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Death of Conservative Judaism? Reform leader’s swipe sparks angry rebuttals

by joe berkofsky, jta

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new york | A top Reform rabbi is predicting the death of Conservative Judaism, drawing protests from the Conservative movement's leadership.

The objections surfaced this week in response to an essay by Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement's Central Conference of American Rabbis. The essay argued that within several decades Conservative Jews likely will move either to the more liberal Reform movement or to the more traditional Orthodox world.

Major wedges between the modernist movements will force this exodus, Menitoff argued, including the Conservative movement's opposition to intermarriage; its ban on ordaining homosexual rabbis and on same-sex marriages; and its opposition to patrilineal descent, all of which the Reform movement supports.

The Conservative movement may continue to attract those for whom Orthodoxy remains "too restrictive" and Reform "too acculturated," but a more likely outcome will be "the demise of the Conservative movement," Menitoff wrote.

"If the Conservative movement capitulates regarding these core differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism, it will be essentially obliterating the need for its existence," he wrote. "If, alternatively, it stands firm, its congregants will vote with their feet."

Conservative leaders called the argument "delusional" and the product of "immature" analysis.

"His description of the future is rather silly," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement's Rabbinical Assembly.

The essay "is an immature look" at the currents shaping American Jewry, he said, "or maybe it's wishful thinking."

Unusual in its bluntly pessimistic predictions, Menitoff's essay comes as Conservative Jewry, which once dominated the American Jewish landscape, is facing major challenges.

In the past few years, the movement has been split over major issues, including its stance on homosexuality, and some rabbis have accused the movement's leadership of lacking vision.

Menitoff's predictions came in a January missive to the Central Conference of American Rabbis' 1,800 members. He later outlined the premise at a joint meeting of the western chapters of the rabbinical group and its Conservative counterpart, the Rabbinical Assembly, held in Palm Springs in January.

Within a few decades, "you'll basically have Orthodox and Reform," he said in an interview. "This is in no way an attack; it's just a reasonable analysis of how things could work out."

"I hope I'm wrong," he added. "I'm just looking at the landscape and providing a perspective."

Some signs lend weight to Menitoff's theory. Last September, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey found that of the nation's 4.3 million Jews with some religious or communal connections, the largest group — 39 percent — identified as Reform, while 33 percent called themselves Conservative.

That represented a major decline from the 43 percent the Conservative movement polled in the 1990 NJPS. By contrast, the Reform movement rose during that period from 35 percent, and Orthodoxy grew to 21 percent from 16 percent. The Reconstructionist movement rose to 3 percent from 2 percent.

Though Menitoff lamented the blurring of denominational lines as the result of "extreme assimilation" — 44 percent of Jews do not align with any movement, according to the NJPS — his Conservative counterparts felt they were being attacked.

"It's his delusional thinking that creates this scenario," said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement's congregational arm.

"No one can predict the future," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, one of the Conservative movement's two main seminaries. Artson and others pointed out that a century ago, many predicted the death of the Orthodox movement and were proven wrong.


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