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November 14, 2003 - Image 22

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-11-14

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Cover Story

THE SQUEEZE from page 21





Conservative Jews to begin to live their
lives based on Halachah. Without seri-
ous commitment to that challenge, the
promise that our ancestors saw in
Conservative Judaism will never be real-
During the convention, Rabbi Epstein
announced the formation of a new com-
mission of rabbis, educators and lay
leaders to coordinate those efforts.

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 cen-
trist Conservative movement takes a
third path: Synagogues welcome gay
members, but the movement does not
allow gay commitment ceremonies or
ordain openly gay students as rabbis.

Why The Decline?

What Do Numbers Mean?

Once the dominant post-World War II
stream of American Judaism,
Conservative Jewry is facing a critical
crossroads. While its membership
appears to be falling, the more liberal
Reform and Reconstructionist move-
ments — and the more traditional
Orthodox movement — are gaining
The NJPS noted that those belonging
to Reform congregations increased from
35 percent in 1990 to a current 39 per-
cent, while Orthodox membership
jumped from 16 to 21 percent and
Reconstructionist from 2 to 3 percent.
The Reform movement is attracting
intermarried couples, and often their
Jewish parents who leave Conservative
synagogues that won't include their
intermarried children. It remains to be
seen how many intermarried families
will see themselves as Jewish in the next
While Conservative congregations are
urged to make interfaith couples feel
welcome, non-Jewish members of those
families are not allowed to lead public
prayer services.
Modern Orthodox synagogues are
gaining members, many of whom, after
spending years with the strong influence
of Conservative traditionalism in youth
groups, do not find the same commit-
ment in their synagogue's members.
"Every religious movement expresses a
spectrum of approaches and practices,"
said Rabbi Charles Popky of
Congregation Beth Ahm in West
Bloomfield. "For the Conservative
movement — which is in the middle —
we feel the tension. As one moves to
either extreme, they may find themselves
realizing they show more and more
characteristics of another movement."
Conservative Judaism refused to fol-
low the Reform movement in sanction-
ing patrilineal descent — 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,
toward more and less traditional streams,
observers say.

Jack Wertheimer, Jewish Theological
Seminary of America provost, maintains
"the Conservative movement has been in
demographic decline for nearly two gen-
erations," but others question the notion
that the movement is shrinking.
Rela Mintz Geffen, president of
Baltimore's Hebrew University, said it is
difficult to interpret the meaning of the
latest population survey data showing
fewer self-identified Conservatives.
"In 1990, more people called them-
selves Reform than Conservative, but
when you looked at Conservative syna-
gogue membership, it was higher" than
in the Reform ranks, she said.
It is therefore possible the NJPS over-
states the share of Reform movement
affiliates because some who identify as
Reform Jews might not be considered
halachically Jewish by the Conservative
or Orthodox movement's conversion or
patrilineal descent standards.
Still, a few local synagogues, including
the West Bloomfield-based B'nai Moshe,
have seen a slight decrease in member-
ship. While Rabbi Elliot Pachter
acknowledges it, he also said, "Our pop-
ulation of active members remains
steady, or slightly increasing. So the
activity in our building is strong, even
though the actual paid membership is
down slightly."
Rabbi David Nelson of Congregation
Beth Shalom in Oak Park said his syna-
gogue is growing. "Overall, the
Conservative movement in Detroit is
not in a decline," he said. "But Detroit
is a different and strong Jewish commu-
nity. Perhaps the numbers will become
smaller, but we're still not yet at the
Golden Age of Conservative Judaism."
And before that happens, local rabbis
are ready to put up a fight.
"Our movement faces challenges right
now, but many of the fundamentals are
very strong," said Rabbi Daniel Nevins
of Adat Shalom Synagogue in
Farmington Hills, where he said mem-
bership numbers are stable.
He is concerned about the shrinking
of the overall American Jewish popula-
tion — from just below 5.5 million in
1990 to 5.2 million in the latest NJPS

Dr. Jacques Rosenfeld of Southfield is among adult learners at Adat Shalom Synagogue.

— and that "the Detroit community is
growing more diffuse and sparse as time
goes on.
Metro Detroit is home to about
96,000 Jews, according to the Jewish
"Adat Shalom exists not simply to
maintain a market share, but to increase
the quality and quantity of Jewish life
for our entire community," Rabbi
Nevins said. "It is also important to
remember that a few decades ago, many
observers assumed that Orthodoxy was
on its last legs. The young people were
all joining Conservative synagogues and
Orthodoxy seemed Old World. But it
rejuvenated, based on serious efforts to
educate its young.
"My goal is to increase the joy of
doing commandments and the depth of
studying Torah," Rabbi Nevins said.
"We will be able to measure success not
by a spreadsheet indicating the percent-
age of congregants who keep a certain
number of commandments, but by our
ability to create a community where
Torah and mitzvot are attractive and
compelling on all levels."

He said in the past 10-15 years,
United Synagogue has seen its member-
ship rolls remain steady.
Indeed, Rabbi Epstein and others con-
tend that the focus on numbers misses
the point. Some even maintain that
fewer members translate into a leaner,
meaner movement spiritually.
"The numbers may drop, but you
have a more passionate core that in turn
generates greater numbers," said LA.'s
Rabbi Wolpe.
According to Rabbi Nevins, "The
National Jewish Population Survey is the
catalyst for all this talk, but it really is
unclear how much lasting value these
numbers have in the deeper discussion
of the Jewish future.
"I guess our synagogue numbers may
be down, but our early childhood pro-
grams and (Conservative movement
Solomon) Schechter schools are flourish-
ing — they are way up from 10 years
ago. The challenge is how to translate
that affiliation into a meaningful person-
al commitment. Calling ours a shrinking
movement is not fully accurate."

Leaner But Stronger

In the opening USCJ biennial address,
Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and
vice president of the University of

Whether or not individual synagogue
membership is down, the USCJ's Rabbi
Epstein said, "the issue for me is, we're
not growing."

Tradition, Tradition

THE SQUEEZE on page 24

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