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Why Chelsea Clinton’s Wedding Matters & the Celebrity Double-Standard

I’m hesitant to write about Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming wedding to Marc Mezvinsky, who was raised in Conservative Judaism, because I want to respect the private lives of the bride and groom. However, when the bride is the daughter of the 40th President of the United States, I suppose she is classified as a celebrity and her wedding is fair game as a topic for discussion.

This marriage will spark conversation in the Jewish world about two main issues: How intermarriage affects the Jewish community; and, whether there is a double-standard in the Jewish community when it comes to the intermarrying ways of celebrities.

David Gibson, in his article in Politics Daily, brings to light the key points surrounding this wedding. The question of whether Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism is something that Jews wonder (from Jews who are vehemently against intermarriage and those who are accepting of it). This high-profile wedding will bring many of the implications of intermarriage to a more public forum, forcing the conversation about, among other things:

  1. whether a rabbi should officiate at an interfaith wedding;
  2. whether intermarriage really erodes Jewish continuity;
  3. whether a non-Jewish mother can raise Jewish children;
  4. whether conversion for the sake of marriage is genuine enough to count; and,
  5. whether there’s a double-standard in the Jewish community when a high profile person marries outside of the faith.

Gibson quotes my colleague, Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe, who claims it’s his dream that Chelsea Clinton will convert to Judaism. Gibson also read the ongoing conversation at the website about Chelsea’s upcoming wedding.

In a lively discussion at the website, one commenter said that even if Chelsea does not convert, a rabbi should take part in the wedding “if the couple agrees to raise the children Jewish.” Another, however, cautioned that “this cannot be a Jewish wedding — a Jewish wedding is one where both people are Jewish, either by birth or by choice.” And yet another commenter gave what is perhaps a more characteristic answer: “I believe that Chelsea and her fiancé should do whatever will make them happiest.”

In real life, of course, questions about the role of religion often animate wedding planning, given that so many young people feel freed from old prohibitions against marrying outside the faith, if indeed they adhere to the religion of their parents or any religion at all.

Last month I was quoted in a Detroit Free Press article about interfaith marriage (“Do Interfaith Marriages Threaten Jewish Identity?”) and then took part as a panelist in a Free Press online chat on the subject.

After taking part in the online chat with Edmund Case, the CEO of, and an intermarried couple, I can only conclude that this is a very challenging issue because people’s lives, and children, and feelings of love and affection are in conflict with thousands of years of tribal law. It’s really about clubs and who can join and who can’t and who decides the rules.

Regarding the Gibson article in Politics Daily, my teacher Rabbi Irwin Kula comments, “This is great article for studying just about every pathology in American Jewish life… an entire article on intermarriage and Jewish weddings all about its threat and not one sentence on the possible meaning of the ritual that might actually create meaning and value. It’s chuppah/Jewish wedding as tribal marker and intermarriage as either threat to the tribe or grudging opportunity to increase numbers. Why should Chelsea convert? To make sure we don’t lose her kids to our tribe so worried about our size!”

Some interesting questions surrounding the Chelsea Clinton wedding should make this even more interesting:

  • The wedding will take place on Shabbat (July 31, 2010), so how will this affect whether observant Jewish (shomer Shabbat) guests will attend. Even if they stay within walking distance of the Astor mansion, according to Jewish law weddings are not to take place on the Jewish Sabbath.
  • If Chelsea does convert before the wedding, will her conversion be disputed publicly by the Orthodox who will claim that a Conservative (or Reform) conversion isn’t “kosher.” And, many will question her commitment to Judaism — didn’t she do this only for the sake of marriage and how much preparation and deliberation did she put into this?
  • If Chelsea doesn’t convert, how many of the Bill and Hillary’s Orthodox friends will attend the wedding anyway? Will their attendance at an interfaith wedding (and on Shabbat to boot) signify an endorsement? And what about Conservative rabbis who are technically not supposed to attend interfaith weddings? Will some make an exception for such notable nuptials?
  • Finally, might this high-profile interfaith wedding turn the tides and lead to greater acceptance and sensitivity toward interfaith marriage? After all, as Gibson writes, “The main body of Conservative Judaism [CJLS] voted to allow interfaith families to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, and in March, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America hosted a two-day workshop “sensitizing” students to “issues of intermarriage and changing demographics.” There is even talk of allowing Conservative rabbis to attend the interfaith weddings of friends — and this just four years after the movement adopted an official policy emphasizing the importance of converting a non-Jewish spouse.

Chelsea Clinton’s wedding is sure to grab headlines because of the main actors and the supporting cast, but in the Jewish world this wedding might just be an interfaith “game changer” in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Rahm Emanuel’s Son’s Bar Mitzvah & Religious Pluralism in Israel

As I was preparing to board a plane home at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago, I followed the news reports that Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s son’s bar mitzvah would be moved outside of Jerusalem for security concerns. Rahm Emanuel and his Hollywood agent brother, Ari Emanuel, brought their families to Israel on vacation and for their respective son’s Jewish rite of passage. Apparently, protesters were heckling the Emanuel family’s delegation as they toured Jerusalem’s Old City because of the Obama Administration’s purported views on Middle East affairs.

Ultimately, Zach Emanuel’s bar mitzvah went ahead as planned at Robinson’s Arch, the archaeological site along the remaining Southern Wall of the Temple at which Conservative and Reform rabbis are allowed to officiate at bar and bat mitzvahs. The two cousins had their b’nai mitzvah on a Sunday, perhaps to confuse paparazzi, and it was officiated by each family’s rabbi –Rabbi Jack Moline, of Rahm Emanuel’s synagogue (Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Virginia) and Rabbi Kenneth Chasen, of the Reform Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles where Ari Emanuel’s family belongs.

Having recently spent the early dawn hours of Shavuot at Robinson’s Arch, known as the “Masorti Kotel” since the Masorti/Conservative Jews can pray there freely, I was thrilled to read the op-ed in the Jerusalem Post by Masorti Movement CEO Yizhar Hess about the Emanuel boys’ b’nai mitzvah and the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, especially at the Western Wall (Kotel).

Hess took the opportunity of this newsworthy double bar mitzvah to focus on the Ultra-Orthodox control of the Western Wall, including the plaza. He writes:

The [Emanuel] family stood together, prayed together. There was no mehitza [separation between the sexes]. Some women donned a tallit [prayer shawl]. There was an abundance of Judaism, an abundance of Zionism and an abundance of love.

It is sad that one cannot pray in the same way at the main Western Wall Plaza. For a decade now, the Masorti Movement has been facilitating prayers at the Masorti Kotel. This is a forced arrangement. The majority of the world’s Jews pray without a mehitza, but when they come to Jerusalem, to the most symbolic site for Jewish prayer, they are forbidden from praying together. The Kotel, whose holiness has enthused Jews from all over the world, has been transformed into a haredi synagogue.

The Masorti Movement has never relinquished its right to pray at the Kotel, but has agreed, in compromise and with great pain, to hold its prayers at the [Davidson] archeological park.

With all of Israel’s international struggles right now, one would hope that it would strive to solve this matter of domestic disharmony. Here’s hoping that when Rahm Emanuel returns to Jerusalem for his daughter’s bat mitzvah, the family will be allowed to mark this rite of passage at any part of the Kotel they choose — and be free from protesters and paparazzi.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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What Elena Kagan Can Teach Us About Judaism

If Elena Kagan, President Barack Obama’s choice to fill the open seat on the Supreme Court, is confirmed there will be two Jewish female justices on the highest court in the U.S. and a full third of the bench will be Jewish for the first time in history. The rest of the justices are Catholic. A Supreme Court made up of six Catholics and three Jews will certainly be interesting.

But there is also a lot that the biography of Elena Kagan can teach us about Judaism today.

In a recent article in the NY Times, we learn that Kagan had the first bat mitzvah ceremony at Lincoln Square Synagogue, an Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what led up to that event, and Kagan’s Jewish identity in the decades since that event, shed much light on the post-denominational Jewish world of today and perhaps give us a glimpse of what is possible in the future.

Lincoln Square Synagogue started with a few Conservative Jewish families in the Lincoln Towers apartment complex in NYC. In 1964, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was sent by Yeshiva University to lead High Holy Day services for this group (essentially a “chavurah.”) They took a liking to Rav Riskin, dropped the “Conservative” label from their name, and in 1970 formed Lincoln Square Synagogue.

The Times article goes on to explain that a women’s prayer group began at the synagogue in 1972 and when Elena Kagan was approaching her twelfth birthday, she requested to have a formal bat mitzvah. It would become the first bat mitzvah that Rabbi Riskin would officiate.

“We crafted a lovely service, but I don’t think I satisfied her completely,” said Rabbi Riskin, who left the synagogue in 1983 to move to Israel, where he is chief rabbi of Efrat, a West Bank settlement. “But she certainly raised my consciousness.”

Since then, bat mitzvahs have evolved at Lincoln Square. Today a girl can choose to lead the service and read from the Torah, as long as the ceremony is held during a women’s service in an annex of the synagogue. There cannot be more than nine men in attendance, and they must sit behind the mechitza. (“If there are 10 men” — known as a minyan — “that becomes a men’s service,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin, who taught Ms. Kagan.)

Elena Kagan’s parents eventually left Lincoln Square Synagogue and joined West End Synagogue (now located next door to Lincoln Square), a Reconstructionist congregation. Today, Elena Kagan considers herself a Conservative Jew.

This means that the woman who is likely to soon be the newest Supreme Court justice was a member of an Orthodox synagogue that began as a Conservative “chavurah” with an Orthodox-trained rabbi who was willing to have women’s prayer groups, a glass see-through mechitzah (barrier between men and women), and organize a bat mitzvah ceremony at a time when most Conservative rabbis weren’t willing to do so. And from that synagogue, her family became Reconstructionists, and she eventually became Conservative (in her Jewish ideology, but not her political or judicial approach).

Modern American Judaism is at a cross-roads. It has become much more difficult to determine what it means to be a Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, or Orthodox Jew. On the one hand Orthodoxy has moved further away from center with increased strictures on everything from dietary laws to issues of family purity. But on the other hand, Orthodox rabbis like Riskin, Avi Weiss, Yitz Greenberg, Saul Berman, Dov Linzer, and Asher Lopatin (to name a few) are embracing an “open Orthodoxy” that sees challenging questions of Jewish law through a modern lens and allows for increased participation of women in the community.

Reform Judaism has moved quite far in the past half-century and many Reform Jews have found it possible to cling to traditional Judaism within a Reform setting. Conservative Judaism has shifted from a post-war period in which Jews had the Tradition but were in search of modernity and change. Today, Conservative Jews begin with secularism and are in search of Tradition (or at least their rabbis see the situation that way).

Elena Kagan’s emergence on the national scene should demonstrate the fluidity that exists in our Jewish world. We have become a community less about denominational structure and more about comfort. I write this from Israel where I spent this past Shabbat at Shira Chadasha, a congregation that calls itself Orthodox, but allows for a great deal of liturgical participation by women. At Shira Chadasha, one immediately gets the sense that many of the Jewsthere are post-denominational in the sense that they don’t worry about which camp or category they fit into. Rather, they are comfortable being a part of that community, whatever it’s called.

Thanks to the nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court, our American Jewish community can learn a little more about the direction in which we’re headed.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Denominational Judaism is SO Last Century

I am often asked the question: “What kind of rabbi are you?” My tongue firmly planted in my cheek, I usually answer: “A good one!”

Of course, the questioner is trying to ascertain in which denomination of Judaism I affiliate and will then make a whole host of assumptions about me. Denominational labels, whether for rabbis or lay people, are thought to reveal such things as congregational affiliation, personal theology, daily practice, views on Israel, the role of women in Judaism, etc. However, we are now in a post-denominational age of modern Judaism and denominational labels have been rendered useless.

We are in a time when Jewish people identify their religion in their Facebook profile as “Recon-newel-ortho-conserva-form.” No, these people aren’t confused about their Jewish identity, rather they have realized that there is “meaning” to be made from the various pathways to Torah.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, when asked about the different streams of Judaism, remarked that this is the reason that Baskin Robbins offers thirty-one flavors of ice cream. And to this I would add that it’s possible to order a mixture of flavors too. Yitz Greenberg also famously said, “I personally don’t care which denomination in Judaism you belong to as long as you’re ashamed of it.”

To those who ask what type of rabbi I am, perhaps a better response would be an invitation to sit and shmooze over coffee so that I may share my narrative. I was raised in the Conservative Movement attending Shabbat services, going to the synagogue pre-school, and studying at a Solomon Schechter Day School from kindergarten through the end of the seventh grade. In high school, I was active in the Conservative Movement’s youth group, and traveled across the country and to Israel with other Conservative Jewish teens.

When I decided to become a rabbi during my second year of college, there was never a doubt that it would be at the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, known as the flagship educational institution of the Conservative Movement. It was in rabbinical school, however, that I really came into contact with other “flavors” of Judaism.

I was chosen for an interfaith dialogue program called Seminarians Interacting. We went on a week-long retreat and stayed at a Catholic seminary outside of Baltimore. I learned a bit about other faith traditions, but it was sharing a room with a Reform rabbinical student and talking to Reconstructionist rabbinical students that was the most eye-opening experience for me. We talked about our individual calling to become a rabbi, matters of belief and practice, and the future of the Jewish community.

Not long after this experience, I returned to the Detroit area to spend a summer training as a hospital chaplain. There were Christian seminary students representing different denominations, but I spent the most time with a Reform rabbinical student who also attended that Conservative Jewish day school. We studied Torah together, prayed together, and debated Jewish law. It was wonderful. We each had our own “torah” to teach and we were both deeply engaged in learning from our rabbis, but we also gained so much from each other.

It was also in rabbinical school that I become involved with Clal, a pluralistic organization that employs teaching fellows from every Jewish stream. In the Clal offices I found Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Orthodox scholars who were so deeply engrossed in discussing the issues of the day. It didn’t matter where they prayed or how they thought the Torah was revealed to the Jewish people; all that mattered was that they could challenge each other to think outside of the box and help people make meaning out of their lives.

Rabbinical School was a time when I prayed at an Orthodox shul in which men and women sat separately. But I also led a very Reform service on Friday nights for a nice group of thirty elderly people at the local nursing home. All the while spending my days studying Torah and Talmud in a Conservative seminary with professors who had all studied under Mordechai Kaplan, the founding father of Reconstructionist Judaism.

After graduating from rabbinical school and becoming a card-carrying Conservative rabbi, I took a job at a Hillel foundation on a college campus. There, my job was to advise the leaders of the various student minyans, from Reform and Conservative to Humanistic and Traditional. I spent time in each of these different prayer groups and noticed that many students sampled the various offerings regardless of their upbringing or their family’s affiliation. During this time, I also consulted a Conservative synagogue that didn’t have a rabbi and taught adult education classes at a Reform temple.

Today, I serve as the rabbi of a non-denominational camping agency in which I help run Shabbat services at our summer camp. The services tend more toward the Reform liturgy. I also serve as the part-time rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation, and as the director of a consolidated, weekly high school program for the Conservative synagogues. I am part of two national rabbinic fellowship programs in which I learn and dialogue with rabbis from just about every Jewish flavor imaginable. When we come together at retreats, we forget at which institution we were each made into rabbis and just allow our Torah to permeate the room so that we may learn from each other.

Whether with my colleagues at the STAR Foundation’s PEER program or at Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders, I’ve learned that if we perpetuate the arguments of whose Torah is true Judaism, we’ll only do damage to the Jewish people. When we recognize that the labels don’t help and that we’re living in a post-denominational world we will be able to bring more of our collective Jewish wisdom to the world.

I may find that my theology resonates the most with what has historically been considered a Conservative approach, but I still like to pray in an Orthodox minyan at times. The strong emphasis on social action in the Reform Movement motivates me to see the world beyond my nose and my responsibility to humanity. But the deep-rooted sense of a heimish community in the Orthodox world is something that I find gratifying and reaffirming. And the focus on egalitarianism and human dignity that has been critical to the Reconstructionist Movement since its inception is important to me.

Conservative Jews are keeping Orthodox yeshivahs open with their generous philanthropy. Reform Jews are showing their strong support for Israel by becoming AIPAC leaders, traveling to Israel on solidarity missions, and planning community events to honor Israel — all actions to which their Reform forebears would object. Orthodox synagogues are finding innovative ways to increase the role of women in the prayer service and in the community. And independent minyanim are forming around the country with no denominational affiliation and made up of young people who were raised in different traditions.

So, the next time someone asks me what kind of rabbi I am, I think I’ll just ask them: “Well, how much time do you have?”

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Too Jewey – Purim 2010

For some reason, whenever the Jewish holiday of Purim rolls around, my brain uncontrollably starts coming up with parodies, satires, spoofs, and just plain silliness.  Here’s a collection of the news items circulating in my head. Happy Purim!


By Rabbi Jason, the Official Rabbi of the 2010 Olympic Games
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Jewish Music at the Olympics: From Reggae to OyVey

VANCOUVER – With the decision to use Matisyahu’s song “One Day” as the official Winter Olympics theme, Jewish people around the globe undoubtedly celebrated that Jewish music was now cool. I mean, it’s the Olympics! Jews are used to “members of the tribe” creating hit music for the masses, but it usually comes in the form of Christmas music (see Irving Berlin, Mel Torme, etc.). Well, it appears there wasn’t much time for rejoicing because just as millions of people were getting Matisyahu’s upbeat song stuck in their heads, along came a brother and sister duo to set Jewish music back a couple hundred years.

As soon as they learned they had to prepare a folk music tribute to their native Israel, the Zaretsky figure skating team of Sasha and Roman apparently ran to Wikipedia and searched for “Stereotypical Jewish Music.”  Their “Hava Nagila” rendition was apparently the Zaretsky’s best guess at what the shtetl of Eastern Europe would have looked like at weddings if only they had ice rinks. And as if their first attempt at skating to “The Music of the Yid” wasn’t schmaltzy enough, they came back the next night and gave a performance that only Mel Brooks could love. While the Israeli skaters’ tribute to the Holocaust was rather quite moving, I can’t imagine that Steven Spielberg watched it thinking, “Gosh, I can’t believe I didn’t go with the ice dancing motif for Schindler’s List.”

For those Jewish people who didn’t feel like the ice dancing competition at this year’s Winter Olympics touched on enough Jewish stereotypes, get excited for the next Olympic games when all Jewish figure skaters will be required to have their mother on the ice during performances yelling at them to put on a jacket or they’ll freeze!

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Rabbi Avi Weiss Chains Himself to Female Rabbi

The Orthodox Rabbi best known for chaining himself to buildings in protest and leading rallies for Jewish causes is now in big trouble.  Riverdale NY-based Rabbi Avi Weiss ordained a female rabbi over a year ago. However, instead of calling her anything close to “Rabbi,” he sneakily chose to give her an acronym as a title: “AWSHIT,” which apparently stands for Avi Weiss Says He Is Tenacious. No doubt, the name was Weiss’s way to let the Ultra Orthodox know how he felt. But they didn’t seem to really mind the title he granted to Sara Horwitz, until he updated it to “Rabba.”

Now, the Orthodox are calling for Avi Weiss to be excommunicated and banished to Siberia. The irony, of course, is that this is a man who fought so hard to get Jews out of Siberia in the first place. In protest, Rabbi Avi Weiss has chained himself to Rabba Sara Horwitz in an act of solidarity. The Ultra-Orthodox have claimed that this is fine with them, so long as Avi Weiss doesn’t dance with the woman.  In other news, the Conservative Movement now claims that Rabba Sara Horwitz is an aguna (a “Chained Woman”) and has granted her an immediate get (bill of divorce) from Rabbi Weiss.

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HamanTosh.0 – New Comedy Central Series

Currently, Comedy Central has a weekly series (“Tosh.0”) that shows all those funny videos from the Web that have gone viral. Well now, Comedy Central is proud to introduce a new series that replays all the videos from the Web that are virulent.  Any video starring an Iranian in a “Members Only” jacket will be shown on “HamanTosh.0,” beginning on February 31.  Check local listings for airtimes.

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Conservative Movement Goes for Trifecta

With its numbers in sharp decline, the Conservative Movement of Judaism is deeply invested in change. In an effort to grab media attention, the centrist movement of modern Judaism is now looking to go for the Trifecta. In a press release prepared by, Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnie Eisen explained, “First we shocked the world by allowing gays and lesbians into our esteemed institution to become rabbis.  Next week, we will quickly make the move to grant admission to intermarried men and women.  And, I’m pleased to announce that beginning on April 1st, we will unveil a new program designed to ordain disgraced celebrities as rabbis and cantors at JTS. 

We have already invited some big-name, dishonored celebrities to apply to our program. Rabbi Danny Nevins, Dean of the Rabbinical School, said, “Don’t be surprised to see Rabbi Tiger Woods by the end of the year.”  Also expected to be studying at the Conservative Movement’s flagship institution will be Mark McGwire, who also plans to pursue a master’s degree in pharmacology at JTS, and the gun-toting NBA star Gilbert Arenas. Classes in “Anger Management” and “Press Conference Contrition” will be added to the curriculum.

In what is perhaps the most shocking news to come from the Conservative Movement is that the new United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick has been replaced by former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who took the job with the stipulation that a day care center be opened at the USCJ headquarters.

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First Ever NASCAR Bris

Following the news that a Bar Mitzvah will take place this June at Yankee Stadium before a championship boxing match, NASCAR has announced that it will hold a Bris (ritual circumcision ceremony) at its next championship race at Talladega SuperSpeedway.  The Bris will be sponsored by Fast Eddie’s Chop Shop (“You Steal ‘Em, We Deal ‘Em”). Due to the fact that 100,000 fans will be waiting for the Formula One race to begin, there will only be 2 minutes allotted to the ritual Jewish ceremony, but that’s no problem as NYC circumcisor Phil “Sling Blade” Sherman ( has promised to race his way through the procedure in chop-chop fashion. However, if the race is about to begin, Sherman said he’ll just have to cut it short.

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Rabbi Condemns Bud Selig Statue

Bud Selig, the Jewish Commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB), is being honored with a statue outside of Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers (which Selig owns – Yes, a Jewish owner of a sports franchise… shocking, I know!). Unfortunately, the statue may never be erected because Selig’s own rabbi is standing in the way. Rabbi Ann Heiser-Busch of Congregation Beth Ale in Milwaukee (on the Miller Brewing Company Campus) explained that most people think that she is against the erection of the statue honoring her famous congregant on the grounds that the Torah clearly prohibits the creation of a graven image of a human being because it is idol worship. However, Rabbi Heiser-Busch cited as her objection the fact that the construction workers would have to inject themselves with steroids to build up the necessary strength in order to lift the Bud Selig statue. When asked to comment, Commissioner Selig asked, “What are steroids?”

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New Personal Mechitzas Not Good Enough

What’s a Haredi Jew to do when he travels on a plane? It seems like the whole aviation industry is against him. First, the kosher meals are served cold and soggy. Then, there’s not enough space in the overhead compartment for his hat box. And the latest attack is that the flight attendants are convinced he’s strapping bombs to his head and arm in the form of tefillin.  The worst part about air travel for the Ultra Orthodox is that a member of the opposite sex (e.g., a woman) might occupy the next seat.  However, a new product on the market solves that problem.  The Personal Mechitza is just what the Rebbe ordered.  This barrier not only separates the sexes and keeps the immodest neighbors on the plane from view, but it also guards against the scandalous in-flight movies.

However, now rabbis are complaining that these personal mechitzas aren’t good enough. Rabbi Haskel Lookoutstein, an advisor to the FAA, explains that it’s possible a Reform Jew worked in the factory where the Personal Mechitza was made and came in contact with the apparatus. Or, he went on, what if one is using a Personal Mechitza and the person in the seat next to you sneezes and some of the treif they’re eating flies over the top of your Personal Mechitza and gets on your Extra-Glatt Kosher meal? That is why Rabbi Lookoutstein recommends putting up an extra mechitza around the Personal Mechitza.  In fact, he says that the most pious will simply purchase every seat in the row and put up the new Glatt Mechitzah L’Mehadrin.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Israel, Diaspora Jews, Women, and a Wall

I’ve been following with much interest the incident at the Kotel (Western Wall) in Jerusalem in which a Conservative Jewish woman was arrested for wearing a tallit (prayer shawl). Nofrat Frenkel (pictured) was led away by Jerusalem police in November for the “crime” of praying with a tallit at the Western Wall. She is a member of Women of the Wall.

This story only highlighted what many have known about Israel for a long time. It is not a democracy when it comes to the religious practices of its citizens. Much has been written about this travesty since Frenkel’s arrest and the incident has only caused the Women of the Wall to be more active in their pursuit of religious equality.

The most recent development in the story is the police interrogation of Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center and leader of Women of the Wall yesterday. Hoffman was told that she is a suspect in a felony for not obeying a legal order and disrupting the peace. She denied the accusation, stating “the people who disturbed the peace at the wall were the men who protested out loud against the women of the wall and not the over 100 women who prayed together and celebrated the new month.”

I haven’t written about this on my blog since there’s just not much more to say. I wish the Israeli government would get its act together and allow for various interpretations of religion in the country. How many different ways can that be stated?

The reason I mention this now, however, is because of the way in which this ongoing conflict has been used by Israeli journalist Noam Sheizaf (pictured) to describe what he calls Jewish Americans’ case of split personality disorder when it comes to Israel.

When I first stumbled on Sheizaf’s article (through a Google Alert) it was on a Pro-Palestinian website so I was skeptical about his perspective. However, the article originated on Sheizaf’s “Promised Land” website and is an intelligent essay about why most Jewish Americans are so hesitant to criticize Israel publicly.

The Maariv newspaper editor writes, “My friend noted that if some of the articles on the Israeli media – and not even the most radical ones – were to be printed in the US and signed by non-Jews, they would be considered by most Jewish readers like an example of dangerous Israel-bashing, sometimes even anti-Semitism.”

Sheizaf articulates very well the seemingly ironic position that so many liberal American Jews find themselves in concerning their views on Israel. Admittedly, I am in this category. I never criticize Israel or its government’s policies publicly, because, well, it’s Israel — my Israel, my homeland. The Jewish state has enough critics, I reason; it could use more people playing defense for the team. But when it comes to religious pluralism, I have no problem expressing my frustration for the control that the ultra-Orthodox wields in Israel. A monopoly by one denomination of a religion for all official religious acts is not democratic.

Sheizaf uses the recent incidents at the Kotel with the Women of the Wall to underscore his point:

Here is an example: as we all know, the Orthodox Jewish establishment has an official statues in Israel (unlike most Western countries, state and religion are not separated here, and the chief Orthodox Rabbi has a position similar to this of a supreme court justice). The same Orthodox establishment is very hostile to none-Orthodox Jews, which happen to make most of the American Jewish community. A few weeks ago, Fifth-year medical student Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit at the Kotel. I expected all hell to break in the States. After all, this concerns Jews’ right to practice their faith in the most holy place in the world. I wouldn’t say the event went unnoticed – I saw some blog posts and articles referring to the incident, and Forward published Frenkel’s account of the day – but it certainly wasn’t enough for people in Israel to notice. If American Jews spoke on this matter, it was with a voice that nobody heard.

Now imagine the public outrage if Frenkel was arrested anywhere else in the world for wearing a talit. For some reason, many Jews accept the fact that only in Israel – the same country which asks for their political and financial support – they are seen almost as Goyim. Very few of these Jews will admit that Israel is simply not a very tolerant place, to say the least.

What followed the incident in the Kotel was even more interesting: speaking at a convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren said that Frenkel was not arrested but just “led away” by police from the area after offending some people’s feelings there. This was simply not true – she did get arrested – and two weeks later Oren admitted to this fact and claimed he was given “incomplete information” from Jerusalem (even though the fact of Frenkel’s arrest was widely known and never disputed, both in Israel and in the US). Yet even then the ambassador didn’t provide any explanation for the arrest itself, and nobody seemed to demand it from him anymore. More importantly, if there was some discomfort felt in the Jewish community regarding the way ambassador Oren handled the whole affair, it failed again to reach the Israeli media or the Israeli public.

It is interesting that there hasn’t been more of a public outrage among Jews in the Diaspora about the way in which women are treated at Judaism’s holiest site in its holiest city. The fight waged by Reform and Conservative Jews in the Diaspora on the Haredi monopoly in Israel has continued over the past two decades in a passive way. From the comfort of our Diaspora pulpits, we Conservative rabbis express our disdain that our conversions aren’t recognized in Israel and that we can’t hold a mixed male/female minyan at the Western Wall, but when we get to Jerusalem, we walk our group to the Southern promenade (the back of the bus) with our tail between our legs.

I believe that what Sheizaf is saying is that if American Jews would only “grow up” and formulate a more mature (and realistic) perspective on Israel qua nation-state, then there would be more advances in the realm of religious pluralism. I confess that I love to remind critics of Israel that the Jewish state is the only real democracy in that region. However, religious freedom must be a prerequisite for true democracy.

Sheizaf concludes with a recollection from when he staffed a 5-week American teen tour of Israel. He notes that “as far as politics and history goes, it was elementary school level, with the whole program avoiding any issue that might seem too complex or controversial… Sometimes I feel that with regards to Israel, the entire Jewish community never got off the Taglit bus. Jews are almost desperate to hold on to some sort of a naïve image of this country, its people and its institutions. This is most evident with the way they see the IDF. It’s not just that they don’t believe what the Palestinians are saying – they can’t even imagine the Israeli army doing bad things. The US army – yes; the IDF – never. More than ever, I wonder what role this naïve image of Israel – almost an abstract Israel, which has nothing to do with the actual Middle Eastern country – plays in the way Jews see themselves, and how are they going to look back on it ten or twenty years from now.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Conservative Rabbis Must Exercise

Almost six years ago, when I became a Conservative rabbi, I knew there were certain expectations placed on me by my new professional organization, the International Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism (the RA). Specifically, they expected that I would follow the few rules they had or face expulsion from the Assembly. These rules were:

  1. Not officiating at a commitment ceremony or wedding between two members of the same sex;
  2. Not recognizing patrilineal descent (Jewish lineage from the father instead of the mother);
  3. Not officiating at an interfaith wedding;
  4. Not officiating at a wedding in which a divorced bride didn’t have a Jewish bill of divorce (get) from her ex-husband, or in which a divorced groom hadn’t given his ex-wife a get.

Well, with the acceptance of a religious ruling allowing Conservative rabbis to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies three years ago, it looks like #1 is no longer on the books.

Further, studies have shown that some 80% of Conservative Jews recognize people as Jewish who are the offspring of Jewish dads, but not Jewish moms (just as the Reform movement has officially done since 1983). My sense is that this will be the next significant change in Conservative Judaism, so rule #2 can’t be far from being passé too.

Privately, I’ve heard there are Conservative rabbis officiating at interfaith weddings under the RA’s radar screen. However, from my vantage point, most rabbis still firmly hold by rules #3 and #4 above.

The one RA rule I hadn’t foreseen when I became a rabbi is that I must agree to stay in good shape and maintain a healthy diet. So, I was surprised to get an e-mail earlier this week from RA executive vice-president Rabbi Julie Schonfeld and two marathon-running rabbinic colleagues telling me to get to the gym pronto. Although, I must say that I do agree with the Shalem Campaign, urging us rabbis to make fitness a part of our daily lives and to eat healthy. The campaign, which is based on the President’s Fitness Challenge, was picked up by the JTA in an article titled “Eat right and exercise, Conservative rabbis told.”

At least now when I’m spotted at the gym in the middle of a workday, I can just explain that I’m following orders and trying to be a good rabbi.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Kaddish for Conservative Judaism

There have been many changes in the top leadership of the Conservative Movement recently. First was the commencement of the Arnie Eisen era at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With the beginning of Arnie Eisen’s chancellorship also came the change in leadership at the Seminary’s rabbinical school with Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the new dean. Second, came the change in leadership at the Rabbinical Assembly with Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld taking the RA’s top job. Yesterday marked the confirmation of Rabbi Steven Wernick (right) as the CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the arm of the movement representing the congregations.

It seems as though all the players who have the potential to put the Conservative Movement on the right course have taken the field. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring.

The Conservative Movement has done a very good job of staying in the news recently. Unfortunately, not all news is good news. The latest round of infighting and hand wringing within the ranks of the Conservative Movement has been prompted by the emergence of two groups of movement leaders.

One group, Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism, is made up of the rabbis and board presidents of the largest congregations in the country (here’s a link to the list of group members which has recently opened up membership to the leaders of congregations of all sizes). The second group, calling itself “Bonim” is a grassroots coalition of fed-up lay-leaders from approximately forty congregations threatening to leave the Conservative Movement. Both of these groups have made headlines with their allegations toward the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Essentially, they have formalized the complaints from member congregations that have been informally articulated over the years. Add to this the Canadian congregations that have left the Conservative Movement to form a new organization in response to the decision to admit gays and lesbians into the rabbinical and cantorial schools at the movement’s seminaries

But, perhaps what has produced the most headlines about the Conservative Movement in recent weeks was an interview with Rabbi Norman Lamm (left), Yeshiva University luminary and a modern Orthodox scholar.

In the interview with the Jerusalem Post which took place in Israel, Lamm prophesied that the time has come to say “Kaddish” for Conservative Judaism. He included Reform Judaism as well in his premature obituary. “With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements,” said Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. He went on to add that the “Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking.”

Lamm’s pronouncement prompted many responses from Conservative Movement leaders. All criticized Lamm for his inappropriate comments and most found aspects of Conservative Judaism to be proud of. Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld (right) penned an articulate response in which she underscored the authenticity of Conservative Judaism and mentioned some of the recent changes she has already implemented in her new position. [I can personally vouge for her hard work and initial success by way of example. Rabbi Schoenfeld has convened a subcommittee, on which I serve, to help improve the technological resources available through the Rabbinical Assembly and in only a couple months, much has been accomplished.] She also remarked that at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference, the majority of the rabbis in attendance were members of the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic group.

Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld also underscored the popularity of the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. She writes, “many of Rabbi Lamm’s Orthodox constituents who are in agreement with my colleague, Rabbi Morris Allen’s call that we take ethical mitzvot as seriously as ritual ones in the preparation of kosher food. The message we are hearing loud and clear is that the American Jewish community is quite literally hungry to lead lives where the ritual is bound up in the ethical underpinning.”

Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Masorti Movement, Conservative Judaism’s Israeli branch, fired back writing a response to Rabbi Lamm in the Jerusalem Post in which he took him on point by point. Richard Moline, the director the Conservative Movement’s college outreach program Koach, wrote an op-ed piece for JTA encouraging Conservatives to look in the mirror and shoulder the responsibility rather than blaming the institution. My favorite response was by one Conservative rabbi who questioned which “Kaddish” Rabbi Lamm proposed be said for Conservative Judaism: Full Kaddish, Rabbi’s Kaddish, or a Mourner’s Kaddish?

The most scholarly and perhaps the most convincing rebuttal of Rabbi Lamm’s comments came from the preeminent scholar of Modern American Judaism, Prof. Jonathan Sarna (left), who reminded Lamm of the predictions in the 1950s that the demise of Orthodox Judaism was an inevitable reality. In the Forward, Professor Sarna wrote:

Lamm’s triumphalistic prediction has, unsurprisingly, elicited strong and angry responses from Conservative and Reform leaders who consider their movements youthful and vibrant. For a historian, though, the prediction cannot help but call to mind earlier attempts to divine American Judaism’s future.

When Lamm was young, those who followed trends in Jewish life expected to say Kaddish for Orthodox Judaism. A careful study in 1952 found that “only twenty-three percent of the children of the Orthodox intend to remain Orthodox; a full half plan to turn Conservative.” The future of American Jewry back then seemed solidly in the hands of Conservative Jews.

Years earlier, in the late 19th century, Reform Judaism expected to say Kaddish for other kinds of Jews. The great architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, titled his prayer book “Minhag Amerika” — the liturgical custom of American Jews — and given the number of synagogues that moved into the Reform camp in his day, his vision did not seem farfetched. Many in the mid-1870s believed, as he did, that the future of American Judaism lay in the hands of the Reformers.

Before then, of course, those with crystal balls expected to say Kaddish for Judaism as a whole in America. One of the nation’s wisest leaders, its then attorney general, William Wirt, predicted in 1818 that within 150 years, Jews would be indistinguishable from the rest of mankind. Former president John Adams likewise looked to the future and thought that Jews would “possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians.”

All these predictions made sense in their day. All assumed that the future would extend forward in a straight line from the present. All offered their followers the comforting reassurance that triumph lay just beyond the horizon.

And all proved utterly and wildly wrong. Lamm’s prediction is unlikely to break this depressing streak of failures.

Well, I certainly find Lamm’s suggestion that it is time to say Kaddish for Conservative Judaism to be both inappropriate and narrow-minded. He was looking to be controversial. Before reacting to his comment, it is first necessary to make the distinction between Conservative Judaism (an ideology) and the Conservative Movement (an institutional denomination).

Conservative Judaism is a centrist ideology of Judaism. It promotes an understanding of Judaism that retains the authority of the Torah (tradition) while also remaining open to modern innovation (change). It leaves enough room for its adherents to choose various options with regard to the authorship of the Torah, from divine authorship with revelation at Mt. Sinai to human authorship over time, with several options in between.

Conservative Judaism is a viable ideology of Modern Judaism. It is the centrist position situated between the Reform ideology on the left and Orthodoxy on its right. It is the Conservative Movement that is in trouble. The movement found its heyday in the middle of the last century. It was growing by leaps and bounds with the largest Hebrew schools, high holiday services overflowing into social halls and school gymnasiums, and youth groups with expanding memberships. The movement took this success for granted. At the time, it was the movement that had the congregations that people found to be the perfect balance between the Orthodoxy they were raised in and the liberalism that they desired. With the rise of intermarriage, many flocked to the inviting and more tolerant Reform congregations. Others drank the Kool-Aid at Camp Ramah and moved to the right of the Conservative Movement by embracing a modern Orthodox lifestyle and joining an Orthodox shul.

Yes, there are still programs with the Conservative Movement seal for which movement members should take pride. The Ramah camping program is a clear success, but to be fair so are the Reform movement camps. Jewish summer camping in general is a success story. And I can speak of the local success of the new consolidated Hebrew High School program here in Metro Detroit. ATID (Alliance for Teens in Detroit), a weekly after-school informal Jewish high school program, is a collaborative effort by the Conservative synagogue’s in town. It is a program for which the Conservative Movement should be proud.

The real complaint about the Conservative Movement is not really with the movement. It certainly isn’t with Conservative Judaism as a way of practicing the Jewish faith either. It is with United Synagogue as an organization. And that’s actually a good thing because it is much easier for an organization to change (and I wish Rabbi Wernick the best of luck because it will be an uphill climb). The allegations are that Conservative synagogues have been paying hefty dues to the United Synagogue (headquartered in Manhattan) without seeing much value in return. When the economy was stronger, the congregations paid their dues knowing that if they didn’t they would have trouble getting a rabbi or cantor placed at their congregation and their youth would be barred from attending youth group conventions. Times have changed. Every dollar counts and congregations have begun to withhold these dues until they get more (and better) services in return. I think that’s a valid demand.

Going forward, the Conservative Movement must be less concerned with numbers. It doesn’t much matter how many families have left Conservative synagogues. Many of the families that have left likely shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Movement leaders also should be less concerned with how many synagogues are merging as there were likely too many shuls in the same geographic area before.

So, what should the leaders of the Conservative Movement be concerned about? For starters, they should promote the Conservative Judaism ideology and way of life. That would require a collaborative PR effort among all the arms of the movement including the seminaries, professional organizations, camps, youth groups, Schechter day schools, and the movement’s Israel and overseas branches. The movement (read: United Synagogue) must do a better job of educating its members about its raison d’etre.

United Synagogue also has to do a better job of operating with less. That means taking the Reform Movement’s lead and getting rid of the regional offices. (Note: this has already begun with plans to merge several USCJ regions). I would also recommend finding some less expensive office space, which might entail moving out of Manhattan.

Finally, I would recommend encouraging collaboration among member congregations. Use the ATID model if you’d like. It is what happens when a few Conservative congregations that spent decades competing with each other were able to come together collaboratively for the sake of their teenage populations and Jewish education. USCJ should urge and facilitate the merger of two struggling Conservative congregations in the same area. If handled correctly, it will benefit both parties. The movement should also merge its Israel trips for high school youth. It is redundant to send teens to Israel through both United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah.

Does the Conservative Movement need to look in the mirror more? Probably. It’s a good practice for all of us. But more than anything, movement leaders should stop caring what old, retired Orthodox university scholars are saying and begin moving forward into the future together with pride. Time is of the essence.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Intermarried Rabbinical Students

The student-run journal New Voices has published some thought-provoking and quite provocative articles in recent issues. Their current issue takes on a theme I don’t think has been discussed much. Is it acceptable for rabbinical students to intermarry? This is certainly not an issue in the Orthodox world and I don’t remember it ever really being discussed at JTS (Conservative). However, in the more liberal rabbinical schools (namely the Reform’s Hebrew Union College, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and the new non-denominational Hebrew College), I guess this has been an issue.

One of my classmates at JTS was dating a non-Jewish woman, but she converted to Judaism early on in our six-year course of study and it was a non-issue.

The New Voices article, “The Coming of the Intermarried Rabbi”, by Jeremy Gillick opens with the story of David Curiel (right), who decided to become a rabbi in the summer of 2008. Curiel was shocked when Hebrew College told him he would not be welcome at its seminary because his wife was not Jewish. In the “it’s a small world” category, Curiel is from Metro Detroit and is the brother of a Hebrew High School classmate of mine from Adat Shalom Synagogue.

The author explains that the “Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College (HUC) and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) all refuse to admit or ordain students in relationships with non-Jews”.

The policy at the Reform Movement’s seminaries reads: “Because we believe in the importance of Jewish family modeling, applicants who are married to or in committed relationships with non-Jews will not be considered for acceptance to this program”.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, dean of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philly said “The bedrock of what it means to be Jewish is to belong to the Jewish people. Leaders of the Jewish community, who model to others what Jewish life can be, should themselves be in homes that are fully Jewish”.

There are some intermarried rabbis out there. “In 1992, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the neo-Kabbalistic Jewish Renewal movement, ordained Tirzah Firestone, making her the first intermarried rabbi on record. In her memoir With Roots in Heaven: One Woman’s Passionate Journey into the Heart of Her Faith, Firestone recounts how her husband inspired her return to Judaism, but that their marriage ultimately fell apart because of his faith.”

According to Rabbi Marcia Prager, the dean of ordination programs at ALEPH (Renewal), Firestone’s experience informed the school’s approximately 10-year-old policy to evaluate students with non-Jewish partners on a case-by-case basis. When ALEPH does admit such students, it does so with the hope that the non-Jewish partner will one day “join the tribe”.

What do you think? Leave your comment about whether it is appropriate for rabbinical schools to refuse to admit intermarried candidates into their ordination program.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |
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Indie Minyans Revisited

I last took up the subject of independent minyanim (or “Indie Minyans”) on this blog in January 2008. What prompted me to blog about these minyanim (prayer services) for the 20- and 30-something crowd was the coverage in the mainstream press. The New York Times article (November 28, 2007) opened with the following line: “There are no pews at Tikkun Leil Shabbat, no rabbis, no one with children or gray hair.”

At the 2004 UJC General Assembly in Cleveland, I attended a session in which my colleague Elie Kaunfer (founder of Kehilat Hadar) was one of the panelists. He was challenged about what happens in the future when these young, progressive members of the indie minyans need a nursery school for their toddler or a rabbi for their son’s bar mitzvah. He theorized that many of these young adults would move out to the suburbs and join established synagogues as they got married and had children. His caveat was that they would shake up the establishment at these congregations. Time would tell.

Well, it’s now been about a decade since the founding of indie minyans like Hadar and those original members are now in their mid-thirties with spouses and children not too far off from the bar and bat mitzvah track. But many of them are doing what they did ten years ago. They’re founding new minyans and recognizing that DIYJ (do it yourself Judaism) can extend to their families too (Who says you need a rabbi to officiate at a bat mitzvah?).

This doesn’t bode well for the Conservative Movement where most of the indie minyan adherents were brought up and educated. Rabbi Jerry Epstein (right), the outgoing head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, was banking on the idea that these “best and brightest” young people could be lured back to Conservative synagogues. As any study of the American Jewish population will tell you there are far fewer Conservative synagogues than there were when these indie minyan alumni were teenagers in USY and their synagogues are much thinner now membership-wise (at least the ones that haven’t merged with other synagogues).

Rabbi Epstein writes that these young Conservative Jews “live precisely as we told them to [at Camp Ramah and in USY], but paradoxically they practice their Judaism outside our movement. They perceive that there is no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue. If we want to grow in numbers and strength, if we want to inspire passion and commitment, we have to welcome those Jews who live our values and ideology outside of our synagogues to do it inside our synagogues instead.”

This is no surprise to me. The Conservative Movement in general, and its affiliated synagogues in particular, got fat and lazy during the movement’s heyday (1950-1990). They took their market share for granted and didn’t progress or modernize. They also neglected to look behind them as the Reform, Modern Orthodox, Reconstructionist, and Chabad movements were gaining ground. Many of my contemporaries who were active in the movement’s youth program (USY) and at the movement’s various Ramah camps had a choice to make: become a Conservative rabbi or affiliate with Modern Orthodoxy. The Jewish Theological Seminary, the theory went, was the only place in the Conservative Movement where one could actually live out the ideals of Conservative Judaism. The young person who became more observant within the framework of the Conservative Jewish ideal was made to feel unwelcome in the Conservative synagogue. Is there any doubt why they packed up and moved to Orthodoxy or helped create a new non-denominational minyan community?

So what is the Conservative Movement’s strategy for drawing in former members who have left for the indie minyan movement? Bribery!

Rabbi Epstein has some $2,500 checks to give out to entice some of these minyans to forge relationships with the Conservative Movement. The amount is relatively insignificant when you consider that Kehilat Hadar’s annual operating budget is $160,000 and they have received six-figure grants recently from the Covenant Foundation and the Harold Grinspoon Foundation (where selling out isn’t a prerequisite to getting the funding). I can’t imagine a couple thousand dollars forcing any indie minyan to lose its independence and hook up with the establishment that was the impetus for its initial creation.

Ben Harris, in a JTA article (Figuring out why promising Conservative alumni set up ‘indy minyans’), explains what has happened in the aftermath of these grants from USCJ: “More than six months later, the organization has handed out six grants. At least two went to minyanim that already had relationships with a local Conservative synagogue. One minyan founder in New York said his group’s connection to the movement had changed little since it received the grant. “

The discussion about indie minyans and the Conservative Movement’s desire to reconnect its best and brightest young people to the established Conservative synagogues they fled has been taken up at the Jewschool blog under the title “Same story in two movements”. Several young Reform Jews have remarked that the pattern is similar in the Reform Movement as well.

David Wilensky writes on his Reform Shuckle blog that this is “the same challenge that I and many of my friends face with our own Reform movement. The Reform world has educated some of us so well and so effectively taught us how to be engaged in some sort of active personal reformation and now we’re so into it that all the ‘normal’ Reform Jews think we’re nuts.”

Justin, a commentor on the Jewschool site, wrote “I also think that what Epstein et al fail to understand, coming from a future Conservative ordained rabbi who was the gabbai of an indy minyan, is that it is PRECISELY being engaged with the movement that is the problem. If we can pursue egalitarian, halakhically inspired and influenced communities without paying dues, and manage to have successful prayer communities, why do we need the movement at all? In my opinion, and this is overtly crass, movement folk want to keep their movement jobs and they view us as a threat. Hence the USCJ donating grants to indy minyanim willing to have relations with Conservative shuls. I think they believe that when people need religious school and day-care they will join a shul. For now this may be true, but I am sure eventually indy minyanim will be able to figure out how to provide that for their own communities similar to what the havura movement was able to do in some instances in the 70s.”

I agree with Justin. I think that as these emerging communities and indie minyanim came on the scene, the thinking from the establishment was that these were transient communities for Jewish young people in the post-college (Hillel) and pre-family (religious school and bar mitzvah) part of life. Well, that does not appear to be the case.

It looks like the indie minyan that starts with a dozen grad students turns into a havurah and and then eventually the type of ideal synagogue community these “best and brightest” Conservative Movement dropouts have been dreaming about but the established Conservative Movement, with its status quo thinking, cannot provide for them.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | | Twitter: @RabbiJason |