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October 31, 2003 - Image 20

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-10-31

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In The Middle

Fewer in number but more vibrant, Conservative
Jewry looks to future.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

New York
is a Shabbat morning, and Rabbi
David Wolpe looks out over the
main sanctuary of Sinai Temple
in downtown Los Angeles at a sea
of faces.
Normally, Rabbi Wolpe sees 1,000
intrepid Shabbat synagogue-goers, he
says, not bad for a synagogue with 1,600
families. Of the Shabbat faithful, typi-
cally "980 drive to synagogue," he says.
But, "Many don't drive home after-
wards; they go out.
And therein lies the central paradox of
today's Conservative movement.
The movement "generates tremen-
dous activity and commitment," Rabbi
Wolpe says. Yet, "in my experience,
most Conservative Jews have a tradition-
al feel, but not a very Halachic
approach," he says, using the term for
Jewish law.
Historically, that tension has animated
the movement, which grew as an alter-
native to Reform Judaism a century ago
and officially adheres to Halachah while
synthesizing modern interpretations of
tradition. But Conservative Jewry is fac-
ing a critical crossroads.
Once the dominant postwar stream of
American Judaism, movement member-
ship appears to be decreasing while the
more liberal Reform and Reconstruc-
tionist movements, and the more tradi-
tional Orthodox movement, are gaining
In 1990, for instance, 38 percent of
Jews identified themselves as
Conservative for the National Jewish
Population Survey, but only 33 percent
did so a decade later.




"The Conservative movement has been
in demographic decline for nearly two
generations," says Jack Wertheimer,
provost of the Jewish Theological
Seminary in New York. JTS serves as the
movement's academic heart along with
the newer and, some say, more liberal,
University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
Most of the nearly 770 synagogues
affiliated with the movement's United
Synagogue congregational arm have yet
to feel that population drop sharply



observance is much lower than the lead-
because of a mini-baby boom filling
ership would want."
congregational religious schools,
Yet the movement has provided a
Solomon Schechter Day Schools and
"middle road," Bayme adds, a path for
Camps Ramah — but the crunch will
non-Halachically religious Jews who
hit as those children grow, experts say.
want Jewish "enrichment" and Jewish
"The movement has got to figure out
families. "Behind the numbers, I don't
how to adjust to that reality," Wer-
see decadence, I see a tremendous
theimer says.
amount of vitality," Bayme says.
As movement leaders grapple with
that dilemma, several hundred congrega-
Different Ways
tional leaders gathered this week for the
Conservative synagogues have largely
2003 biennial of the United Synagogue
taken root in middle-class suburbia. Yet
of Conservative Judaism in Dallas.
they also have sprung from 1960s-era
Some even question the notion that
spiritual-renewal drives, such as the
the movement is shrinking. "The issue
for me is, we're not growing," says Rabbi chavurah movement, Bayme and others
say. At its genesis, that movement
Jerome Epstein, United Synagogue's
sought to establish
executive vice president.
intimate prayer by
But he says that in the
transforming largely
past 10 to 15 years,
passive congregations
United Synagogue has
centered around a rab-
seen its membership rolls
binic leader to active
remain steady.
hubs for family life.
Indeed, Rabbi Epstein
Leading that spiritu-
and others contend that
al-renewal trend is a
the focus on numbers
new nondenomina-
misses the point. Some
tional initiative of a
even maintain that fewer
group called Syna-
members translates into a
gogues: Transfor-
leaner, meaner move-
mation and Renewal,
ment, spiritually and reli-
funded by some major
Jewish donors. The
Others, like Rela
group is promoting a
Mintz Geffen, president
Jack Wertheimer
project called Synaplex
of Baltimore's Hebrew
that seeks to produce innovative Shabbat
University, says it is difficult to interpret
activities in congregations, like a spiritu-
the meaning of the latest population
survey data showing fewer self-identified al version of a multiplex.
The pilot program operates at 12 con-
Conservatives. "In 1990, more people
gregations. Five are Conservative. The
called themselves Reform than Conser-
rabbis who premiered Synaplex dis-
vative, but when you looked at Conser-
cussed early signs of success — includ-
vative synagogue membership, it was
ing big crowds — at the biennial.
higher" than in the Reform ranks, she
"I don't think the future of the move-
ment will lie on Halachic observation
Steven Bayme, national director of
and scholarship, but on intensive Jewish
contemporary Jewish life at the
environments," Wertheimer says.
American Jewish Committee and a visit-
While some believe demographics
ing JTS history professor, says the prog-
a challenge, Wertheimer says
nosis of the movement's health also
there are "structural" issues facing the
depends on how it is approached.
movement as well. Power rests on the
From "the top down," Bayme says,
local, congregational level, he says, but
the movement is seen as being based on
"the flip side is the movement is not a
a critical mass of Jews living their lives
well-coordinated movement."
according to Halachah and receptive to
Unlike the Reform movement, for
modern Jewish scholarship.
example, the Conservative movement's
But, he asks, "how many individuals
congregational arm, its rabbinic assem-
in congregations keep Shabbat, kashrut
bly and other organizations do not coor-
and family purity" laws by visiting the
dinate closely. The result has been that
mikvah, or ritual bath. "The level of

synagogues have been left to rely-on
local resources in their planning, rather
than on national or even global trends.
"The question is whether the Conser-
vative movement will continue to be a
loose coalition or whether it will strive
to actually be a movement," he says.
Rabbi Epstein disagrees. The real
problem, as he sees it, is that the move-
ment remains so broad and diverse that
the difficulty lies in deciding where to
put the most resources. In other words,
does the movement spend money on
less active, observant Jews, or on the
more activist, learned core?
That question echoes the philosophi-
cal debate that is both at the movement's
core and tugging at its edges. In the
mid-1950s, a liberal offshoot of the
movement became the Reconstructionist
movement. In the 1980s, the Union for
Traditional Judaism emerged, adhering
to more Orthodox traditions.
"The movement suffered for years
from being the largest," Mintz Geffen
says. By avoiding breaking from tra-
dition, it did not delineate bound-
aries on either side. Conservative
Judaism refused to follow the Reform
movement in accepting as Jews those
with Jewish fathers but non-Jewish
mothers — but followed Reform in
ordaining women as rabbis.
Those new rules spurred members
to leave on either end of the
Halachic field.
Today, those twin forces shape
along several fronts, such as intermar-
riage. Congregation officials are
urged to make interfaith couples feel
welcome, but non-Jewish members of
those families are not allowed to lead
public prayer services.
In recent years, the issue of gays
also has sparked intense debate.
While the Reform and
Reconstructionist movements ordain
gays, and Orthodoxy forbids it, the
centrist Conservative movement takes
a third path: Synagogues welcome
gay members, but the movement
does not allow gay commitment cere-
monies or ordain openly gay students
as rabbis.
The movement's Committee on
Jewish Law and Standards, which
decides religious positions, is review-
ing the policy, which may or may not
lead to a change. I I

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