith on the part of the congregation.
I learned my Judaism through the teachings of and inspirational example set by a Conservative Rabbi. He eventually moved on to another shul but since then I have unfortunately noticed over the years that although his lessons still live within us, finding a community to share our Conservative Judaism with is almost impossible. We as many other Conservative Jews have had to seek Orthodox communities with whom we have substantial differences re philosophy and treatment of women, in order to find a community to share Shabbat, Yom Tov, Kashruth, prayer and study with. I thank Conservative Judaism for teaching me what is right, I deplore it for not generating an infrastructure of communities that practice Conservative Judaism.
I have been a member of the Conservative Movement for 50 years, and from day 1 have heard the same lament "how do you get more people to come to shul?". The answer that I got then was " when you get more shulgoers in the community you will get more people in shul". So my question then "How do you create "shulgoers" still has not been answered.
It appears that he failed during his long tenure to inspire his congregation to observe conservative Judaism and to pray at his temple. It can't all be blamed on the movement.
Although Rabbi Schwartz, as per his own description, was unable to keep congregants from leaving, or bring in others to retain the numbers -- he IS wonderfully well-spoken about the qualities necessary to create community and the vibrancy of observance. If he's looking for a retirement career, I have one to suggest: Speaking engagements and other PR work toward a revitalization of the Conservative movement, once he is unencumbered by the numerous day-to-day tasks of the synagogue rabbi.

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