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The Conservative Moment

Is this the Conservative movement’s moment? Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, certainly thinks so, and his optimistic evaluation takes full account of the challenges facing what was once America’s largest Jewish religious denomination as it now struggles to define itself. His analysis echoes, though with far more detail and prescription, the statements made recently by other Conservative leaders — a hopeful sign, perhaps, that the center of American Jewry may actually be able to chart a future.

In an interview just published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and elaborated on in a follow-up conversation with the Forward, Eisen offered an unusually blunt critique. Too many Conservative Jews — rabbis, even — can’t describe the movement’s message. Too many synagogues, camps, day and congregational schools, men’s clubs and sisterhoods don’t offer a quality product. Too many Conservative Jews can’t read Hebrew, don’t keep the Sabbath and other central Jewish observances, and don’t find synagogue prayer meaningful or attractive.

Unless “we can raise levels of observance… the movement cannot stay strong,” he said in the published interview. “We will lose both many young people and the most committed adults unless we can give them something comparable to Orthodoxy when it comes to these key issues.”

Plus, there aren’t the financial resources to meet all the movement’s needs. Eisen believes that his is “the most underfunded of the major movements” because Reform Jews give to Reform causes, the Orthodox to their causes, and Conservatives give, well, to everyone.

No wonder the ranks of Conservative Jews are aging and shrinking.

And then there is the question of passion: “I tell rabbinical students at JTS that if they cannot exhibit the same love for the Jewish people and Judaism as Chabad rabbis, then they have chosen the wrong profession,” Eisen stated in the interview. Interestingly, when Rabbi Steven Wernick became executive vice president and CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism last summer, he made much the same point in comparing his movement’s outreach efforts to those of Orthodox Judaism. “They’re missionaries! We want to get paid. We don’t believe,” Wernick just about exclaimed in an interview with the Forward.

Wernick got into trouble for voicing such a blunt observation, but the truth is, he and Eisen are correct.

The challenge for both men is to harness this penchant for truth telling into productive action. Eisen says that the Conservative movement should adopt the unified leadership structure of the Reform movement, instead of the multi-headed beast that now, inadequately, sits atop a variety of the movement’s institutions. Wernick has hinted at much the same thing, when he spoke in his opening address last December of positioning the USCJ as “the muscle that connects all of our ‘bodies’ together.”

But which institution will prevail? Will it be USCJ, representing congregations and their lay constituencies? The seminary, the embodiment of the movement’s intellectual and rabbinic legacy? The Rabbinical Assembly, essentially a union for rabbis? The international Masorti movement? Some amalgam of them all?

The USCJ is in the midst of a long-range strategic planning process, to examine its own structure and mission, and if that process is honest and bold, it should provide the starting point for a broader re-imagination. This is important to all American Jews. Over the last century, the Conservative movement has spawned tremendous leadership in the Jewish communal world, and an opportunity for Jewish individuals, families and communities to confront and embrace modernity while adhering to tradition. In its iteration as Masorti, it is slowly gaining a foothold in Israel and Europe.

But these days, we are all Jews by choice. “One thus has to give Jews a good reason to be Conservative,” Eisen wrote. This is the moment to do so.


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