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September 14, 2007

American Jewry Is At a Crossroads

Asking whether Conservative Judaism suffers from malaise may be addressing the wrong issue (“Conservative Judaism at a Crossroads,” August 31). I believe a compelling argument can be made that what we are really witnessing is a realignment of the American Jewish community — to which the old categories of Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthdodox simply no longer apply.

Regardless of what statistics show as to its growth, the Reform movement is hardly monolithic. A segment of that community has moved to the right in terms of ritual and observance, including observance of kashrut, some form of Shabbat observance and wearing a tallit and kippah. At the same time, others in the Reform movement continue to adhere to the more classical form of Reform Judaism.

Likewise, in the Conservative movement there are those who are committed to egalitarianism, social consciousness and action and a less rigid approach to Halacha, and who are therefore much closer to their brethren on the right side of the Reform movement than they are to those in the Conservative movement who find themselves more comfortable in the company of what was Modern Orthodoxy before that movement was pushed to the right by the ultra-Orthodox. In the same way, there are those in the Modern Orthodox movement who are not happy with its movement to the right, and would be more comfortable with their fellow Jews in the more traditional Conservative mold.

It may be time accept the realignment that is taking de facto place, and begin thinking about how to reinvent existing institutions or create new ones that recognize that new reality.

Judah Labovitz
Philadelphia, Pa.

Of course the Conservative movement is in a deep malaise — especially if the noted rabbis the Forward chose to speak on this topic reflect the thrust of the movement’s leadership. They seem to be saying that we need to be more open, more experimental, more spiritual — by which, I am guessing, we need to be more like the Reform movement.

Each of the writers talks about the unique qualities of the Conservative movement, but none are willing to say what they are. The big tent is a dead-end.

The reason the movement has fallen flat is that no one has the guts to state what the movement stands for. There is a reason why so many Conservative Jews study with local Orthodox kollels. It’s because they don’t see legitimacy in their movement. While most will never become fully observant, the emptiness they see in our synagogues is palpable.

It is my experience that most Conservative Jews, along with most other Jews, share the core values espoused by Naomi Levy — wanting to expand their acts of kindness and social responsibility. And they do yearn for a sense of mission, purpose and meaning.

The problem is that you don’t need to be Jewish, or a Conservative Jew for that matter, to be motivated to act on these values. Lots of great Americans of all faiths (or of no faith) find common cause when rallied to live righteously.

But until we are willing as a movement to stand for something that is indeed unique; a movement that is willing to call upon its members to be obligated in some form; to act upon mitzvot as central to our understanding of God’s inspiration; and to hold ourselves accountable for some normative expression of what we call Conservative Judaism, a growing number of the average lay members who are still seeking a divinely inspired Jewish path will find it elsewhere.

Of all the things facing the Jewish people, the failure of the Conservative movement might be one of the least important issues. But for those of us who are seeking to live an authentic Jewish life that is not defined by the smothering rigidity of current Orthodoxy and the “let-live” attitude of liberal Judaism, including that of too many Conservative leaders, a well-focused, mission-driven center is sorely needed.

Elliot Gershenson
President and CEO
Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston
Houston, Texas

Israel Is More Than Just Sheinkin Street

Jo-Ann Mort’s review of the new Israeli film “The Bubble” is interesting in that it shows, once again, the Israeli tendency to copy examples of American mediocrity (“‘Friends,’ Tel Aviv-style,” August 31). There is indeed another Israel besides the one featured by Zionist organizations and Israel’s Tourism Ministry.

But in comparing the Sheinkin Street crowd with denizens of New York’s Greenwich Village, Mort has made that quite clear. Just as no one would pretend that Greenwich Village attitudes represent more than the behavior of a miniscule part of the population of a part of New York City — and no more emblematically American than the Amish of Pennsylvania or the Shakers of Ohio — so the Sheinkin Street people represent only life as it lived in a few blocks of the old part of Tel Aviv.

The film may be fascinating to watch for teens or 20-somethings in Safed or even Beersheva, but it’s not part of their life experience. As an on-and-off resident of Tel Aviv for the past 49 years, I would caution American viewers that 95% of Israelis don’t live like that.

Albert Feldmann
Seattle, Wash.


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