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Rabbis To Ponder Movement’s Future

With hundreds of Conservative rabbis set to descend on Houston next week, movement leaders are pledging to take a hard look at the future of their religious movement.

At a time when some say the Conservative movement is at a crossroads, and perhaps suffering an identity crisis as its membership dwindles, some 300 rabbis are scheduled to “ponder the future” at the 105th Rabbinical Assembly convention.

The conference, titled “Reinventing Conservative Judaism: Defining Our Mission for the 21st Century,” comes as movement leaders grapple with recent survey findings showing that the Conservative movement has been eclipsed by the Reform movement as the largest synagogue stream in America.

For most of the past century, Conservative leaders have sought to define their movement as the only synagogue denomination committed both to the idea that ancient rabbinic law, or Halacha, must be upheld and to the belief that in some circumstances, tradition can be changed to accommodate modernity.

Not only is Conservative Judaism losing members, but the membership is graying at a worrying rate, movement officials admit.

The movement also is facing a revolt by its female clergy who have gone public with their dissatisfaction over working conditions for women rabbis. It has yet to resolve its positions on gay ordination and marriage.

In addition to these struggles, the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, has announced that it is $36 million in debt.

All these troubles come at a time when the movement appears leaderless, with its congregational, rabbinic and educational arms seemingly working at cross purposes, according to several observers.

A Rabbinical Assembly press release, issued this week, suggested that movement leaders would tackle the issues facing them.

“Introspection is the buzzword at this year’s annual gathering of the Conservative Rabbinate, which is dedicated to taking a hard look at the future of its movement,” the March 1 release stated.

The release also reported a lively internal debate about the nature of the Conservative movement in recent chat room discussions.

Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, told the Forward that the movement faces daunting challenges, and it is up to the rabbinical leadership to try and tackle them — beginning with this convention.

Meyers said the goal of the conference is to begin the process of creating an ideological document, perhaps similar to the statement of principles approved in 1999 by the Reform movement’s rabbinical arm.

“How do we go about defining our mission for the next generation?” Meyers said. “That’s the focus of the conference.”

Meyers noted the changes affecting American Judaism. “The entire Jewish religious landscape has changed in the last quarter of a century,” he said, citing Orthodoxy’s move to the right and Reform’s increasing embrace of traditional rituals and liturgy.

The Conservative movement is “clearly spilt between those increasing in observance and participation and those not as involved Jewishly,” Meyers said. “This is more pronounced than ever.”

The Conservative movement is in a unique position, he said, because “we are castigated from the right and castigated from the left. We have our own unique halachic stance, in which we try to adhere to and expand the boundaries. For most people, that’s difficult to understand.”

One key issue for rabbis who lead the movement, Meyers said, is “how to better define the mission of the movement and work with the diversity of the Conservative community today.”

There “is a tendency to define Conservative Judaism by what it does not do,” Meyers said. “We want to turn this around and say this is an opportunity to look at movement, what it is that we stand for, what it is that people identify with.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula, a Conservative rabbi and president of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, told the Forward he believes the movement is at a “great moment” when it can reinvent itself for the 21st century.

Kula contends that Conservative Judaism has won the debate with Orthodoxy and Reform — tradition and change go together “and now we’re just arguing about the pacing.”

“After you’ve won the battle and been successful, you either go out of business or re-imagine yourself,” Kula said. “That’s where we are at.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, who heads the Conservative seminary in Los Angeles, said that while the movement faces daunting challenges, he is confident it can mobilize to address them, noting the rise in students at Conservative days schools, camps and rabbinic schools.

“I think people who mistake the challenges we face with our impending demise are not reading history correctly and looking at the remarkable vitality that our congregations and institutions continue to demonstrate,” said Artson, dean and vice president of the University of Judaism’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies.

“A message of covenant and service is in fact what this age desperately needs to hear even if makes us less popular,” Artson said. “I think my colleagues need to stay the course.”

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