The Future of Conservative Judasim

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Bienniel Convention commenced yesterday in Orlando and as the Forward pointed out, the Conservative Movement faces new realities.

The Conservative movement has struggled in recent years to maintain a sense of identity without abandoning its “big tent” philosophy and to boost its sagging membership. This turmoil has been exacerbated in the past year by the movement’s change in policy toward gays and lesbians – and by a change in the leadership at the Conservative-affiliated Jewish Theological Seminary, which brought in a new chancellor, Arnold Eisen.

Everyone seems to be talking these days about the poor state of Conservative Judaism with the movement’s decreasing membership numbers and some Conservative synagogues being forced to merge or close up completely. Personally, I see much excitement on the horizon for Conservative Judaism and something that resembles the renaissance that changed and strengthened the Jewish campus organization Hillel a decade ago.

At the end of the summer, The Forward published an article titled “Conservative Judaism at a Crossroads”. The article, published the week before Prof. Arnie Eisen was officially installed as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, quoted prominent Conservative Jewish leaders and some outside observers who weighed in on the future of the Conservative Movement.

Conservative rabbis including David Wolpe, Alan Silverstein, Naomi Levy, and Harold Kushner each gave their recommendations for the Conservative Movement’s recovery from what the former chancellor of JTS, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, referred to in his 2006 commencement address as suffering from “malaise” and a “grievous failure of nerve”. Other respondents included Scott Shay (author of “Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry”), Douglas Rushkoff (author of “Nothing Sacred: The Case for Open Source Judaism”), and Jay Michaelson (Zeek.com).

These short summaries of the current state of Conservative Judaism and what can be done for the future serve as good food-for-thought for movement leaders. Chancellor Arnie Eisen’s power-packed stump speeches that he’s been delivering across the country for over a year have also infused Conservative Judaism’s laity and leadership with newfound exhilaration and hope for the future. Top leadership changes will also force the movement on a new course for the future. Rabbi Jerry Epstein (Executive VP of United Synagogue) and Rabbi Joel Meyers (Executive VP of the Rabbinical Assembly) have both announced their retirements will take place in 2009. In addition to those two expected changes and the new JTS chancellor, there is a new dean of the JTS Rabbinical School (Rabbi Danny Nevins) and there will be a new dean of the William Davidson School of Education at the Seminary next year to replace departing dean Rabbi Steve Brown. [update: Prof. Barry Holtz replaced Prof. Steve Brown as Dean of the Davidson School in 2008]

Rabbi Harold Kushner and Rabbi Jason MillerThe best, most concise vision for the future of Conservative Judaism is presented by Rabbi Harold Kushner (at right with me at the 2007 Rabbinical Assembly Convention) in his article that appears in the current issue of Conservative Judaism. Rabbi Kushner’s article should be required reading for every Conservative Jew. Reading it I was reminded of Rabbi Neil Gillman’s assertion that the Conservative Judaism treatise Emet Ve’Emunah is not a pareve (neutral) document, but rather is full of blockbuster statements. Rabbi Kushner’s article, “Conservative Judaism in an Age of Democracy” is likewise full of blockbusters.

Rabbi Kushner writes, “In the absence of an enforcement mechanism, halakhic Judaism is no longer viable. To the commanding voice of halakhah, ‘You shall do the following,’ the modern non-Orthodox Jew responds, ‘Why should I?’ He need not be saying it dismissively. He may simply be asking for a persuasive reason, but the dimension of recognized obligation is no longer there.”

Referring to Rabbi Hayim Herring’s brilliant article “The Commanding Community and the Sovereign Self,” Rabbi Kushner comments, “The end of the halakhic age for the vast majority of Conservative Jews may not be such a bad thing.”

On the subject of Conservative Judaism not being able to effectively market its product or tweak its product to ensure success, Rabbi Kushner quotes Gil Mann who makes the following comparison: “If Procter and Gamble find that one of their household products is not selling well, they don’t take out full-page ads chastising their customers for being too lazy of disloyal to do the right thing and buy what they are selling. They take out ads emphasizing the benefits of using their product, and if necessary tweak the product to make sure it lives up to their claims.”

On halakhic changes that the movement has made, Rabbi Kushner writes, “We permitted driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, countenanced eating dairy foods in non-kosher restaurants and welcomed women as shelihot tzibur. None of those decisions can be justified by Orthodox halakhic criteria, but there would not be a Conservative movement today without them… When our movement was at its most creative and most relevant, our appeal was not to halakhah but to history, to the argument that the forms in which Jews lived their Jewishness had always changed as circumstances changed.”

Rabbi Kushner clarifies his understanding of mitzvah, stating that in “in the 21st century, [mitzvah] can no longer mean ‘commandment, obligation.’ I would prefer not to translate the word mitzvah at all, but I would understand it to mean ‘opportunity,’ the opportunity to be in touch with God by transforming the ordinary into the sacred.”

Conservative Judaism’s numbers may continue to decline, but that is not a fair assessment of the state of this movement. There is much promise for Conservative Judaism in the coming decades of the 21st century. Excitement and success are sure to follow Arnie Eisen’s vision, the emergence of new leadership, the rethinking of how to handle intermarriage and GLBT inclusion in Conservative synagogues, a new Ramah camp in the Rocky Mountains, and new grassroots projects (Elie Kaunfer’s Mechon Hadar, Menachem Creditor’s Shefa Network, etc.). The new rabbinical school curriculum at the American Jewish University and the expected new curriculum for the JTS rabbinical school will also have positive effects on the future of the Conservative Movement.

Rabbi Harold Kushner concludes his article as follows:

Our movement, our generation is called on to do what Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and his colleagues did two thousand years ago, to reinvent Judaism in a way that will meet the needs of people today to fulfill their human destiny and make God a constant presence in their lives in an age when the currency of Jewish loyalty and faith will no longer be obedience but the pursuit of holiness.

May Conservative Judaism realize a revitalization and bring its adherents of all ages and all levels of observance closer to God and Torah. Ken Yehi Ratzon.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

November 29

I can’t think of any street I’ve seen in the United States named for a historical date. Yet, Jerusalem has a street named for a very important date in its history — November 29th (Kaf-Tet b’November). Today marks sixty years since the United Nations Partition Plan that paved the way for the establishment of a Jewish State.

Tom Segev, author of The Seventh Million, writes in today’s Haaretz newspaper:

On Saturday night, November 29, 1947, many of the Jews in the Land of Israel went out to dance in the streets of the cities. They were celebrating the United Nations decision to establish a Jewish state in part of the country. The Arabs were also supposed to get a state, but they went to war.

In his new book, Yoav Gelber, a professor of history at the University of Haifa, ponders what would have happened had the Arabs agreed to the Partition Plan adopted by the UN 60 years ago today. “We can only guess,” writes Gelber cautiously. [more]


My colleague Rabbi Barry Leff, who recently made aliyah with his family, is in charge of the creation of a new blog from the World Zionist Organization called “The Persistence of Vision: Israel at Sixty”.

With the sixtieth anniversary of Kaf-Tet b’November, there are only about 6 months left until Israel’s 60th anniversary of statehood and so the Department for Zionist Activities has launched its “6 Months to 60” campaign with this new blog. Rabbi Leff explains the goal of this forum on his personal blog:

The Persistence of Vision: Israel at 60
www.IsraelAtSixty.org.il

This forum brings together five experts in their respective fields who share their own perspectives on the meaning of Jewish statehood. What unites them is their common belief that vision has always constituted the heart of the Zionist enterprise, and that it continues to beat vigorously today. Here they will reflect on the significance of 60 years of Israel’s existence, how the reality that has emerged compares to the 2000-year-old dream, how to handle the disappointments, and how to work towards fulfillment of the promise. Readers are invited to turn the blog into a dialog by posting their own opinions and comments. They are also encouraged to take advantage of numerous links to additional resources for further learning and for ideas for celebrating 60 years of Israel’s independence.

Our hope is that this blog will stimulate six months of heightened reflection on the contemporary significance of Israel and Zionism, as well as on the relationship of Jews everywhere to the Jewish state. Together with the rest of Am Yisrael we are looking forward to a joyous celebration of Israel’s 60th birthday, but we want to make sure as well that it will be an occasion infused with substance. Much will remain to be done “the morning after,” and the more the task is discussed, and the more it is understood, the better will be the outcome.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Finding the Best Jelly Donut in Israel

Avery Robinson and Josh MillerI’m sure many people have long wondered where to get the best tasting soofganiyot (jelly donuts) in Jerusalem. Finally, one man has taken up this challenge. That man is Avery Robinson (pictured at left with my son at a Detroit Pistons game in 2005). Avery, a Detroit native and Frankel JAMD graduate, is in Israel for nine months as a participant on Young Judaea‘s Year Course. He has taste-tested the various offerings in Israel’s capital city and, through his blog, takes us on a virtual “journey through the various bakeries of Jerusalem.”

Jelly DonutThe Hebrew word sufganiyah derives from the Hebrew word for sponge (sfog) as its texture is similar to a sponge. In the month of Hanukkah (Kislev) Sufganiyot are sold all over Israel so Jews can observe the custom of eating fried foods in commemoration of the Hanukkah miracle of having enough Temple oil for eight nights.

Potato Latkes are a delicious treat during Hanukkah, but having a religious/cultural excuse to consume jelly donuts cannot be beat (is there a blessing for cholesterol?). One of these years the Krispy Kreme franchise will wise up and become the world-wide corporate sponsor of Hanukkah.

Good luck to donut maven Avery and I look forward to hearing who’s selling the best hamantashen in Jerusalem this Purim!

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Annapolis Peace Summit

President Bush just announced a joint decision between Israeli and Palestinian leaders to work toward a peace agreement by the end of 2008. The nature of the agreement, as well as what is at stake for Israel, is fairly confusing.

Bernard Lewis presented a very well written commentary piece on the Annapolis Peace Conference in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. The article, titled “On the Jewish Question,” is available on the WSJ.com website. Lewis writes:

Herewith some thoughts about tomorrow’s Annapolis peace conference, and the larger problem of how to approach the Israel-Palestine conflict. The first question (one might think it is obvious but apparently not) is, “What is the conflict about?” There are basically two possibilities: that it is about the size of Israel, or about its existence.

If the issue is about the size of Israel, then we have a straightforward border problem, like Alsace-Lorraine or Texas. That is to say, not easy, but possible to solve in the long run, and to live with in the meantime.

If, on the other hand, the issue is the existence of Israel, then clearly it is insoluble by negotiation. There is no compromise position between existing and not existing, and no conceivable government of Israel is going to negotiate on whether that country should or should not exist. [more]

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Movie Spoofs

I recently created two Jewish movie posters that spoof actual movies. Both are now on the Bangitout.com website. They spoof the movies “Friday Night Lights” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”. In less than one day each of these has been viewed over 25 times. The RoboCop spoof (“RabbiCop”) I made for Bangitout.com less than a year ago is close to reaching 1,000 views.

Friday Night Lights Rabbi Cop - RoboCop
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Scrabulous

I am currently playing four different Scrabble games at the same time against opponents from four different states. As if Facebook wasn’t addictive enough already! The online Scrabble game named Scrabulous is gaining in popularity. It has always been difficult for me to sit down for a Scrabble game against my good friend and Scrabble nemesis since he now lives in Chicago. And finding the time to play Scrabble against my ultra-competitive little brother is always a challenge. With Scrabulous I can play both of them… and at the same time.

SCRABBLEIn my time playing Scrabulous I’ve learned that the Hebrew plural word aliyot is a valid word. Also, in the second edition of the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary the anglicized form aliyas was officially changed to aliyahs.

A Wall Street Journal article last week gave the background on the Facebook application and mentioned a potential copyright infringement by the two Indian brothers who created Scrabulous.

From “Networking Your Way to a Triple-Word Score: A Scrabble imitator becomes a Web addiction — with help from Facebook” by Jamin Brophy Warren (WSJ Online, October 13, 2007):

Since its Facebook debut in July, Scrabulous has grown to about 950,000 players. According to Facebook’s data, 36% of those players (about 342,000 people) are “daily active users,” or people who have logged in every day over the last 30 days. That’s compared with an average of 7% for the site’s top 50 tools and games, according to SocialMedia, a social-advertising company that tracks Facebook activity.

Those numbers reflect a critical decision by Jayant and Rajat Agarwalla, the brothers behind the game. Having drawn only a few thousand users to a Web site devoted to Scrabulous, they converted it to a Facebook “application” in June. An application is a module Facebook’s users can add to their pages and then invite their Facebook friends to join.

Rajat says that as of mid-September, the site’s revenue from advertisements displayed near the game board was sufficient to cover operating expenses. Now, the game brings in around $18,000 a month from selling advertising, says Jayant.

Legal experts say there are risks to Scrabulous, however. Copyright laws allow someone to freely use an idea, “but not copy the expression of the idea,” says Anthony Falzone, head of the Fair Use Project at Stanford University. He says the Scrabulous board looks strikingly similar to the Scrabble board, with light blue and pink squares in the same spots denoting double- and triple-word scores. The names might also be too much alike, says John Palfrey, a Harvard law professor.

Currently, the highest-scoring word listed in the global statistics page on Scrabulous is worth 1,778 points. The word, “OXYPHENBUTAZONE,” well known among Scrabble aficonados as the ultimate point getter, was played by Sam Chenoweth. But the 27-year-old physics grad student in Melbourne, Australia, says he didn’t do it while competing in a real game. Instead, he collaborated, in a series of moves, with a fellow master’s student who was technically his opponent.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu

Rabbi Mordechai EliyahuThe Jerusalem Post reported that the former Sephardi chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu explained in his book that “Reform and Conservative synagogues reek of hell and a Jew should not even come near their entrance.” I don’t think this rabbi will be invited to give a keynote address at any pluralism retreats any time soon.

Putting aside his deplorable comments, I found the story he recounts about having to enter a three-story building to attend a bris very comical. He describes the quandary he faced trying to get to an Orthodox synagogue on the third floor of a building in Israel where a Reform and Conservative synagogue occupy the first and second floor respectively. Hmmm… A three-story building with Reform, Conservative and Orthodox prayer services under one roof? Sounds like a campus Hillel building.

In response to his comments, the Masorti (Conservative) Movement in Israel said that it would sue Rabbi Eliyahu for slander.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Wear Your Ramah Shirt To School Day

I just received an e-mail message from Rabbi Mitch Cohen, the director of the National Ramah Commission which oversees all of the Ramah summer camps. In his message, Mitch describes the Facebook project taken on by Ari Magen, an 11th grader who used to be a camper at Ramah Poconos. Ari created a Facebook group encouraging all his friends to wear their Ramah Poconos t-shirts to school on November 15. When he began this effort in September, he had no idea how powerful a tool he was creating for the entire Ramah camping movement. According to Ari, over 1000 Ramahniks saw his message and joined the effort.

As I was reading Mitch Cohen’s e-mail about “Wear Your Ramah Shirt To School Day,” I thought how funny it would be if I was wearing a Ramah t-shirt today by coincidence. I unbuttoned my flannel shirt and looked down to see that I was in fact wearing a Camp Ramah Yahad in Ukraine t-shirt (pictured). Without even trying I participated in this effort.

Here is Ari’s description of “Wear Your Ramah Shirt To School Day”:

I went on Facebook and created an event called “Wear Your Ramah Shirt to School Day.” When I created it, I was only thinking about the Poconos campers wearing their shirts. I didn’t even think about the other Ramah camps. I was very excited for all of Ramah in the Poconos to don our latest Ramah Shirt. On everyone’s profiles, groups, and events there is a feature called a “Wall”. The wall is a place where people can just write stuff and it can be seen by whomever visits the event site.. The next day, I logged on and started to see comments on the events wall. I expected to see a few comments from my friends, but I realized that these weren’t chanichim from Poconos, but from all of the other Ramah camps. Since I intended for the event to be just for the Poconos, I was very surprised to see other people joining in. But, when I went back and re-read the title of the event, I realized that Poconos wasn’t in the title. You know how every camper thinks their Ramah is just “camp.” Then, I thought “Wow, this was a great mistake that I made!!”

I began receiving questions such as, “I was in Israel this summer, can I still participate?” or “I work, can I wear my shirt anyway?”, or I wasn’t at camp this summer but I want to join in. Is that okay?” and my favorite question was, “I wear a uniform to school, what should I do?” Realizing that people were taking this so seriously, I changed the description of the event to, “Wear your latest Ramah shirt to show your Ramah pride!!! If you wear a uniform I’m very sorry you can’t wear it to school. This is open to all Ramah camps, from Poconos to Israel and everywhere in between!!!! If anyone has any questions or comments, please feel free to message me.”

Every couple of days I checked to see how many people were “Attending”. After the third day or so it had reached 100 people. After about 3 weeks, there were over 900! Then I put out a challenge to try and get to 1,000 people. By the time I went to bed last night (after choosing which of my many Ramah t-shirts to wear), there were 1058 people.

Make that 1059 Ari. Even if #1059 was by accident.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Jewish Wisdom for Facebook

Jacob RichmanEveryone knows that Facebook is Jewish and that Facebook has changed Jewish life on campus, but now computer programmer Jacob Richman has brought some Jewish Wisdom to the social networking site.

Jacob Richman (left) and I both launched our personal websites around the same time. I started JasonAMiller.com, the precursor to RabbiJason.com, in March 1996 and Jacob started his site in April 1996. Jacob, based in Israel, has created many resourceful websites over the years including several online language tutorial videos and sites listing Jewish links on the Web.

A few months ago, he created My Hebrew Name on Facebook — a Facebook application that enables Facebook users to list their Hebrew name in their profile. Today, Jacob Richman launched a new Facebook application called Jewish Wisdom, which lets users search over 3,000 Jewish proverbs, sayings and quotations from the Jewish Wisdom database and display favorites on their Facebook profile. The quotations in the database are taken from the Talmud, Torah, Maimonides, and Chofetz Chaim; as well as from the likes of Albert Einstein, Elie Wiesel, Ben-Gurion, Arthur Miller, Freud, Henry Kissinger, Mel Brooks, and Jerry Seinfeld.

For those few holdouts who still don’t have a Facebook account, you can still access the Jewish Wisdome database at www.jewish-wisdom.com.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller