Seymour Rosenbloom, the region’s longest-serving Conservative rabbi, thinks the sky may be falling on his own religious movement. But that doesn’t mean the end of the world — or, at least, of American Judaism.
“The movements we have today didn’t exist from time immemorial, and I don’t expect they will continue to exist indefinitely into the future,” said Rosenbloom, the 69-year-old religious leader of Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, who is retiring in June.
Rosenbloom, who will be stepping down in the middle of his 36th year at the helm of the synagogue, predicted that ultimately, the denominations will coalesce into liberal and Orthodox Judaism. Essentially, the divide will be between those who live their lives according to Jewish law and those who don’t. He expects the differences between liberal ideologies will become less meaningful, suggesting that the great chasm that once existed between Reform and Conservative Judaism is now something of a small creek.
“I think it will be what the community needs and I think it is part of the maturing of the American Jewish community,” said Rosenbloom, a religious leader who has rarely been shy about stirring the pot or making provocative statements.
Rosenbloom sat in his spacious office for a wide-ranging interview just a few weeks before the Oct. 27 symposium, “Creating a Modern Jewish Community.” The event will be the first of a series of five programs throughout the year meant to serve as a tribute to Rosenbloom.
During the interview, he reflected on the evolution of his approach to the rabbinate as well as his stances on social and political issues. He also spoke candidly about the changes in the movement he’s spent his life in and the Old York Road community he’s called home since 1978.
When Rosenbloom steps down from leading the congregation of some 600 families, that will leave just a handful of non-Orthodox religious leaders in the Philadelphia area with comparable tenures. With synagogues and the rabbinate undergoing rapid change, Rosenbloom’s impending retirement is one more sign of the end of an era.
During the discussion, the rabbi employed the same commanding speaking style and deep baritone he’s utilized from the podium for several decades.
Behind his desk sat a prominent, signed photo of country music star Garth Brooks. He explained that seeing Brooks perform, and the passion of his fans, was one of the few “aha” moments of his life.
“I was really enthralled by the show. I gave a sermon once on Rosh Hashanah and talked about how much passion there was in the audience,” said Rosenbloom, who quoted at length from Brooks’ song “The River” during his final Rosh Hashanah sermon last month.
His other epiphany, he said, came at the age of 15, when he saw the devastation a blaze had wrought upon his childhood synagogue in Rochester, N.Y. That event, he recalled, turned an indifferent Jew happy that Hebrew school classes were canceled into someone who vowed to dedicate his life to the Jewish people.
But now he thinks it is time to pass on the torch. “We don’t do things today the way we did them when I first came into the rabbinate,” he said, explaining the reasons he decided to retire. And he said he thinks the congregation “needs a new set of eyes, with a new set of visions — someone who is from a younger generation.”
He’s not sure how he plans to spend his time after retirement, but he said he is looking forward to a less hectic schedule and the ability to enjoy life while he is still physically healthy.
Like many in the Jewish world, Rosenbloom has been dissecting the recent Pew Survey on American Jews. The report showed that just 18 percent of American Jews identify as Conservative. It also reported an intermarriage rate of 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews since 2005.
The numbers, he said, are not encouraging. But they haven’t led him to throw up his hands in despair. “Every generation has its naysayers. Every generation is convinced that the future of the Jewish community is going to be worse,” said the father of three adult sons. “I am not pessimistic about the future of Judaism. I’m not afraid of change. I think change is what revitalizes us. I think we have survived as a people because we have been able to change and adapt.”
For example, he said, the Conservative movement needs to “seriously revisit” the policy of not allowing rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings. That sentiment marks a dramatic shift in his thinking from earlier in his career, he said.
“We seriously need to take a look at whether the positions we continue to articulate are actually undermining are ability to serve our own congregants,” he said.
The denomination also should consider adopting the concept of patrilineal descent, recognizing individuals with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews, he said. Conservative Judaism currently adheres to traditional Jewish law of recognizing only children of Jewish mothers as Jews.
The Conservative movement’s stances on intermarriage and patrilineal descent doesn’t “sit well with the evolving American Jewish community,” he said.
The rabbi, who said he’s grown more liberal on social and foreign policy issues over the years, has never been afraid to broadcast his views from the pulpit.
In 1994, more than 20 years before the movement would reverse course, he urged Conservative leaders to ordain gay and lesbian rabbis. More recently, he’s spoken out for robust gun control legislation and marriage equality. “I don’t do it for controversy’s sake. But I don’t hesitate to take unpopular positions.”
His most controversial sermon, he said, may have been one he gave in 2004, in the midst of the heated presidential campaign between President George W. Bush, a Republican, and John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, who is now secretary of state. Rosenbloom said he was careful not to endorse a candidate, but stated emphatically that the Iraq war was a mistake and that the conflict had to be ended. Several members, he said, took it as an anti-Bush sermon and one or two families left the congregation because of his remarks, he said.
He’s also taken flak for criticizing Israeli policy and hosting a program sponsored by the controversial lobbying group J Street. “I see myself as pro-Israel, but I also see myself as pro-peace,” he said. “I think that ever since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the course of Israeli policy has been unfortunate in its emphasis, in its unwillingness to rein in the settlement movement. I am not sanguine about the future right now.”
Perhaps the biggest change in Rosenbloom’s thinking over the years relates to the nature of the rabbinate itself. He says his concept of the clergy’s role is far different from when he came to Adath Jeshurun as a 34-year-old just a few years out of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“I probably would have defined the most important thing I did as teaching and preaching,” he said.
Now, he’s convinced that pastoral care is “where you reach people the most.”
When people are confronting issues of life and death, “that is where people have the most potential for change. When they ask themselves what life is really about, that is when they are most receptive to the teachings of Judaism and finding fulfillment.”
Rosenbloom has faced his share of difficult moments, from struggling to comfort a community shaken by the events of Sept. 11 to presiding over the funerals of members he’s known for close to 40 years. He’s also had personal struggles. Most notably, he went through a divorce in the public eye and later was remarried to a member of the congregation.
“To do it as a public figure — it’s not easy,” Rosenbloom said, adding that the painful experience made him a more sympathetic and compassionate rabbi.
What he learned along the way, he said, is that one has to “recognize that there is no script to life and that you constantly have to improvise as you go along and do the best you can.”
Special Events for a Special Year: A Tribute to Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom
Oct. 27 A symposium on the future of the Jewish community featuring sociologist Steven M. Cohen and Rabbis Bradley Shavit Artson and Sharon Brous
Dec. 14 A country western celebration will feature live music, food and activities for the whole family
March 23 Arnold Eisen, chancelor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, will address the AJWA Sisterhood Torah Fund Brunch
March 29 reunion Shabbat will bring together families who have had Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom preside over a life-cycle event
May 18 Terry Gross, host and co-executive producer of “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio, is slated to speak
For information call 215-635-6611 or go to adathjeshurun.info