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Ask not what the movement can do for you
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Ask not what the movement can do for you

Prior to assuming his position as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Dr. Arnold Eisen held a variety of meetings with representatives of the Conservative movement. In Essex County, the meeting took place at Congregation Beth Shalom in Livingston.

In introducing Dr. Eisen, Beth Shalom’s rabbi, Geoffrey Spector, quoted his grandmother in urging the chancellor to be “shtark ve eisen” (strong as iron). The recent Pew study of American Jewry confirms his grandmother’s sage advice.

The major casualty of Pew’s statistics is the Conservative movement, whose adherents declined to 18 percent of the Jewish population from 43 percent in a 1990 study. It should be noted that the Pew Study estimated 6.5 million Jews, while the 1990 study estimated 5.2 million. Assuming Pew included Jews who tend to be less affiliated, the decline in Conservative adherents may not be as great as the study would have us believe.

That, nevertheless, is small comfort to the movement which was once the pace setter for American Jewry.

As Jews moved to the suburbs after World War II, new synagogues — primarily Conservative — offered “womb to tomb” services. Often called Jewish “centers,” they reflected the ideology of Mordecai Kaplan, who viewed Judaism as a civilization, with religion being just one spoke in its wheel. While congregants reflected what sociologist Steven M. Cohen calls “ethnic Judaism,” the rabbis were intent on preserving Conservative Judaism as a “halachic,” or religious, movement. As a former rabbi of mine defined it, the Conservative movement became two: 700 rabbis and hundreds of thousands of dues payers. Though this was an exaggeration, two movements were developing. On a teen level, for example, there was a mass movement, United Synagogue Youth, and a smaller elite youth group, Leaders Training Fellowship, under the tutelage of the rabbis. The “elite” group could number among its achievements the Ramah camp system and the Solomon Schechter schools and a much closer tie with JTS.

However, the tension between the elite and the masses, or between JTS and the United Synagogue, tended to weaken both arms, depriving one of its leadership and the other of its mass following. This was lost on JTS leadership; a former chancellor once told me that he is the leader of the “movement,” while in the next breath telling me that he did not wish a close relationship with the United Synagogue.

The recent conference of the movement, held in the shadow of the Pew report, showed an awareness of a movement in crisis. Some even suggested a change of name, the way synagogues dropped the name “Jewish center” in favor of a Hebrew name (a move that devalued the synagogue’s ethnic and communal role in favor of a religious identity).

Two questions arise: Is the Conservative movement needed? And, if so, how can it be revitalized?

To the first, I give a resounding yes. American Jewry is richer if there is a vibrant centrist movement with both an attachment to world Jewry and a healthy respect for Jewish tradition. As to the second question, I don’t have all the answers but I have accumulated certain observations based on lifetime affiliation, having served as consultant to one of Dr. Eisen’s predecessors, and as a member of a family with a significant number of Conservative rabbis.

Revitalizing the movement demands a high level of commitment. This demands a sense of “shlihut,” or mission, on the part of the faculty and administration of JTS, of the students, and of community rabbis. This I often found wanting during my tenure as consultant, when many of the faculty and rabbinic students I met were more disposed to talk about their salaries than their missions. Local rabbis must emphasize their commitment to the movement through support of its projects. It is high time to stop asking, to paraphrase President Kennedy, what the movement can do for you but ask what you, the intellectual and spiritual leaders, can do for it.

It would probably help to develop a structure similar to the Reform movement, which is one organization with separate branches. That would facilitate cooperation and more readily yield cross fertilization.

Although the Pew study revealed an increase in the number of Jews considering themselves “spiritual” and less in need of community organizations, it also revealed that concern for Israel is almost universal and the memory of the Shoa is our strongest bond. This suggests that the original emphasis on the ethnic and traditional components still has resonance. Leadership in federations and other Jewish organizations should be encouraged.

Finally, there has been the development of “independent” congregations in recent years, often led by JTS-trained rabbis who no longer affiliate with the movement. These include Ikar in Los Angeles and Hadar in New York. This disaffiliation harms the congregation, which loses the benefits of affiliation with a larger group, and the movement, which loses a tremendous source of leadership. They should be lured back into the movement, which will assure the continuity of both.

In his response to the Pew study (NJJN, “A healthier scenario than Pew suggests,” Oct. 17), Rabbi Alan Silverstein described the great vitality in the Conservative movement, including its 630 affiliated congregations, multiple rabbinical seminaries, a summer camp system, a day school system, and a worldwide Masorti Movement. For those of us who care about the future of the movement, it is high time to appreciate what has been done, what is being done, and what can be done “l’tiferet Yisrael” — for the glory of Israel.

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