Conservative Bigs Tackle New Realities

By Marissa Brostoff

Published November 28, 2007, issue of November 30, 2007.
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This weekend’s gathering of Conservative movement leaders will be the first to take place since the movement accepted gay rabbis and same-sex unions, and the last before the departure of two of the movement’s top leaders.

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.

More change is imminent as leaders of the movement’s two wings — United Synagogue and the Rabbinical Assembly — prepare to retire in 2009.

In the midst of all this, Conservative rabbis and lay leaders will gather this weekend in Orlando, Fla., for their biannual conference.

Neither the recent changes nor those to come are being given top billing on the conference agenda. Instead, the convention will focus on broader issues of forging a coherent identity and retaining members — along with the movement’s new Heckscher Tzedek, or Justice Certification, which aims to add an ethical component to kosher food.

In that vein, Jerome Epstein, whose 23-year tenure as executive vice president of United Synagogue will soon come to an end, will “seek to reposition his movement” in his remarks at the convention, according to a press release. He will urge the Conservative movement to “stay true to its traditional core” rather than focusing on outreach to its fringe constituencies.

In an interview with the Forward, Epstein said that his argument is unrelated to the dispute over gays and lesbians.

“What I’m talking about is conserving Judaism, which is what the Conservative movement was designed to do,” Epstein said. “The way you hold on to members is to give them authentic Judaism, not to water it down. It’s not about the individual decisions on [Jewish law] or policy; it’s about infusing those [decisions] with meaning so people can understand them.”

Epstein said that he will not address his pending retirement in his talk, pointing out that he will remain at United Synagogue’s helm for another 18 months. “I’m not running away from the organization, and I’ll still be around to be of help, should the next [executive vice president] want that,” he said.

Also departing in 2009 is the executive director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Myers.

Some see the changes at the seminary, combined with the coming leadership vacuum, as an opportunity to reshape the way decisions are made within the Conservative movement. Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a vocal proponent of gay and women’s rights, questioned whether the United Synagogue is prepared to do the legwork of finding out exactly who constitutes the movement’s “core.”

“Responsive leadership is what we need, and with the search for new leadership, we have a chance of getting it,” he said.






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