Friday, December 7, 2007

Arnold Eisen "stole the show"

Arnold Eisen "stole the show"
According to Jewish Telegraphic Agency reporter Ben Harris, Chancellor
Arnold Eisen "stole the show" at the United Synagogue of
Conservative Judaism biennial conference with an impassioned plenary
address that culminated in a standing ovation.

Read what Harris has to say:

Eisen Energizes Conservative Parley

ORLANDO (JTA)--Delegates to the United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism biennial apparently didn't expect much when Arnold Eisen took
the stage here last week, offering only tepid applause for the Jewish
Theological Seminary chancellor.

Less than an hour later, however, they were on their feet, cheering a
Conservative leader who has wowed movement audiences frequently since
he took the seminary helm this summer.

Eisen's speech on the opening night of United Synagogue's biennial
convention set the tone for an event that featured an energy missing
in previous years.

More than any other arm of Conservative Judaism, the United Synagogue
has been roiled by the larger challenges bedeviling the
movement--not just its declining membership rolls but the
dilemmas posed by intermarriage, the difficulty of retaining youth and
the seeming ossification of its message.

Not surprising, perhaps, the organization's biennial convention hasn't
been distinguished by its dynamism--younger attendees at the Nov.
29-Dec. 3 gathering joked about the advanced average age of its 400 or
so delegates.

But Eisen brought some vigor on Thursday, and the next night hundreds
danced and joined hands during Sabbath services. On Saturday morning,
multiple worship options demonstrated a willingness to experiment and
innovate that many say has been absent of late.

Raymond Goldstein, United Synagogue's international president, said
the atmosphere was notably different from the 2005 conclave in Boston,
where "a cloud was hanging over us" due to the impending decision of
the movement's law committee on whether to ordain openly gay rabbis.

"The mood is up," Goldstein told JTA. "The mood is up."

In his speech, Eisen delivered something the movement has been
agitating for while watching its numbers decline and its position as
the largest American denomination eclipsed by the Reform movement: a

As is his inclination as a sociologist, Eisen offered no grand
statements of theology but rather the comparatively simple suggestion
that Conservative Judaism define itself by what Conservative Jews do.

"We are those Jews committed to full and authentic engagement with the
Jewish people and the Jewish tradition, heart and soul and mind, as
well as full engagement with the society and culture of which we are a
part, again heart and soul and mind," Eisen said.

For the most part, that definition is more aspirational than
descriptive. Conservative Jews largely don't live such lives, a
point driven home in remarks the following evening by the United
Synagogue's excecutive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

In a forceful address that surprised movement insiders for its
directness, Epstein said Conservative Judaism was quite clear in its
principles--it was Conservative Jews who were not living up to

"We don't need more definitions of Conservative Judaism in order
to make Conservative Judaism come alive," Epstein said. "What we stand
for is abundantly clear. What we do need is commitment on the part of
Conservative Jews to live the definition. We have been too timid in
declaring our vision."

Despite the enthusiasm at the biennial, especially for Eisen, ample
skepticism remains over how his and Epstein's objectives would be put
into practice.

Goldstein said he was doing his part to increase the level of Jewish
practice in the movement by requiring those he named to leadership
positions to commit to keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath, among
other requirements.

One appointee, he said, had been forced to make his kitchen kosher
before accepting the post.

Though a marked shift in emphasis from his 2005 address, when he urged
greater outreach to intermarried couples on the margins of the
movement, Epstein's remarks generally were well received by the
synagogue lay leaders and professionals in attendance. But it was
Eisen who stole the show.

Over the past year, Eisen has emerged as the movement's
indisputable leader and the repository for its hopes of reversing a
generation of decline.

In April, at the annual gathering of the movement's rabbinical
association, the Rabbinical Assembly, Eisen earned a similarly
enthusiastic response as he laid out his assessment of where
Conservative Judaism had come up short and outlined his plans for the
coming year.

Last week, in his first address to leaders of the movement's
congregational arm, Eisen laid out in plain language 10 principles
that should guide Conservative Judaism. Among them: learning Torah,
building strong communities, tikkun olam, commitment to Israel and
Hebrew literacy.

Eisen also reiterated his threefold agenda: articulating a clearer
message about what Conservative Judaism stands for, improving the
quality of programming and improving cooperation among the
movement's bodies.

Beyond the particulars, Eisen established a tone of confidence and
optimism as he enjoined Conservative Jews not to see Judaism as a
lifestyle choice, but to build strong communities and live lives of

As he has before, Eisen rejected talk of crisis and malaise, urging
listeners to see that Conservative Judaism "got it right" and is an
authentic bearer of the Jewish tradition.

"I listened to him absolutely mesmerized," said Harriet Moldau from
Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody, Mass. "I think Eisen gets it."

With further leadership changes looming--both Epstein and the
head of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Joel Meyers, are due to retire
in 2009--the future remains uncertain.

"He has an amazing vision for the future of the Jewish
community," Moldau said of Eisen. "I hope he gets to
implement it."

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