The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Friday, December 31, 2004

Debate in the Middle: The Future of Conservative Judaism

Debate In The Middle

Joel Shurkin
June 25, 2004

Laura Shaw Frank should be the poster child for Conservative Judaism in America. A Jersey girl, she was an active participant in a Conservative synagogue, attending Solomon Schechter day schools, United Synagogue Youth meetings and the movement's esteemed Camp Ramah. She was about everything Conservative Judaism wants its young men and women to be, dedicated to a Jewish life, comfortable with tradition, kosher, Sabbath-observant.

So why is she now a member of an Orthodox synagogue in Baltimore?

Mrs. Frank is an example of a conundrum facing what once was the largest Jewish denomination in America: The movement loses many of its successes. According to the latest statistics, she is not the only one out the door. The entire Conservative stream is losing members.

Mrs. Frank's jump to Orthodoxy was not without turbulence, however, and that too is part of the story.

Last winter, a Reform rabbi predicted the death of Conservative Judaism within 10 years. Perhaps not even he actually believes that, but is the movement, formally known as the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), in trouble? Is Laura Frank the future of the movement?

Questioning within the community began in the open last summer with an essay in the Conservative Judaism Journal by Rabbi Edward Feld. The group is staring at an existential crisis, he wrote.

Rabbi Feld wrote that Conservative Judaism, faced with declining membership, now is torn by two opposing philosophies. He called them "in-reach" and "outreach."

"In-reach" favors requiring a higher level of observance and knowledge by Conservative Jews even if it means driving away congregants to the Reform. Narrowing its core membership to those who share its values is how the American Orthodox community reinvigorated itself, he wrote. As Orthodoxy slides to the right, the more liberal wing may find a home among Conservatives, offsetting at least some of the attrition, he wrote. In the end, however, Conservative Judaism would be smaller but more observant.

The other idea, he wrote, favors acceptance of broad levels of observance in hopes of luring people from the other streams and bringing in converts and the intermarried to offset the attrition, a position he clearly favors.

"The heyday of the Conservative movement was the time when it was able to hold on to both poles," Rabbi Feld wrote. He apparently believes it can no longer do so.

The two factions represent a schism between the academic core of the movement in New York, which feels that Conservative Judaism needs to emphasize more observance to survive, and rabbis in the field who, confronted with the reality sitting before them at shul, feel abandoned by the establishment. The split even encompasses the two coasts, with most of those who believe in the smaller core centered on the Jewish Theological Seminary and USCJ in New York, in contrast to the more liberal University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

"If I had the choice of a serious if smaller movement or what we have now, I would opt for a halachic, conservative, serious movement," said Rabbi Joel Roth, the Louis Finkelstein professor of Jewish thought and Halachah at JTS, a firm proponent of the "in-reach" theory.

"I think it is important never to turn anyone away," said Rabbi Susan Grossman, of Columbia's Beth Shalom Congregation. "The challenge is to set a very high bar, have authentic expectations and not be cowered by the lack of observance of lay leaders."

It is that lack of observance that is at the core of the debate.

Conservative Judaism believes in observing the laws of kashrut, praying three times a day, putting on tefillin and keeping the Sabbath traditions. It is no secret that few Conservative Jews actually do that.

Orthodoxy and the Reform streams have unifying strengths Conservatives lack.

In Orthodoxy, the clergy and the laity live under Halachah. Nearly everyone keeps kosher and is Sabbath observant (shomer Shabbat).

In the Reform movement, neither the clergy nor the laity feels formally bound to Halachah. On a percentage basis, fewer Reform Jews either keep kosher or attend services regularly.

In the Conservative movement, the clergy is halachic, generally keeping kosher and the Sabbath, while the laity generally is not and is just as likely to be off at the malls as perhaps their Reform neighbors on Shabbat. The clergy lives one way while the laity lives another.

Rabbi Charles Arian, now of the Institute for Christian & Jewish Studies in Baltimore, but once a pulpit rabbi in York, Pa., remembers when congregants of his synagogue invited him to drive over for lunch on Shabbat. It wasn't just that they themselves drove around on Saturday afternoon that bothered him, but that they saw nothing amiss in inviting the rabbi to join them.

"They volunteered countless hours, gave significant amounts of money, schlepped an hour or more to buy kosher food. Yet there was not a single member of the congregation who would have declined to go right to the mall or the golf course after shul on Saturday morning," he wrote in response to Rabbi Feld.

According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000, only 50 percent of Conservative Jews who belong to synagogues light Shabbat candles and 30 percent keep kosher at home. An unscientific survey of Baltimore Conservative synagogues matched that picture: Based on interviews with local Conservatives rabbis, about 20-30 percent of congregants keep kosher, but very few walk to synagogue.

One strength in the movement is the broad diversity in practices. Conservative synagogues in Baltimore run a gamut from the left (Beth El Congregation with its organ music during Shabbat services) to the stylistic traditional wing (Chevrei Tzedek and Beth Shalom).

In some cases, the diversity is internal. Chizuk Amuno Congregation, for instance, has a monthly service separate from the main sanctuary for those who want a more traditional, participatory Shabbat service. It's needed, according to Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman, the Stevenson synagogue's rabbi emeritus, because the multiple b'nai mitzvah in the main sanctuary — kids often doubling up — makes it almost impossible to get an aliyah or participate in the services.

The conflict is not necessarily obvious. Baltimore has Conservative synagogues that give every appearance of prosperity and vitality. Most are in huge, beautiful, expensive buildings, bustling with activity, full of people and life. While some of the larger, more impersonal synagogues are losing members here, Beth Shalom in Columbia is bursting the seams of its 7-year-old synagogue building. Beth Am, which just affiliated with the movement a few years ago, is planning a multimillion-dollar building campaign to handle increased demand on its building. Chevrei Tzedek is reorganizing to handle its growing pains.

Nationally, the movement has 66 Solomon Schechter schools (including in Pikesville), five in Canada and two in Israel. It has eight high schools. Although changing demographics and the recession have adversely affected some, most schools are full and some have waiting lists in the lower grades. Its Ramah camp system is renowned in the Jewish community and is usually fully enrolled. Even the organization's Masorti affiliate in Israel seems to be expanding, and its 10-year-old yeshiva in Jerusalem is bustling with young people — both Israelis and visiting Americans.

Yet with all that, what was once the dominant stream of American Judaism, reaching its apex as Jews moved from the cities to the suburbs after World War II, now is clearly shrinking. According to the NJPS, 40 percent of American Jewish households belong to synagogues and of them, one-third are Conservative — about 1,077,000 men, women and children. Reform accounts for 39 percent. Among those who were raised Jewish, identification with Conservative Judaism has declined. In the survey, of almost 1 million people raised Conservative and who still consider themselves Jewish, almost half no longer identify with Conservative Judaism. Twenty percent have become Reform, 3 percent Orthodox and 11 percent "just Jewish."

The prototypical Conservative Jew was a first or second generation American who had been brought up Orthodox but attended a Conservative synagogue because he did not want to feel forced to the Orthodox lifestyle but was reluctant to abandon tradition. This is no longer true as the generation has largely died off.

To some extent, the decrease in membership reflects the problems of the entire Jewish community in America, a declining population, assimilation and intermarriage. The Conservative movement's brotherhood is launching a program to do outreach to intermarried families. Yet, intermarriage is not responsible for most of the decline in Conservative synagogues; the rate is down to 19 percent from 26 percent two decades ago.

Part of the problem may be philosophical. To a large extent, Conservative Judaism has always defined itself by what it is not — it's not Reform, it's not Orthodox.

Contrary to popular belief, the movement is not an American invention. Like Reform, its origin goes back to Germany in the early part of the 19th century, a direct result of the haskalah, the Jewish face of the European Enlightenment, when Jews became introspective about their lives in an enlightened Europe.

The first Reform "temple" was created in Hamburg in 1817, and by the 1840s, much of German Jewry was taken up in the reformation.

At an 1846 conference of Reform rabbis, Zacharias Frankel, the chief rabbi of Dresden and a widely respected scholar, tried to hold back some of the extreme changes, particularly the exclusion of Hebrew from services. Out-voted, he walked out, formed his own movement called "Positive-Historical Judaism," and created a Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau in 1854.

Frankel was a halachic Jew, meaning that he believed in the primacy of Halachah, but he also believed that life and changing environments had an impact on how that law was interpreted. He believed in both revelation and historical development. He did not believe in the sacredness of the Oral Law or that the Torah was dictated verbatim by God to Moses, as does Orthodoxy.

The movement remained a small element in the community until the end of the century when German Jews by the hundreds of thousands immigrated to the United States, bringing with them their various faces of Judaism.

History repeated itself here. At a famous — some would say infamous — dinner in Cincinnati in 1883 in which the Reform movement pushed its beliefs to an extreme (the menu included clams, shrimp and crab), a group of more conservative rabbis walked out. In 1898, they established the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and in 1902, the institution was put under the leadership of Solomon Schechter, an intellectual disciple of Frankel and a widely respected scholar.

Schechter at first tried to lure the modern Orthodox in America to his seminary, even hiring first-rate Orthodox-born scholars. In the coming decades, Orthodox-raised luminaries such as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan came to JTS. Kaplan (his famous line being "tradition gets a vote, not a veto") would later spin off his own theology, which became Reconstructionist Judaism.

Conservativism thrived in America in the 20th century. After World War II, most urban Jews lit out for the suburbs and the Conservative synagogues followed them and prospered. The gorgeous Reservoir Hill building now used by Beth Am was Chizuk Amuno before it moved to Stevenson. Barry Levinson's Park Heights spread to Pikesville, Randallstown and Owings Mills.

In 1950, aware that few of their congregants lived within walking distance of those shuls, the movement ruled that it was permissible to drive to synagogue on Shabbat if that was the only way you could get there, as well as use electricity. (Baltimore's Rabbi Jacob Agus of Beth El was one of the decision's authors.) Those rulings widened the schism with Orthodoxy, but reflected one of Conservative Judaism's main strengths: the ability to make changes within a halachic context.

That flexibility now is what is getting it into trouble.

The ruling on driving made no allowances for trips to the mall or to a baseball game, but the slippery slope proved slick indeed. Some Conservative scholars in New York, most of whom live within walking distance of their synagogues in upper Manhattan, now publicly suggest the ruling should be reversed.

"Undo driving? That's crazy," said Rabbi Mark G. Loeb of Beth El. "That's absurd. That's not going to happen. People wanted to spread out and they are not all going to live in a neighborhood like Brooklyn. The country changes, the world changes."

Echoed his colleague, Rabbi Steven Schwartz, "You can say you can't drive to the malls, but they will do what they want."

But it was exactly that issue that convinced Laura Shaw Frank to leave.

Influenced by USY, Ramah and Schechter schools, she became shomer Shabbat in high school and then found she was totally alone.

"At my parents' synagogue, there was nobody except the rabbi and his wife. At Ramah it lasted eight weeks. Eight weeks does not a community make."

She longed for a community that essentially practiced what it preached, that lived according to Halachah all the time as Conservative clergy said it should. Even living near JTS didn't provide what she needed. She found it at modern Orthodox communities in New York and Israel.

"The Conservative movement claims it is committed to Halachah and it is binding us as Jews, yet communities don't live that way. It's a lonely existence.

"I owe a great debt to the Conservative movement," she added sadly. "They educated me and taught me to love Judaism."

Life, however, is never simple.

An ardent feminist and co-founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Mrs. Frank ran right into the women's issues haunting the edges of Orthodoxy and finds herself pushing the tradition. This spring, the alliance sponsored programs saluting the role of women in Torah study; her own synagogue, Suburban Orthodox, declined to participate.

While there are no data to prove it, anecdotal evidence indicates that a large number of Conservative Jews who were once Orthodox have daughters or feminist wives and left Orthodoxy over that very issue, so Mrs. Frank may have been going against the tide. Nonetheless, she was faced with a choice between a movement more attuned with her feminist instincts and one more in step with her level of observance, and chose the latter.

That is enough to make rabbis like JTS's Rabbi Roth cry. "Our successes become so uncomfortable with us they decide to leave us. If we were what they were taught at Ramah, they wouldn't leave us," he said. "They were driven out because they sit in Conservative shuls and everyone tells them they are [really] Orthodox and they go to be with people to whom their behavior is not abnormal."

Rabbi Roth suggests that if the Conservative movement became more halachic, it would draw people like Mrs. Frank and other modern Orthodox to Conservative shuls, especially with the current shift in Orthodoxy toward the right.

So the Conservative movement has an identity problem.

"It's always easier to define the extremes — the left and the right — than it is the middle," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism. "The problem is that the ends are not real. The real world doesn't come in these boxes. The real world is much messier.

"The core of the movement is much more cohesive," said Rabbi Dorff. "Through the middle of the 20th century it was a very big tent, perhaps too big, including too many people who didn't agree with each other, but there was a broad center. No one wanted to articulate what the principles were so they wouldn't leave anyone out. It was politically correct for that generation. Not too Jewish; not too goyish, like Goldilocks."

Not every rabbi agrees there is a serious problem. Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Owings Mills' Beth Israel Congregation thinks the Conservatives are coalescing toward the middle. Fifteen years ago, he said, the differences among synagogues would have been much greater. As to the gap in observance between clergy and laity, he said: "If I allowed it to trouble me it would cloud my ability to help people to become more seriously observant. I've always operated on the principle that it happens one step at a time."

Nor do the negative definitions impress everyone as being a bad thing.

Most Conservative rabbis believe Reform goes too far in its reforms, and mainstream Orthodoxy ossified 200 years ago in reaction to the Haskalah.

For instance, Reform congregants have too many children who are not halachically Jewish. No problem, we'll change the definition. Women rabbis? Sure. Gay rabbis? Not to worry, we'll take them. The lack of anchor to Halachah permits Reform rabbis to be unfailingly politically correct. Most Orthodox rabbis confront the same issues by trying to ignore them.

The Conservatives, however, wedded to Halachah yet aiming to be a bridge with the real world, can confront major social changes and adapt even if it takes an infuriatingly long time to its more activist members, many of its rabbis feel. Rabbi Dorff and others have been trying to get the movement to face the issues surrounding homosexuality unsuccessfully for years. It took 20 years to get JTS to agree to ordain female rabbis and even then, some synagogues split off in protest. But they will sooner or later get there, he said.

Rabbi Loeb bristles at this slowness and the seeming irrelevance of the movement's establishment.

"I get more people to a brotherhood breakfast than they do to their annual convention," he said. While the Reform get famous speakers and discuss current public policy issues, the Conservatives get no one and talk about nothing most people care about, he said.

But the Conservative movement, more than the Reform, is synagogue-based and decentralized. Its strength is local, in places like Rabbi Loeb's prosperous Beth El, not national. If it is to hold to its interpretation of Halachah, it has to move slowly.

The rabbis, however, unabashedly believe that Conservative Judaism is the truest form because — however slowly it moves — it moves.

"I argue that Conservative Judaism is the true rabbinic Judaism," said Rabbi Arian.

"I've said it 1,000 times. If I thought true Judaism were Orthodoxy, I'd be an Orthodox Jew," said Rabbi Roth.

Echoed Rabbi Grossman: "Conservative Judaism is the true heir of rabbinic Judaism. It is uniquely positioned to act as a bridge between modernity and tradition."

So what will happen to this once-dominant denomination? Who will win the history, the in-reach or the outreach people? The answer may already lie in the NJPS survey.

Dr. Rela Mintz Geffen, sociologist and president of Baltimore Hebrew University, pointed out a little-commented finding in the study. While the various streams of Judaism are loudly moving toward the right, toward more observance, essentially toward Orthodoxy, the American Jewish population is quietly moving the other way, and has been for 50 years.

The survey found that of present Conservative Jews, 21 percent were raised Orthodox, far more than the percentage of Conservative Jews who became Orthodox (3 percent). In fact, the only reason Orthodoxy is holding to its percentage of the population may be its very high birth rate. Additionally, more Conservatives are becoming Reform (26 percent) than the reverse (6 percent).

Many sociologists have predicted that eventually, the Jewish population in America will be considerably smaller than it is now, but more observant, dedicated and educated. Dr. Geffen said that is already happening and that the current American Jewish population is by far better educated Jewishly than their parents and grandparents were. There are just fewer of them.

If so, "in-reach" may win by default.

"What is now called Conservative Judaism is hardly going to disappear," said Rabbi Zaiman at Chizuk Amuno. "I'm not concerned what label it gets if you forget about labels and deal with its approach to Judaism, God and revelation."

Copyright ©2003 the Baltimore Jewish Times