Tuesday, April 12, 2011

what's wrong with Conservative Judaism

By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

April 12, 2011
Reporting from Las Vegas=97

Three hundred rabbis walk into a Las Vegas martini lounge. Bartenders
scramble to handle the crowd =97 the rabbis are thirsty. Suddenly, an Elvis
impersonator takes the stage.

We are faced with two possibilities.

One, this is the beginning of a joke.

Two, they don't make rabbis the way they used to.

The Rabbinical Assembly, the clerical arm of Conservative Judaism, would
have you believe the second message, or something like it. That's why it
launched its 2011 convention with a martini reception at a Las Vegas
synagogue. The gathering was billed as an attempt to "rebrand" the
Conservative movement, which has seen alarming declines in membership in
recent years.

"We are in deep trouble," Rabbi Edward Feinstein of congregation Valley Bet=
Shalom in Encino told the convention the next day. "There isn't a single
demographic that is encouraging for the future of Conservative Judaism. Not

Those words could apply equally to a number of U.S. religious denominations=
especially liberal Protestant and Jewish faiths. Membership is falling;
churches and synagogues are struggling financially; and surveys show robust
growth among the ranks of those who declare no religious affiliation.

The situation may be especially alarming to the Conservative movement
because it was, for many years, the largest denomination in American
Judaism. It was the solid center, more traditional than Reform, more open t=
change than Orthodoxy.

A decade ago, roughly one of every three American Jews identified as
Conservative. Since then, Conservative synagogue membership has declined by
14% =97 and by 30% in the Northeast, the traditional stronghold of American

By 2010, only about one in five Jews in the U.S. identified as Conservative=
according to the American Jewish Congress.

The Reform and Orthodox movements also saw declines, although not nearly as
steep. Reform Judaism for a time claimed the most adherents, but today that
distinction goes to people who identify themselves as "just Jewish," meanin=
they don't associate with any of the traditional denominations. Many are
entirely secular.

"We're all in trouble," said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice presiden=
of the Rabbinical Assembly and one of those trying to save the Conservative
movement. Correcting herself, she said, "We're not in trouble, but we're in
urgent need of rethinking the institutions of Jewish life."

Conservative Judaism has many strengths. It includes some of the most
vibrant congregations in American religious life and some of the most
prominent rabbis, among them David Wolpe of Los Angeles' Sinai Temple,
Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, also
in L.A., and Harold Kushner of Natick, Mass., author of "When Bad Things
Happen to Good People."

But as the rabbis gathered at a Las Vegas resort =97 a relatively sedate sp=
far from the Strip =97 much of the talk was about the urgent need for chang=

The movement's problems, many agree, begin with its name, which has nothing
to do with political conservatism and doesn't accurately describe a
denomination that accepts openly gay and lesbian rabbis and believes the
Bible is open to interpretation. But that's just for starters.

Deep dissatisfaction with the organizations that lead Conservative Judaism
prompted a number of influential rabbis in 2009 to demand urgent change,
warning, "Time is not on our side." The group won promises of substantial
change from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents
Conservative congregations, and helped prompt reforms in the institutions
that train and represent rabbis.

A similar revolt by prominent Reform rabbis preceded that denomination's
continuing effort to reinvent itself, a project launched at L.A.'s Hebrew
Union College last November.

So what does it mean for a religious movement to reinvent or rebrand itself=

"It's one thing for a corporation to say 'We're going to reinvent
ourselves,'" said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for
Religion Research.

"Sometimes they get into another business," he said. "A religion =85 can
evolve, it can be reinterpreted, you can express it in a slightly different
style, but you can't just be doing Judaism one day and say 'I'm going to
sell cars' the next."

The Conservative rabbis won't become car salesmen, but they batted around
some fairly radical ideas and predictably stirred up some opposition.

There was talk of eliminating membership dues for synagogues or switching t=
a la carte "fee-for-service" plans =97 so that a parent who wants only to s=
his or her child to religious school won't also be paying to support the
congregation's other programs. But some said dues give congregants a vital
sense of ownership.

Wolpe, the Sinai Temple rabbi, said the movement needs a slogan, one that's
short enough to fit on a bumper sticker. He suggested "A Judaism of

"We don't have a coherent ideology," he told his fellow rabbis. "If you ask
everybody in this room 'What does Conservative Judaism stand for?' my guess
is that you'd get 100 different answers.... That may be religiously a
beautiful thing, but if you want a movement, that's not such a hot result."

His suggestion drew a withering reaction from Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of
Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York. "I'm not selling shoes," Kalmanofsk=
said. "I'm selling a spiritual path."

Younger rabbis, among them Josh Heller of Sandy Springs, Ga., said it was
important to reach young people where they live, which is often online. But
some of their older counterparts seemed uncomfortable, or unfamiliar, with
social media.

And then there was the name. Some prefer Conservative, which was adopted
when the movement began in the 19th century. It denotes the founders'
determination to conserve the best of Jewish tradition while being open to
prudent change. But others said it is one reason the movement is seen by
young people as being hopelessly uncool.

One suggestion: Change it to Masorti, a Hebrew word meaning "traditional"
that is used by Conservative Jews in Israel and Europe.

"If we really want to appeal to the new generation, if you want to create a
real worldwide movement =85 we need a common name, and I think it needs to =
a Hebrew name," said Rabbi Felipe Goodman of Temple Beth Sholom in Las

As the meeting ended, there were pledges to work toward meaningful change.
One example of what that might look like is an effort to employ a new
definition of kosher food that would require ethical treatment of the
workers who produce it =97something that is being called *magen tzedek,* or
"seal of justice."

"This is an answer for Conservative Judaism because it's about the
marketplace, it's about the public square," said Rabbi Morris Allen of
Mendota Heights, Minn., who is leading the effort. *Magen tzedek*"shifts th=
entire message of who we are as a religious community. Suddenly, it's about
more than just what is said at the prayer service on Saturday morning."


No comments: