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Centennial Focuses on Future of Conservative Judaism

October 16, 2013 By:
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Teens dance at the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s centennial celebration in Baltimore, which was better attended and seen as more dynamic than in recent years. JTA Photo

BALTIMORE — The release of a national survey showing a dramatic decline in the Conservative movement’s numbers on the eve of its centennial celebration didn’t take the life out of the party. If anything, participants sensed a buzz and vitality at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s conference that overlooked this city’s Inner Harbor.

The three-day conference was dubbed the “Conversation of the Century” and, to reinforce that point and encourage out-of-the-box thinking, a giant purple bubble containing the words, “Let’s talk,” was projected onto the ballroom wall.

Discussions revolved around a number of issues: how to get rabbis out of committee meetings and into the communities they serve, how best to serve interfaith families and, ultimately, how to reverse the staggering decline and envision a brighter future for Conservative Judaism.

“Let’s be real. There is much that needs fixing. And readjusting and tweaking,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ’s executive vice president and former religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station, said as part of his opening remarks.

“We are here as agents of the transformation of Conservative Jewish life,” said Wernick, who has led USCJ since 2009. “It is our hope that this centennial serves as a turning point — a pivot between an uncertain present and a promising future.”

Some 1,200 lay leaders and rabbis came from around the country — including 80 from Philadelphia and its environs — in part, to examine ways to reinvigorate their synagogues, particularly to change the focus of congregations from creating programs to forging relationships. 

The attendance numbers may look lackluster in comparison to the 5,000 people expected to turn out for the Reform movement’s biennial in California later this year, but they exceeded the 500 people who have turned out for recent Conservative biennials.

Pinpointing an exact birthday of the movement is difficult. Conservative Judaism’s flagship seminary dates to 1886, but the congregational arm was founded in 1913.

Conservative Judaism’s intellectual roots go back to 19th century Europe. Religious leaders such as German Rabbi Zecharias Frankel occupied the ideological middle ground in the Jewish response to unprecedented mid-19th century social change. Frankel upheld the primacy of Jewish law while remaining more flexible in interpretation and practice than did Orthodoxy. At the same time, Frankel and others rejected the more radical breaks with tradition espoused by Reform Jewish thinkers like Abraham Geiger, also a German rabbi.

For much of the 20th century, Conservatism’s position at the ideological center — its balance of tradition and modernity — dovetailed with the desires of much of American Jewry. But more recently, Jews still in the fold began drifting rightward toward Orthodoxy or leftward toward Reform.

The fact that Conservative synagogues have been losing members came as a shock to no one, but the extent reported in the survey by the Pew Research Center alarmed even longtime observers. The survey reported that 18 percent of American Jews now identify as Conservative. But what really made leaders cringe is that only 11 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds identify as Conservative, leading to questions about how the movement will survive.

Philadelphia has long been considered a Conservative bastion, with many of the movement’s early thinkers and leaders based here. The 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia” showed 30 percent of local residents identifying with the movement — a steep drop from the past but still much higher than the national figure. 

Many observers said a major reason for the decline is that the majority of interfaith families joining synagogues affiliate with Reform. There’s some talk among rabbis and lay leaders of following Reform’s lead and allowing rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings — and perhaps even take the more radical step of adopting patrilineal descent. But such issues were not raised at the conference by those addressing the gathering.

In speaking on a panel about intermarriage, Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, told an audience member that he wished he “had a response” when pressed about allowing interfaith officiation. 

The movement has not been known to make major changes — such as ordaining women or gay and lesbian rabbis — without a great deal of process.

Rabbi Neil Cooper, religious leader of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El for the past 23 years, said the conference was serving its function as an idea lab and called the mood “upbeat” and “foward-looking.” But he noted that many ideas introduced in numerous panel discussions — like rabbis opening their homes to congregants nearly every Friday night — might not work so well in practice. (For instance, he’s worried that hosting a weekly meal would lead to rabbinic burnout and cut into much-needed family time.)

“Anytime they come up with an idea, I am hearing, in my head, the forces that have to be overcome in order to do these things. Some of the effort may be worth it, some may not be,” said Cooper.

“Rabbis today are very much on the defensive,” continued the rabbi. “Synagogues are shrinking, budgets are being cut. To say, ‘Well, you have to be ready for the backlash you are going to get when you try something new’— it’s easier said than done.”

Anne Fassler, a mother of three children between the ages of 7 and 14, is the new president of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Elkins Park, which is in the middle of a search for a successor to Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom, who is retiring after 35 years. She took the train to Baltimore for the day looking for ideas on how to meet the many challenges that lay ahead.

“I wouldn’t say there is anything wrong with it but I can see that it is shrinking,” Fassler said of the denomination. “We need to find ways to engage people.”

Five representatives of Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell drove down for the day, including executive director Susan Kasper, who spoke on a panel about her congregation’s two-year push to overhaul and streamline how its board functions. 

The congregation is also re-evaluating its approach to Shabbat services and experimenting with using musical instruments and forms of alternative prayer.

That process has been a “catalyst for a much broader conversation,” said Rabbi Selilah Kalev, director of lifelong learning at the synagogue. “It’s a conversation about what Judaism has to say to those of us that have questions. How do we access the tradition for those who need it, where they are” as opposed to where clergy would like them to be, spiritually and physically?

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