In rare rebuke, Conservative rabbis say the movement lacks leadership

(From the JTA)

By Joe Berkofsky size>

NEW YORK, Dec. 15 (JTA) — In unprecedented public criticism, Conservative rabbis are saying the movement is suffering from a crisis in leadership at a time of declining membership.

Charges that Conservative leaders have failed to map a clear path for the movement’s future and that the movement’s seminaries and professional bodies do not coordinate policy surfaced last week during a Rabbinical Assembly meeting called to discuss the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

“As I speak to colleagues of mine, I don’t have a sense that any of us really feel that there’s a great global vision of where we are going as a movement,” Rabbi Joshua Finkelstein, of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Patterson and Oakland, N.J., told JTA after the meeting.

Rabbi Jeffrey Wohlberg, of Washington’s Adas Israel Congregation, agreed.

“We are in a period now where there is not one single vision for the movement, nor is there one person regarded as the only one articulating the movement’s message,” Wohlberg said.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, did not return calls seeking comment.

But Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said such complaints have long dogged the centrist movement.

“Because of its diversity, the Conservative movement does not have a pointed ideology that one can, in two words, define the movement,” Meyers said. “Not having a clear definition, the response is we don’t have clear leadership.”

But Wohlberg and Finkelstein’s complaints, which echoed others expressed at the meeting, came not long after the latest Jewish population survey showed that the once-dominant centrist American Jewish denomination is losing many adherents.

While such criticism rarely has gone public, movement insiders say there have been rumblings for years about a lack of cohesion between the movement’s congregational and rabbinical bodies and its main seminaries.

Then came the NJPS, which showed that only 33 percent of Jews who say they belong to a synagogue identify as Conservative. That’s down from 38 percent a decade ago and from nearly 50 percent in the previous survey, in 1970.

Some scholars warn that the studies counted Jews differently and so direct comparisons may be misleading. But rabbis at Tuesday’s meeting, which took place at JTS in New York, said the exact figures are less important than the larger questions the survey raised about Conservative Judaism.

“Instead of looking back at the last century, we should look forward to the new century,” Finkelstein said. “NJPS just underscored the challenges that lie ahead of us.”

Such calls were a reference to a recent remark last month by Schorsch in which he said it had been a “mistake” for the movement to sanction driving on Shabbat some four decades ago because the move had eroded the observance of Jewish law, or halachah, as some had warned at the time.

“Do we still discuss whether to ride to shul on Shabbat?” one participant wondered.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, acknowledged the growing malaise over leadership.

“What would be helpful in the movement is if we looked more strongly to the top and worked more in concert at the top to hash out policy decisions and to try to articulate them,” Epstein said.

But Epstein and other Conservative leaders maintained that the movement’s historical divisions over the extent of Jewish law one must follow signal a healthy, diverse movement.

“There is a difference between centrism and timidity,” said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

“Our movement needs to continue to be bold in its advocacy for a dynamic halachah, and for a strong relationship with God and for an engagement with the world.”

At the movement’s most recent biennial in Dallas in October, Epstein repeated earlier calls for members to recommit to halachah. Epstein announced that he would form a commission of rabbis, educators, and lay people to spark new passion for “living the evolving halachah.”

Referring to criticism about a vacuum at the movement’s top, Epstein said, “We are trying to provide that leadership.”

But the debate over whether the movement should focus on halachah or move in other directions continues to divide members.

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, author of the Jewish Catalog series, Jewish primers that helped catalyze the independent-minded chavurah movement, said he holds a “counter-counterrevolutionary” theory that the Conservative leadership does signal a direction — “an emphasis that we need to take stands, or we’re not going to be taken seriously.”

But Strassfeld said halachah does not remain “the starting point” for most Conservative Jews. Instead, most are seeking “something of meaning and value” that could drive them to greater observance.

Whether or not the debate over halachah is driving Conservatives away, Epstein and Artson, among others, also have said that the movement’s size relative to the Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist movements — all of which grew during the past decade — remains less important than the devotion of its core members.

“Conservative Judaism is still a very large presence and a very dynamic presence,” Artson said. “I am not going to get into this sort of little boy war about whose is bigger.”

Yet Meyers said he is concerned about the movement’s numbers. Some people at the “margins” may be moving toward Orthodoxy, and assimilation and intermarriage may be pulling others toward the Reform movement or the secular world, Meyers said.

Part of the problem in counting Conservative Jews is that many resist being identified as such. They may belong to a Conservative chavurah or minyan but not consider themselves officially Conservative.

“There’s an old joke in the movement, that when someone says they’re ‘just Jewish,’ you say, ‘I’m Conservative too,’ ” Meyers said.

Some at last week’s meeting said the differences among denominations as revealed in the population survey auger well for Conservatives because they show greater attachment to Judaism among Conservative Jews.

Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University, said NJPS also showed that religion often plays a greater role in the lives of Conservative Jews than for Jews in the more liberal denominations.

For example, 81 percent of Orthodox Jews said religion was “very important” in their lives and 41 percent of Conservative Jews said so, compared with 24 percent of Reform Jews and 14 percent of secular Jews, she said.

Additionally, 72 percent of Orthodox said they “strongly agree” that they look to Judaism in making important life decisions, compared to 32 percent of Conservative respondents, 16 percent of Reform and 10 percent of secular Jews.

Mintz Geffen also cited the intermarriage rate compared with other denominations as a sign of the movement’s strength.

While 47 percent of all Jews who married between 1996 and 2002 wed non-Jews, only 18 percent of those who identified as Conservative Jews did, and only 5 percent of Conservative synagogue-goers did — a gap she attributed to a lack of younger, marriage-age synagogue members.

“Even if all it is is that you call yourself Conservative, it makes a difference,” Mintz Geffen said.

Others argued that despite the alleged leadership gap, elements of the Conservative movement are thriving — from the busy Camp Ramah system to booming Solomon Schechter Day Schools to growing seminary rolls.

But rabbis this week voiced a growing frustration that they do not know what, at least officially, comes next for the movement.

“There doesn’t seem to be any direction for the movement, and we’re yearning for one,” said Rabbi Tsafi Lev, of the Pinebrook Jewish Center, in Montville, N.J.

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