Thu, 06/04/1998 - 20:00
What disturbs me greatly is that people take the attitude that if you don’t support me as a Jew, why should I visit or support Israel? Unfortunately, I have seen people cut back on their contributions to UJA-Federation. That is a mistake because besides what it is doing in Israel, it is doing an incredible amount of important work here that people don’t really see, such as support for Jewish education and in getting youngsters to Israel. We are one of their beneficiaries. The Reform and Conservative movements have encouraged their members to support their institutions in Israel instead of those that do not accept them. How successful have your efforts been? We are building a new $18 million Conservative center in Jerusalem, and contributions to it have been accelerated in response to what is happening in Israel. The campaign is less than a year old and we have already raised $10 million. So while we are arguing about our legitimate rights in Israel, we are continuing to show our solidarity with the country and the importance it plays in the Conservative movement. How has your movement’s strength changed over the years? The numbers have stayed relatively stagnant. There are about 40,000 member families in our 120 congregations, which means there are about 250,000 Conservative Jews in the region. Over the years, some areas have shown a decline in population while others have had incredible growth. What has been the most profound change in the movement here in the last 25 years? When I first came we were more of a youth-oriented community; it was not uncommon to find synagogues with 400 and 500 students in their religious schools. That is not the norm today ... largely due to the graying of the Conservative Jewish community in New York. Has the level of Jewish observance changed over the years? Our members are becoming more concerned about study, more are coming to shul on Shabbat and keeping kosher homes. ... There are more kids enrolled in our Schechter schools, Camp Ramah is turning youngsters away, there is a waiting list for kids who want to go cross-country on USY on Wheels, and more youngsters are going with us each summer on USY Israel Pilgrimage. Parents today know that if they want to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people and Conservative Judaism, we have to give our children outstanding Jewish experiences in their formative years. How prevalent are intermarried couples in your congregations? It is conceivable that 25,000, or 10 percent, of the 250,000 who come through our doors are not yet Jewish. Our congregations are developing programs to bring the non-Jewish partner into the life of the congregation, obviously within the framework of Jewish law. How accepting of intermarried couples are your congregations? There is an openness and a willingness to reach out. One of the most successful things we have done in the last two years was to run a program for the parents and grandparents who have intermarried children. We used a rabbi and social worker to help them present Judaism to their intermarried children and grandchildren in a way that is positive but not insulting, that is sensitive but not compromising of what they believe. Parents do not want to lose touch with their children in terms of religious experiences and we are helping them do that. We are also doing an incredible amount of work with our young people in the area of prevention of interdating.