Whither Conservative Judaism? It’s a question long on the minds of Conservative movement leaders, especially now as longtime Jewish Theological Seminary chancellor Ismar Shorsch prepares to step down this summer. Most alarming to these leaders is that membership has been trending downward nationally, 33 percent of American Jewish households belong to Conservative congregations, according to the most recent survey.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s national organization, has been fighting back. At the recently concluded biennial, Conservative leaders launched new initiatives for interfaith couples, especially regarding outreach and conversion.
To probe the state of the movement and its key challenges, j. invited several local Conservative rabbis for a freewheeling dialogue (and a nosh).
Participating were: Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Netivot Shalom, Rabbi Gordon Freeman of Walnut Creek’s Congregation B’nai Shalom, Rabbi Kenneth Leitner of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom, Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Saratoga’s Congregation Beth David, and Rabbi Mimi Weisel of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay.
They sat down with j. editor and publisher Marc S. Klein, wasting no time getting to the heart of the matter. The conversation included a proposal to change the name of the movement, the state of Conservative Judaism in the Bay Area and the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis.
Marc Klein: L.A. Rabbi David Wolpe recently gave a speech at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He said, “I know what a movement looks like when it can’t enunciate its platform: It looks like us.”
Daniel Pressman: I mostly agree with that statement. The Reform movement always had platforms and the Orthodox always had a pretty well articulated idea of what it was. If you want to compete in the marketplace of ideas, you have to know what your product is, to be able to explain it to your customer base and everybody else.
Gordon Freeman: If I had to state the major values of the movement, they would be community building and community sustaining. Now we’re dealing with growing polarization. Unless the middle holds, we’re all in big trouble. The concept of community is the major branding issue of Conservative Judaism.
Stuart Kelman: I think we are branded with a name that is horrible and needs to be changed. Wolpe said we should rename the movement Covenantal Judaism. Other people think we should call ourselves Masorti [the name used in Israel]. I’m sure there are other kinds of names.
Klein: Do you all believe the movement should change its name?
Pressman: It’s part of what needs to be done. But our problems are profoundly organizational. When you look at the best practices of nonprofit boards in general, most synagogues are 40 years behind the times. Ten years ago, I happened to be in the same room with a couple of leaders of the movement, and I said “What needs to be done is take the major leaders to the equivalent of Camp David. We need to just strip this car down and rebuild it.”
We heard a great speech by [Brandeis University professor] Jonathan Sarna at our last Rabbinical Assembly [the nationwide organization of Conservative rabbis]. He gave a talk about how Reform and Orthodox in the 20th century each had a near-death moment, and how they came back from it. He said we could do this too. He said American Judaism needs the center. But you’ve got to do the work.
Kenneth Leitner: Let’s remember we are in the bluest city in the bluest region in America. Being in this particular environment, you cannot help but be sensitive to the assonance of the word “conservative.” It’s almost as if that has become a dirty word. But the idea of breaking with historical continuity is a difficult thing, even if that branding is not serving us well.
Pressman: If the movement did all this other work, one thing that might come out of that is the name change. But if it didn’t do the work, the name change would be of no consequence. And if we did do the work, would the name change be necessary?
Freeman: Our movement has grown because we called ourselves Conservative. That’s how we increased the tent, by saying we’re traditional.
Klein: What I’m hearing is that the movement has a solid base.
Mimi Weisel: We have so many effective rabbis and shuls. I was at Rabbi Leitner’s synagogue for his installation. His president got up and gave the most articulate talk. I was so impressed. And working with emerging rabbis, I’m seeing a lot of activity and creativity. There’s a lot of passion and commitment coming from the new rabbis and from the congregants.
Klein: So you’re saying Conservative Judaism is good and growing, but the Conservative movement is in trouble?
Freeman: The national institutions that are supposed to be serving the movement have for a long time been weak and getting weaker. They have no understanding of what goes on in the synagogues. When I went to seminary, I went to the “Harvard/Cambridge/Oxford” of Jewish learning, which is not true anymore.
Weisel: When I was in school eight years ago, there was a tremendous conversation about how we train rabbis, train the people within the synagogues, to meet a variety of needs. Students coming out now are getting an excellent education; maybe not at the level previous generations got, but what is the need and purpose of today’s rabbi? Conservative seminaries are addressing this question in profound ways.
Kelman: When we went to school, seminary was a place where if you wanted to study Judaism academically, that’s where you went. Now, we’re all over the universities. Education is a core of what we do well.
Freeman: When I was going to Hebrew school in San Francisco, all the best educational materials were coming out of the United Synagogue. What has come out of United Synagogue the last 30 or 40 years? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Pressman: There are some good things coming out of the United Synagogue. They have brought in some good people in the last decade or so. Our movement was founded by the leaders of the seminaries, and for a long time the leader of the seminary provided effective national leadership. Right now, I don’t think the leader of the seminary is the leader of the movement, but there’s this urban myth we need to puncture.
There is this book called “In Search of the Corporate Savior: The Myth of the CEO.” This happens in the corporate world, it happens in congregations. We may have a board that is at each other’s throat and we may not be in the right part of town, but if we just hire the right rabbi, everything will be perfect, and if not, then he’s a failure and we’ll fire him.
Klein: Why is Reform growing and the numbers for the Conservative movement dropping?
Leitner: In the 1970s, the Reform movement introduced a radical change. It was a requirement that every rabbinical student go to Israel for the first year. They did that to raise the level of text knowledge and competency. It’s mirrored by what’s happening in a number of Reform synagogues where you have a service that is really not too distinguishable from a liberal Conservative service. They’re moving towards the middle.
Let’s look at the other side, Orthodoxy, which was never a monolith but had its own struggle with modernity. If you want to look at where the dynamic focus in Orthodoxy is today, it’s on its extreme left-wing. They are moving towards the center. We have spent too much of our time looking over our shoulders. You look to the left: What is Reform doing? What is Orthodox doing? Too much of what we do has been in response. When you act out of response, it’s reactive Judaism, not leadership Judaism.
Klein: What is the difference between Reform and Conservative in the Bay Area?
Freeman: We have an increasing intensity of learning how to read Torah. Our minyan is very strong and increasing. Kids in our religious school are getting up, reading Torah, doing Haftarah, doing the Torah service. Our kids are involved in tradition, they’re involved in learning.
Leitner: You mention minyanim. The only synagogue in San Francisco that has two minyanim is Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue.
Pressman: We have a spectrum like anyone else, but there’s a core of serious learning Jews. We have increased the number of adults reading Torah. The quality of our b’nai mitzvah programming is very much of substance. The kids learn what the Torah portion means, what their Haftarah means.
Kelman: In the Conservative movement, in contrast to Reform, the role of the rabbi is shifting. We want to make sure the laity has the responsibility to daven. That’s a major shift. We are no longer rabbi-centric.
Weisel: It’s also moving out from just the synagogue. You’re taking these abilities and bringing them into the homes. When there’s a shiva minyan [a service for someone who just died], it’s led by the community and they do amazing jobs.
Freeman: We’re also involved in social action. We’re involved with bikur cholim [visiting the sick]. We were the first in the Bay Area to house homeless families.
Kelman: Many of us are involved in chevra kadishahs [burial societies] in our own congregations. Which means taking back those mitzvot that were farmed out to other community institutions.
Klein: So why aren’t Conservative congregations growing in numbers?
Freeman: One of the issues is intermarriage. The perception is that the non-Jewish spouse will feel more comfortable in a Reform synagogue. But we have succeeded in including people in our tent.
Pressman: There are certain boundaries that would exist at Conservative synagogues. We’re not going to offer the non-Jewish partner ritual participation to the degree that some Reform synagogues seem to do. Although my experience has been that if someone’s going to get upset about that, it’s not going to be the non-Jewish partner. The non-Jews generally get that there are certain covenantal aspects of worship that are not appropriate for them.
Klein: So do you all agree that intermarriage is what’s causing Reform to grow?
Pressman: There’s definitely some ambivalence within our movement. Aren’t we supposed to be against intermarriage? Then how can we say “OK, once you’re married, we’ll welcome you?” Life is full of decisions where we have something less than ideal, but we can still accommodate it to some degree.
Leitner: There is the public perception that Reform is going to be less stringent.
Freeman: There is a deeper issue. The Reform movement is based on individual autonomy. The Conservative movement is based on community building and is concerned about obligation. To be a member of the community means you accept certain obligations. You may not want to do them, but this is what we stand for.
The strength of Reform is that it’s closer to American ideology. Individual autonomy is part of American culture. We are going against the grain, which is difficult. On the other hand, it means we’re getting a lot of conversions. When people are serious about converting to Judaism, they usually turn to us.
Pressman: No one’s mentioned funding. The Union for Reform Judaism is vastly better funded than the United Synagogue is. One of the consequences is that we have to put out of our minds that we can sit in our shuls and people will find us. We can’t wait until someone drifts in our door.
Klein: What’s your take on ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis?
Freeman: It’s going to happen. The wheels turn slowly. It’s an ubiquitous issue all through America.
Pressman: But there are institutional memories about how difficult it was around the women’s ordination issue, which tore us up. It was very nasty. People did leave the movement over it.
Weisel: The same way people will leave the movement, it will also draw other people in. It will be more open.
Klein: You’re all in favor of gays being ordained?
Freeman: It’s a non-issue.
Pressman: There are among us people who will not officiate at a commitment ceremony because they feel that’s not a settled issue in terms of the halachah [Jewish law]. We want to play by the rules.
Weisel: The question arises of what’s in our immediate future. But there’s really a long-term spectrum of history and where we’re going. What we’re going to be called, what we’re going to be, is what we are today as far as commitment to tradition, community, education, to caring about each other, Torah and God. What that looks like in the future, we don’t know, but we’re on the path together.
Leitner: What Mimi just said is critically important. There’s going to be tension. And that’s good. It’s hard to cope with, but without tension, all you do is recycle. Then you become a hidebound orthodoxy of your own kind. That tension leads to creativity always.
Kelman: Our Conservative synagogues in Northern California are doing damn well. The growth? Look at me. Seventeen years ago we weren’t there. Almost every Conservative synagogue is not only growing but thriving.
Klein: What does the movement need to do? Will a new president of JTS [Jewish Theological Seminary] make a difference?
Kelman: The head of the Rabbinical Assembly, the head of JTS and the head of United Synagogue are all retiring within the next couple of years. This is a moment in the history of the Conservative movement, that critical point that Sarna mentioned last year.
Pressman: We have been communal to a fault. We have contributed leaders to everything in American Jewish life. Our wealthy people have given to their communities and not to the movement.
One of the secrets of Reform: They have a cadre of big donors to give to the movement. We really haven’t done that.
One of my favorite cartoons is a picture of Moses on Sinai, he’s holding the tablets looking up and he says, “But what about funding?”