‘Trying to balance values’: Conservative movement’s new head rabbi on intermarriage, inclusion and Israel
Being a rabbi is a calling. So is being the leader of rabbis around the world. It’s also a responsibility. That’s how Rabbi Harold Kravitz, senior rabbi at Adath Jeshurun Congregation in suburban Minneapolis, sees his new role as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the global association of Conservative/Masorti rabbis.
He took over the group of 1,600 members in late March, as the Conservative movement confronts a decline in membership of its synagogues, deep divisions among its members over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and intermarriage, and ongoing struggles over the Israeli government’s treatment of non-Orthodox Jews and Judaism.
“Being a rabbi is hard work and it is not getting any easier,” said Kravitz, 65. “I really feel a strong obligation to support my colleagues in the field and the holy work that they are doing.”
A Philadelphia native, Kravitz has worked at Adath Jeshurun since his 1987 ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is also a past chairperson of Mazon, the main Jewish anti-hunger group, and for 18 years sat on the Rabbinical Assembly’s Va’ad Hakavod, the committee that deals with clergy misconduct, including sexual abuse and harassment. He is stepping down as senior rabbi next June 2023.
I’ve known Rabbi Kravitz since 2003, when I moved to the Twin Cities from Chicago and joined Adath Jeshurun; he has been a comforting support by my side through my divorce, my childrens’ b’nai mitzvot and the death of my first-born son, at 18, in 2019. I spent three years working for Adath as head of marketing and communications, so Rabbi Kravitz is quite used to me asking him questions and then writing about him.
When we spoke in April about the challenges he is taking on as president of the rabbinical group, he pointed out that fully 40% of the members are working outside congregational settings, saying: “We have had to work really hard to prove the value our organization has to that professional, diverse rabbinate.”
Here are some of the highlights from our hour-long conversation:
Addressing a decline in Conservative Jews
The Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews, released last year, found that 15% of Jews identify with the Conservatve movement, down from 18% in the last survey, in 2013. Once the movement with the largest number of followers, it now takes second place to Reform, which now represents 33% of American Jews. For every person who has joined Conservative Judaism, the study found, nearly three people raised in the Conservative movement have left it.
Asked about these numbers, Kravitz recalled a remark made to him by a colleague, Rabbi Carl Perkins of Temple Aliyah in Needham, Massachusetts: “Statistics don’t walk into my room; people do.”
“I’ve learned enough about demography to know that in history, statistics don’t predict the future,” Kravitz said. “They challenge us about how to respond to what is a snapshot in a moment in history. Our challenge is to figure out how to work with people and work with them to build community and build a vibrant Jewish community.”
The Pew study hints at some of the underlying causes of the movement shift. It found that 42% of American Jews today have a non-Jewish spouse, including 61% of those who married since 2010. The Rabbinical Assembly, unlike the Union for Reform Judaism, does not allow its members to perform interfaith marriages.
“It is clearly an issue that our movement is trying to find its way through,” Kravitz said.
Indeed, this has been a question of intense debate at recent R.A. conventions, and the Forward recently reported that some Conservative rabbis are flouting the movement’s ban to perform interfaith weddings. Kravitz’s shul in Minnetonka, a suburb of 53,000, allows blessings on the anniversaries of interfaith couples. “And for a long time we have welcomed couples into conversations as they prepare for marriage,” Kravitz noted. “We work with any couple, regardless of their status, same sex, different sex, same faith, interfaith.”
But just as couples have boundaries about what they will and won’t consider for their weddings and families, Kravitz said he hopes people “respect those boundaries that we as rabbis have.
“When you treat people with respect it changes the dynamic for the better,” he said. “And that’s how our movement will be perceived going forward.”
Responding to the diversity of views about Israel
Many Adath Jeshurun members live in the congressional district represented by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who has called Israel an apartheid state, a term also recently adopted by human rights groups, including Amnesty International.
The Rabbinical Assembly responded to Amnesty’s report by saying, in part, that “it is deceitful to level ‘apartheid’ accusations against Israel,” calling it “a vibrant democracy that grants equal rights and representation to all its citizens,” and contrasting it to “the tyrannical apartheid system in South Africa” that “enforced segregation and contributed to the dehumanization of citizens both in law and in practice.”
But with a 2021 survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute having found that a quarter of U.S. Jews see Israel as an apartheid state, Rabbi Kravitz understands that he and his colleagues are walking a delicate line when talking about Israel in their communities.
“In my career, I have had the opportunity to be in conversation with people who are critical of Israel — particularly outside of the Jewish community — and sometimes they are surprised to see that as Jews, we also have our criticisms,” Kravitz said. “We work hard to support those who advance our values of democracy as American Jews and being ethical and humane. I think, often in the debates and in the labels, those kinds of things get lost.”
Kravitz pointed to Heidi Schneider, a member of his own congregation, who has chaired the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel since 2019. She has joined the R.A. in urging Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to implement an agreement formally establishing an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
“It is really important to make sure that Israel’s government does not forget the commitment that we have long had as a movement to Israel and give us the recognition and support that we have earned,” Kravtiz added. “Our job now is to make sure the present government sees it as a barometer of their commitment to the Jewish people worldwide and not to those who demand exclusive control of how Israel is defined.
“When those who are trying to delegitimize us are successful, it is really damaging to that relationship,” he said. “Damaging to the people who have converted under our auspices and damaging to the sense of responsibility for our people on the ground in Israel.”
Confronting antisemitism and racial bias
Sitting a 20-minute drive from the Minneapolis corner where the police murdered George Floyd two years ago, Kravitz’s shul has members who were perhaps more shaken than others. The congregation formed an anti-racism committee, of which I am part, in the weeks after the murder, pledging to do better inside and outside its walls when it comes to addressing discrimination.
A focus has been on how to make Jews of color — 8% of the U.S. Jewish population, according to Pew Research, though other studies have put the figure at 15% — feel welcome and safe; too often, in Jewish institutions across America, Black and brown Jews are stopped at the door by security or have their presence questioned by white Jews.
But efforts to make shuls more inclusive and welcoming have at times run up against rising concerns about synagogue security after incidents like the 2018 massacre of 11 Jews during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh or January’s hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
“Every Jewish institution is aware of the security issues that exist and they are real,” Rabbi Kravitz said. “At the same time, we have to figure out how not to let our fear get the better of us. We could spend our entire budget on security and still not provide perfect security unless we close the place down and no longer operate — and that’s not a solution either.
“The issue of security is one of those issues of trying to balance values,” he said. “It’s a Jewish value, saving lives. Welcoming people is also a value. So this is one of those places where we’re going to have to balance our values so that we can try to do our best to accomplish our mission.”