Shrinking Conservative congregations, like B’nai Sholom in Rockville Centre, will one day regain members, says outgoing Rabbi Barry Dov Schwartz.
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.”
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