Thursday, March 10, 2005

State of Conservative Judaism - Miami Herald

From the Miami Herald

Conservative Jews fleeing to other movements

Associated Press

The branch of American Judaism that occupies the middle ground between those who buck tradition and those who fully embrace it have been confronting the dwindling appeal of their movement in a meeting this week in Houston.

Members of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, at their annual convention, say their seminaries and day schools have been educating more and more Jews, only to see them flee to other Jewish movements.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the leading Conservative school, said the exodus of young Conservative Jews with strong religious educations is a key reason the movement is floundering. "I deem that to be the most critical loss," he said, in a phone interview from the meeting, titled "Reinventing Conservative Judaism."

Schorsch partly blames the trend on the poor quality of worship in Conservative synagogues, which he says are so geared toward "entry-level Jews" that those with more religious knowledge leave for the stricter Orthodox congregations. Schorsch says he often worships at an Orthodox synagogue on Friday nights, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, because of the beauty of the service.

"There is really a fatal disconnect," he said. "There is not enough attention being paid to advanced Jews."

The Conservative movement teaches a traditional Judaism that is moderately flexible. For example, Conservatives allow members to drive on the Jewish Sabbath if necessary and let men and women sit together during services. However, unlike clergy in the more liberal Reform stream, most Conservative rabbis will not officiate at interfaith weddings. The Orthodox movement has the strictest adherence to Jewish law and tradition.

Conservatives have resisted pressure to liberalize core teachings to prevent less observant Jews from leaving for Reform synagogues, which generally give a greater role to gays and to Gentile spouses of congregants.

Although exact numbers are hard to calculate, Jewish leaders now agree that the Reform movement has overtaken Conservative Judaism as the largest North American branch - in members and in number of synagogues. The total number of Jews in the United States is estimated at between 5 million and 6 million.

However, these are not the losses that preoccupy most Conservative thinkers. Instead, many want to retain the more observant congregants - a strategy they believe will revitalize synagogues.

"If a person decides that they are really not interested in observance, then the Conservative movement is really not the place for them," said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Conservative leader from Israel who attended the Texas meeting. "But sometimes we lose people who become very observant. If we don't have enough observant people in our congregations, then they will look for a place they will feel more comfortable."

Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said the Conservative branch began faltering when it decided to more rigorously define itself, narrowing its appeal. Synagogues that once felt welcome, believed they didn't fit in anymore and broke away.

Among the issues that drove some out: The movement's decisions over the last two decades to ordain women and to not ordain gays, although the role of homosexuals is once again under review by the movement's Law Committee. The Reform movement ordains gays and women, while the Orthodox do not.

"Some left because the Conservative movement wasn't liberal enough and some left because it was too liberal," said Sarna, who spoke at the assembly. "The tent has become smaller and smaller."

Sarna said the Reform and Orthodox movements have succeeded partly because they are tolerant of a spectrum of practices in a way that the Conservative branch is not.

Reform leaders have recently encouraged their members to embrace traditions they once deemed meaningless, such as learning Hebrew and keeping kosher. As a result, a wide range of worship styles can be found in Reform congregations.

The Orthodox stream, which encompasses a small percentage of North American Jews, have successfully played down internal differences, between the more adaptable modern Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox, for example - and have focused on what unites them instead, Sarna said.

Sarna noted that many Conservative-trained leaders have started creative programs that have enjoyed great success - such as small prayer groups that are popular among young people. However, he said these leaders do not affiliate with the movement and he urged the Rabbinical Assembly to honestly consider why.

Said Sarna: "The Conservative movement needs to keep people with those new ideas in the tent, rather than believe in order to make those innovative ideas happen, they need to go outside the tent."

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