Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Snap Judgment: A Conservative radical proposal

Calev Ben-David
Dec. 22, 2004

A few years ago I interviewed Levi Weiman-Kelman, the rabbi of Jerusalem's Kol Haneshema synagogue, the Reform Jerusalem shul of which I am a member.

As I knew that Levi was the son of Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a long-time leader of American Conservative Jewry, and was himself a graduate of the movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, I was curious as to why he had ended up founding a Reform congregation here.

In fact, he said, he had indeed first gone to the Conservative Movement, which told him they didn't have the money to pay him a salary. He then turned to the former head of the Israeli Reform movement, Rabbi Richard Hirsch. "He took out a checkbook right there and asked me what I needed," Weiman-Kelman recalled.

That was two decades ago, when there were only a handful of non-Orthodox synagogues in the entire country. Today, there are over 50 Masorti (as Conservative Judaism is called here) Israeli congregations, and a comparable number of schools affiliated with the movement via the Tali educational system (which also runs religious studies programs in state "secular" schools). The Conservative Movement has also recently invested heavily in expanding the campus of its Jerusalem headquarters, and continues to run the Solomon Schechter Institute.

Yet with all that, the president of the Israeli Masorti Movement, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, felt compelled to make a plea in the pages of The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday begging for greater support from its parent organization in the US.

"A medium-sized Conservative shul in the US has a larger budget [$2.4 million] than we do," complained Bandel, who says his group has on occasion had to default salary payments. Fundraising trips to the US fall on deaf ears, although Bandel insists "I try to explain to them that the future of Conservative Jewry relies on their support."

I don't claim to have enough inside knowledge to judge the validity of Bandel's pleas. And there is something to the response provided by US Conservative rabbinical leader Joel Meyers, that as an "extremely external-focused movement," his peers contribute much more generously to other Israeli causes - including more pressing humanitarian needs - than they do to the goal of simply increasing their own flock here.

Still, as a born-and-raised Conservative Jew who today considers himself a "Masorti" Israeli (in spirit, at least), and shleps his kids halfway across Jerusalem many mornings so they can attend one of the city's precious few Tali schools, I admittedly can't be objective in this matter.

Whether Bandel is justified in his specific claims, he is surely correct in his general complaint. The US Conservative movement, to these eyes, is failing to provide the level of support deserved by its Israeli brethren. But even more important, it is missing a golden opportunity to reach out to unaffiliated Jews here on a scale now unimaginable in America.

HERE'S A curious twist: I would never have imagined the day when I would proudly declare myself a Conservative Jew.

Growing up in the US in a family that belonged to Temple Hillel of Long Island, the Conservative approach - driving to shul but parking around the corner from the synagogue (yup, my parents actually did that) - seemed to me emblematic of American Jewish wishy-washiness, nish ahin, nish aher, lacking both the authentic traditionalism of Orthodoxy and the bold revisionism of Reform.

Apparently, many of my American-born brethren agreed with me, as membership in Conservative congregations has been steadily declining from its high point in the 1960s (though that's in line with the concurrent drop in the total number of American Jews).

Once I reached Israel, though, the Conservative philosophy - respectful of Halacha (Jewish law) but recognizing the need for it to both change through evolutionary means and tolerate the compromises individuals feel they must make in the course of daily modern existence - simply seemed the most common-sense approach to religious life in a reborn Jewish state.

After all, most Israelis already define themselves as "little m" masorti - Jews who observe in some degree Shabbat and the holy days according to traditions they don't want radically altered - even if they have little awareness of the "big M" Masorti movement. These Israelis are ripe for the framework Conservative Judaism provides, as I've seen myself through my child's attendance at a Tali school, but, as Bandel admitted, "We don't have the funds to reach out to these people."

This is not to deny the formidable obstacles the movement faces in breaking through the prejudices of both devoutly Orthodox and fervently secular Israelis, including determined resistance in the public sphere. Just this summer the Tali system required a Supreme Court ruling in order to get its fair share of the funding provided by the Education Ministry for school prayer sessions.

Yet I'm convinced - as is, obviously, Bandel - that the real future of Conservative Judaism is here, where it can serve as a bridge for Jews into their tradition, and not in its birthplace, where it too often serves as an escape route out of it.

That may not be an easy message to sell to the Conservative Movement's leadership in America, which clearly has a vested interest in believing the opposite. But that doesn't make it any less true.

Maybe the trick is simply to persuade "externally-focused" Conservative Jews that supporting their Masorti brethren in Israel constitutes a worthy philanthropic cause. That way, the next time energetic young JTS graduates want to build a congregation here, they'll get the support they deserve. And while they're at it, I wouldn't mind if they would also fund the building of a Tali school a little closer to my side of Jerusalem.

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