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These Synagogues Aren’t Orthodox. So Why Are Women Not Allowed To Read Torah?

For 30 years, the services at the East Brunswick Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in New Jersey, have suited PJ Smith just fine. They were strictly traditional: Only men counted toward the quorum of ten required to say the most important prayers, and only men could lead services or read from the Torah.

But for about ten years now, a group of about 30 members has been agitating for services in which men and women are equal, the norm at the overwhelming majority of Conservative synagogues. Three months ago, they won a huge victory. The rabbi decided that the egalitarian faction would get equal use of the main sanctuary — and hold High Holiday services there, too.

Smith, 66, is worried. For years now, EBJC has been negotiating the tension between those members who think men and women should be as equal inside the synagogue as they are outside it, and those who don’t think Judaism should reflect the norms of secular society. For many members, those tensions now feel more pronounced than ever before.

Mid-way through morning services one recent January Shabbat, Smith and other members of the traditional crowd gathered for a nip and a snack. They asked about one another’s children and griped about their changing synagogue — and changed movement.

“We’re not a congregation anymore, we’re divided,” said Norma Teicher, a long-time EBJC member. She sat, red hair in feathered bangs, at the head of a small table covered with packaged biscotti and bottles of whiskey.

“We didn’t move. The movement left us,” Smith said in his pattering Jersey accent. “This is the Alamo.”

Nearly a fifth of American Jews are members of the Conservative movement, which tries to blend modern life with adherence to halacha, or Jewish law. The movement emerged in the early 1900s as an attempt to find a middle ground between Reform Judaism, which doesn’t recognize Jewish law as binding, and the more traditional forms that became known as Orthodoxy. Conservative Judaism’s jurists allow halacha to evolve in response to changing social conditions, which resulted in decisions allowing women to pray as equals to men during services and then, in 1985, to serve as rabbis.

Today, about 2% of the movement’s 600 synagogues still hold non-egalitarian services, according to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. But the faithful of those roughly 10 congregations cherish their unique traditions.

At Moriah Congregation in Chicago, for example, women can’t lead services and don’t count towards the quorum of ten — the minyan. At Beth Yeshurun in Houston, egalitarian services are the norm, but they maintain a weekly traditional minyan as well. Temple Beth-El on Long Island only has traditional services on the Sabbath, but allow a twice-monthly Thursday egalitarian minyan.

At the Paramus JCC synagogue, also in New Jersey, the egalitarian and traditional services have used the main sanctuary on alternating weekends — EBJC’s new strategy — for nearly 20 years. The two groups come together for lunch afterwards.

“It’s amazing what a couple pounds of whitefish can do to repair hurt feelings,” said Paramus’ Rabbi Arthur Weiner .

EBJC began as a small temple with seats for about 150 people in 1957. In its largest period of growth, it added a large main sanctuary with floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows and a Torah ark with gold metallic doors, a social hall and a day school. Its membership peaked at about 900 members in the early 1990s. Now, it has 400 members, according to its current rabbi, Jeffrey Pivo, and its day school facilities are home to a Jewish Montessori school. During the post-services Sabbath luncheon, a portable wall halves the size of the social hall.

Even though the synagogue still has its traditional service, Amy Rothman Schoenfeld thinks it’s “come a really long way.” She’s been a member for thirty years, served as co-president and helped lead the push for egalitarian services.

“We were out of step with Conservative Judaism and society in general,” she said in a phone interview.

On that January Shabbat, there was much kvetching among the old guard about the newly empowered egalitarian camp. Some complained that the egalitarians don’t have regular weekday prayer services, while admitting that they sometimes have trouble making a minyan of ten people for their own. Others copped to driving to synagogue, technically allowed but not something an Orthodox Jew would do, and yet derided the egalitarians for going against “the rulebook” — the Torah.

Smith recognizes that the egalitarians are here to stay. He notes in particular that they always can assemble the necessary minyan at shivah calls.

“I give them that respect,” he said.

He and his friends do worry that the egalitarians are planning to “flip” the synagogue: force all services to be fully egalitarian.

“People come there out of habit, and they’re just gonna keep coming,” he said. “And that’s what they’re banking on.”

But members of the egalitarian cohort insist that’s not the plan. They say that they still value the long-time pillars of the community for their institutional memory — and membership dues.

“You have people in this building, more than any other synagogue that I’ve ever seen, [who] are so passionate about what the tradition and history has been, that change is not easy,” said Eric Pelofsky, a current co-president of the synagogue who was raised in the community. “And when you’re dealing with a certain age demographic, change is impossible.”

Some experts on Conservative law say that’s not acceptable anymore.

“There are certain issues on which it is wrong to have more than one opinion,” said Rabbi Judith Hauptman, a professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, who also sits on the movement’s committee for interpreting Jewish law. She compared support for traditional services to saying that it would be okay for some cities to not allow women to vote.

“If they’re doing this to placate longstanding members who are having a hard time adjusting to new realities, then fine, I understand that,” Hauptman said. “But if these synagogues think this is the right thing to do, because we should be offering options, I think that’s not Conservative Judaism.”

But Weiner, of the Paramus JCC, says it is important not to drive away the people who built the synagogue, even if they hold beliefs that imply that women should not be allowed to partake in ritual observance at the same level as men.

“Why should we ask them to meet those needs in an Orthodox synagogue when we can do that while meeting the needs of our egalitarian congregants?” he said.

This past Shabbat, in order to try and smooth out the transition, the EBJC tried something new: holding egalitarian and traditional services up until near the end of the Torah reading, and then coming together to hear the rabbi’s sermon and finish the morning’s prayers. As every week, they enjoyed a kiddush luncheon of bagels, salads and kugel afterwards — together.

“They brought us in assuming it was a fad and that it would fail,” said Schonfeld. “And it hasn’t failed.”

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman

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