The head of Conservative Judaism’s flagship institution is arguing that the movement made a “mistake” when it issued a landmark ruling a half-century ago permitting Jews to drive to synagogue on the Sabbath.
Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, made his declaration last week in Dallas during a speech at the biennial convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. By sanctioning travel on the Sabbath, he said, the Conservative movement “gave up on the desirability of living close to the synagogue and creating a Shabbos community.”
Schorsch’s argument was rejected by several other movement leaders who argued that it failed to take into account the inevitability of Jewish flight to the suburbs and was insensitive to those living outside of Jewish enclaves in the Northeast, such as the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where Schorsch‘s institution is located. Critics include Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles; Judy Yudof, the movement’s top lay leader, and Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore Hebrew University and co-author of a history of Conservative Judaism in America.
The squabble is sure to strike some observers as an esoteric debate, especially since Schorsch is not urging rabbis to tell their congregants to stay home rather than drive to synagogue. But in many ways the dispute reflects the difficulties facing Conservative leaders as they struggle to find a formula for strengthening the religious observance of the movement’s followers, while still reaching out to the less affiliated.
“To tell Conservative Jews ‘You’ll drive and we’ll not talk about it’ is to say Halacha [rabbinic law] cannot grow to include new social realities. If that’s true, there’s no need for Conservative Judaism,” Artson told the Forward. “There is a need for a movement that integrates change into the structure of tradition and that’s Conservative Judaism.”
Yudof, the lay president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, voiced a similar criticism: “To condemn people who cannot walk to shul, and I’m one of them, I don’t think it’s fair. I don’t live in a city that has 10 congregations to choose from.”
Yudof, who recently moved to Austin after her husband became chancellor of the University of Texas system, added: “I support the notion of Shabbat communities. But one cannot replicate in every place the wonderful models we see in the Greater New York area.”
But the professional head of Yudof’s organization, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, appeared to side with Schorsch. Epstein noted that after the original decision was adopted in 1950 by the movement’s top lawmaking body, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, worshippers wrongly assumed that it gave them license to drive everywhere, rather than just to synagogue and back. “I don’t know that it was a mistake, but I don’t know that I would’ve passed it,” said Epstein, who lives in the heavily Jewish New York suburb of New Rochelle. “It certainly hampered the Conservative movement in creating the neighborhood synagogue.”
Geffen, however, said that such arguments ignore the root causes of Jewish demographic trends. The Baltimore Hebrew University president pointed to Schorsch’s own acknowledgement that even without the 1950 ruling, many congregants would still have driven to synagogue. The only difference, she said, is they would’ve felt guilty about it. “One cannot assume that guilt would’ve created community,” Geffen said. “He’s taking too much responsibility.”
While she expressed support for the notion of discussing what else could have been done to create more geographically concentrated communities, Geffen said that “it would be unfortunate to attribute causality to one variable.”
“People were going to ride and people were going to spread out and neighborhoods were going to disappear,” Geffen said. “So the question is: How do we create community under these circumstances? It doesn’t help to shray gevalt,” using the Yiddish phrase for “screaming alarm.”
One retired congregational rabbi, Gerald Wolpe, the former religious leader of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, Pa., recalled that after most of his congregants moved to the suburbs, his synagogue followed suit in 1976. Membership immediately jumped from 950 families to about 1,500. The decision to permit driving to synagogue, he added, meant that 400 to 500 people showed up to services each week as opposed to “almost no one.”
“We created a community by going to where the community was,” Wolpe said. “It’s taking Dr. Schorsch’s description and reversing it.”
While Wolpe defended the 1950 decision, he also said that there was room to reopen the debate, given the trend among some Jews to opt for city life. “It should be discussed in terms of today’s realities,” he said.
In general, despite their disagreement over the driving decision, Schorsch’s critics were quick to defend his calls for a greater dedication to Jewish learning and religious observance among congregants. Despite their disagreement on some “details,” Artson said, the two seminary leaders are putting out the same overall message: “That the movement needs to be loyal to Torah and Halacha, and that has to be the home base.”
At the United Synagogue convention last week, Conservative leaders agreed that the best way to counter the movement’s drop in membership was to serve the needs of its more observant congregants. Central to that mission, movement leaders said, is to encourage all members to strengthen their adherence to Jewish law.
At the convention, Epstein announced the formation of a new commission of rabbis, educators and lay leaders to come up with the right ways to inspire Conservative Jews to become more committed to “the evolving Halacha” that is at the movement’s core.
“Our mission — indeed, our responsibility — is to motivate Conservative Jews to begin to live their lives based on Halacha. Without serious commitment to that challenge, the promise that our ancestors saw in Conservative Judaism will never be realized,” he said.
Other speakers celebrated successes in youth education programs and voiced interest in expanding initial efforts by the United Synagogue to lure back lapsed members and those who have joined other Jewish movements.
According to the recently released National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01, Conservative Judaism has lost its primacy as the nation’s largest synagogue movement. The survey found that only 33% of households belonging to a synagogue affiliated with a Conservative temple — a 10-percentage-point drop from the 43% reported in the 1990 survey. The comparability of the two studies, however, is hotly debated.
Convention delegates heard a range of prescriptions for overcoming the numeric decline, from increasing the number of Conservative synagogues, to seeking converts, to placing greater emphasis on religious observance and marketing its benefits.
The movement should “consider the seeding of new congregations,” Schorsch said. “Our competitors are out there hustling. The Lubavitch and Reform are all over the place. We are not founding new conservative synagogues — particularly in new areas of settlement. We are waiting for people to come to us.”
— With reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.