Conservative Judaism Searches for Identity

By Alison Cies

Published June 15, 2009.
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Conservative Judaism, struggling with decades of declining membership and an abrupt, sweeping change in its senior leadership, heard a call in early June from three prominent rabbis for a rethinking of its mission.

The three rabbis, New York-based and all under 45, launched their broadsides from the stage of a packed auditorium at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, in an evening program titled “Conservative Judaism: The Next Generation.” They called for new directions in the religious approach and practice of their denomination, the centrist movement that once dominated the American Jewish landscape.

The seminary’s newly minted chancellor, Arnold Eisen, introduced the presentation as “the culmination” of a smaller forum of several dozen Conservative leaders brought together by the seminary to reexamine the movement’s future. It was intended, Eisen said, as a response to the “enormous concern among Jews at the decline” of the once-dominant centrist Jewish denomination.

“We found a new universal desire to get the movement back to its strength and vitality, looking at structure, quality and message,” Eisen told his audience.

The panelists were sharply divided, however, on what new directions to take. One participant, Rabbi Johanna Samuels, a writer and former rabbi of Congregation Habonim on Manhattan’s liberal Upper West Side, called for a greater emphasis on social justice and activism. “We need to do something bigger than ourselves,” she told the audience. “My goal is for us to get people out in the world to help heal the world. That’s the best kind of Conservative practice.” “We need to get out of this institutional malaise and self-focused mentality and get out into the world and do work,” Samuels said. “Build houses, work for justice. We’ll come back to our institutions invigorated.”

By contrast, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed, also on the Upper West Side, urged greater emphasis on prayer and observance of ritual. “Conservative Judaism offers a deep, religious path,” he declared emphatically. “The goal is for all synagogues to experience its depth.”

“We need to fix the soul and fix the body,” Kalmanofsky said. “These deeds will sanctify us and make the world a better world.”

The third panelist, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue on the affluent Upper East Side, argued that the separate denominations of American Judaism are losing their relevance among younger Jews. “Denominations are changing,” Cosgrove said. “Lines aren’t black and white. These lines are very slippery.”

In the early years of Conservative Judaism a century ago, Cosgrove said, “Americans were seeking to make sense of their lives as immigrants.” Now, he said, “This story is over. We’ve arrived. We’re here.” The question Jews ask today, he said, is not “how to arrive in a secular culture, but how to cross back over to tradition.”

Conservative Judaism arose early in the 20th century as a centrist bloc, between the staunch traditionalism of Orthodox Judaism, which preached full observance of rabbinic law, and the more permissive Reform movement, which viewed the laws as guidelines for the individual. Conservative Judaism preached observance of the law but claimed rules had evolved through history and could continue to evolve. During the boom years of postwar suburban Jewish life it was the dominant wing of American Judaism. Surveys showed it claiming the loyalty of more than 40 percent of the community, with the rest divided between Reform, Orthodox and non-identified. During the last several decades the Conservative movement has been in decline, and it now shows up in surveys second in numbers to Reform Judaism.

Eisen, 58, seminary chancellor since July 2008, is one of three new chief executives who have taken the reins of the Conservative movement’s three main institutions in the past year. In October 2008 the Rabbinical Assembly, the union of Conservative rabbis, selected Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld, 43, as its new executive vice-president. This past spring the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, serving the movement’s 780 congregations, chose Rabbi Steven Wernick, 41, as its executive vice-president. All three replaced incumbents who had been in their posts since the 1980s.

Interviewed by the Forward after the session, Rabbi Cosgrove said that the message of Conservative Judaism remains “strong, true, and relevant.” However, he said “the movement needs to do a better job at communicating this message to American Jewry as a whole.” The June 3 symposium, participants said, was not aimed at reaching that larger audience but at advancing the internal discussion within Conservative Judaism about how best to approach the community at large. Rabbi Kalmanofsky expressed his doubts that anyone outside of Conservative Judaism had even been in attendance.

Individual rabbis, Samuels told the Forward, have begun the work in their pulpits. “In our own ways we’re reaching a broader audience,” she said. What remains is for the movement as a whole to develop a coordinated approach.

J.J. Goldberg contributed reporting.

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