I Am Not a Distraction to Conservative Judaism

Editor's Notebook

Nobody’s Distraction: Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, one of the Conservative movement’s top leaders, wears a prayer shawl.
Nobody’s Distraction: Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, one of the Conservative movement’s top leaders, wears a prayer shawl.

By Jane Eisner

Published November 18, 2013, issue of November 22, 2013.
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A line in Michah Gottlieb’s heartfelt cri de coeur about why he left Conservative Judaism for Orthodoxy jumped out at me. In a column published two weeks ago in the Forward, the New York University professor described his gradual disenchantment with the lackluster observance and intellectual dishonesty of the Conservative movement of his youth. Chief among his complaints was the obsession with egalitarianism and with the ordination of women.

“It seemed to me that focusing on egalitarianism was a distraction from the real problem: that Conservative Jews were not committed to Halacha and Jewish learning,” he wrote.

A distraction.

Perhaps it was a distraction for Gottlieb, a man. For me, my gender is not a distraction; it’s a fact. And being part of a movement that considers me an equal and that embraces the enormous contributions of women, is the central reason I’m a Conservative Jew.

Gottlieb represents a small but noticeable trend of Conservative Jews finding more authenticity and vibrancy in Orthodox communities. The recent Pew Research Center’s survey noted that 4% of American Jews raised in Conservative households and 1% of those raised Reform now consider themselves Orthodox. We don’t know the gender breakdown, but I wager that most who have made the shift are men.

“Where Have All the Good (Conservative) Men Gone?” asked Sara Miriam Liben, writing in the Times of Israel. Her answer: to the Orthodox minyan. Women, she noted, “cannot make this shift fluidly.”

There’s a mechitzah standing in the way.

I respect those who choose the tradition and solidarity of gender-segregated religious practice but personally, I don’t do well behind the mechitzah. I tend to either distance myself from the service altogether or sing really, really loud. My husband and I have visited many synagogues in the last five years and I can tell you this: In many traditional Orthodox services, there is often hardly anyone in the women’s section until 11:45 on a Shabbat morning. Women just don’t count.

But this isn’t about me and my needs. My concern is directed to Michah Gottlieb and the many other men who decide that it isn’t necessary to sit with their wives or daughters in synagogue, who don’t miss hearing their voices or benefiting from their teaching or reveling in their leadership or calling them “rabbi.” Egalitarianism must mean as much to men as it does to women for it to be a communal value. Why doesn’t it?


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