Coalition Seeks Overhaul of Conservative Movement

By Anthony Weiss

Published March 10, 2009.
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Some of the most prominent figures in Conservative Judaism are demanding a meeting with the leadership of the movement’s congregational arm to discuss a major overhaul of the way the troubled movement functions.

In a letter addressed to Ray Goldstein, international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a coalition of more than 50 rabbis, cantors and lay leaders argued that time was running short for the Conservative movement and that urgent action should be taken.

“We are writing to you to continue what we believe is an urgent conversation on which hangs nothing less than the future of the Conservative Movement and the fulfillment of its enormous potential in which you and we deeply believe,” wrote Rabbi Michael Siegel, a prominent Chicago rabbi, in the letter, dated March 2. Siegel is chairing the coalition, which is calling itself HaYom (Hebrew for “today”).

The letter demanded a meeting within one month with Goldstein and other leaders to discuss restructuring the United Synagogue, adding, “Time is not on our side as a Movement.”

The letter comes at a time when Conservative Judaism is seen as facing a potentially grave period of decline. Membership is shrinking and aging, and many younger Conservative Jews have split off to start their own prayer and study groups. The United Synagogue is in the process of searching for a new executive vice president to replace the outgoing Rabbi Jerome Epstein, and many see the outcome of this process as critical to the movement’s future.

In an interview, Siegel emphasized that the members of HaYom wanted to work cooperatively with the United Synagogue leadership. But the relationship is already off to a rocky start. Electronic copies of the letter, which Siegel said was intended to be for just Goldstein and other United Synagogue leaders, were leaked to the media, along with an accompanying press release. Representatives of the group said that the letter was intended to remain private and that the press release was merely a contingency.

“I think the letter is an excellent letter, and I think we all know that the movement has challenges, and I look forward to meeting and working with the group of people who have offered to assist in working with the United Synagogue for the transformation of the movement,” Goldstein told the Forward. “However, I’m disturbed by the fact that nobody contacted me in advance of letter and nobody spoke to me about the content of the letter.”

Goldstein noted, too, that the electronic document’s properties file identified its “author” — computerese for “the source computer” —– as Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, incoming executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which is the Conservative rabbis’ professional association. “That sort of disturbs me,” he said, without elaborating.

Interagency rivalries have been known to surface within the movement in the past.

Schonfeld is not a signatory to the letter. She and Siegel both said that she had not been involved in the group and that she had been sent the draft simply as a courtesy. She offered a few comments and then sent it back.

In addition to Siegel, co-chair of Hekhsher Tzedek, signatories of the letter include Rabbi David Wolpe, a popular rabbi in Los Angeles; Rabbi Gordon Tucker, former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary rabbinical school, and Cantor Alberto Mizrahi of Chicago, a recording artist and treasurer of the Cantors Assembly. The letter had 57 signatories in all.

One issue in particular that the letter raises is concern that the search for the new professional head of the United Synagogue has not been transparent enough to members of the movement outside the organization’s leadership.

Goldstein said he had no apologies for the way the search process was conducted and that the United Synagogue was now negotiating with a specific candidate and hoped to announce its choice within “a couple of weeks.” He said he would consult other lay leaders of the United Synagogue on how to proceed regarding the letter.






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