Prescriptions for Conservative Judaism

Next Wednesday, Sept. 5, Arnold Eisen will be “inaugurated”: as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the flagship seminary and intellectual center of Conservative Judaism.

Much has been said in recent years about the challenges facing the Conservative movement, which strives to be moderate and centrist — balancing Jewish tradition with modern realities — in a culture that is increasingly prone to polarization.

tjndc5-5c3xhrp5vlkp48z39qu_layout.jpgEisen himself has conceded that the Conservative world does not put forth a strong, clear message about who it is and what it’s trying to do.

As the inauguration nears, The Forward has asked some big-name Jewish thinkers to say (quickly) how Conservative Judaism should move forward.

You can read it “here.”:

Some highlights:

Rabbi David Wolpe of LA: “Covenantal Judaism. That is our philosophy and should be our name. Renaming heralds our rejuvenation…Covenantal Judaism holds aloft the ideal of dialogue with God, with other Jews of all movements, and with the non-Jewish world. In holding each of these as sacred we stand in a unique position in Jewish life.”

David Shneer, University of Denver: “Pulpit rabbis (an odious term that shows how mainstream Judaism has aped its Protestant counterparts) become CEOs of synagogues, appointed by boards of donors and charged with communal operations, moving yet further away from the spirit. Perhaps if Conservative Judaism spent more time allowing its rabbis to cultivate their own spirit and personal charisma, more of them would see what they do less as a job and more as a calling, and more Jews would approach Conservative shuls with passion.”

Author Scott Shay: “The goal should be a total turnover of incumbent leadership over a two- to three-year period to a new group of energized grassroots leaders. This should be accomplished with kavod, compassion, but urgency as well.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy of LA: “The Conservative movement needs to send out an army. We must plant 50 new spiritual communities across America with the mission of reaching out to unaffiliated and disaffected Jews. I say spiritual communities because I am not referring to synagogues or havurot.”

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer of NY: “Lose the “Label yourself Conservativeâ€? mentality. Try instead: We encourage Jews to seek meaningful, empowered engagement with Judaism. Wherever that leads, we trust them, even if it is outside the Conservative menu of options.”

When Catholic social scientists get together

What do Catholic social scientists study?

I recently received some info on the “Society of Catholic Social Scientists'”: upcoming annual meeting (Oct. 26 and 27) at St. John’s Law School in Queens. Many of the panel discussions scheduled sound quite interesting.

Among them:

The Catholic Church in Contemporary Ireland (where, by many accounts, the church is struggling);

Edith Stein: Saint and Feminist;

Defending the Faith: The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights (CL honcho William Donohue will be there and is giving the keynote for the conference);

The Campaign for the International Right to Abortion in International Institutions;

The Legacy of Pope John Paul II (one panelist is supposed to discuss the “anthropological realism” of JPII);

Problems and Prospects in Catholic Education;Issues of Life and Death (one presenter will discuss “evolution and the embryo”);

The Sexual Scandal in the Catholic Church Today: Should the Church Oppose Extending the Statues of Limitations? (In other words, should the church try to protect itself against lawsuits that involve long-ago crimes, even if the accusations are true?);

African American Catholicism and Catholicism in Africa;

Faith and Reason in Catholic Thought as Understood by Pope Benedict XVI;

The Pius Wars and Sister Margherita Marchione (a nun who has dedicated herself to defending Pope Pius XII from accusations that he did not do enough to oppose the Nazis);

Abortion, The Church, and American Society;

A Critique of the Writings of Some Prominent Secular Thinkers: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Sigmund Freud;

The Impact of Catholic Bloggers: How They are Become an Important Alternate Voice in Catholic Culture;

Catholicism and Politics;

What Catholics Need to Know about Islamic Jihad.

Lots of meaty stuff, no?

The co-chairs of the conference are David Gregory, the Dorothy Day Professor of Law at St. John’s Law School, and Joseph Varacalli, director of the active Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College.

Tony Blair to speak at Al Smith Dinner

Tony Blair, former prime minister of Great Britain and President Bush’s chief ally in the war against Iraq, will be the featured speaker at this year’s Al Smith Dinner.

The 62nd annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, a major charity event for the Archdiocese of New York, will be Oct. 18 at the Waldorf-Astoria.

tjndc5-5fsyascjh3q1dht3k4kx_layout.jpgBlair is a member of the Church of England, but his wife and kids are Catholic. Some have speculated that Blair would become Catholic after leaving office.

Right now, he’s special envoy to the Middle East for the so-called “quartet.”

The last British PM to address the Smith dinner was a guy named Winston Churchill, who did it in 1947.

The dinner is $1,000 a ticket, with proceeds going to Catholic charities across NY.

JewWalking on YouTube (it’s nothing bad)

You know how Jay Leno will go out with a cameraman and ask people questions about the news or geography, to show how stupid everyone is?

It’s painful to watch, but funny all the same.

Well, the National Jewish Outreach Program, a NYC-based outfit that tries to reel in non-practicing Jews, has taken a similar approach.

jewwalking2.jpgThey sent someone out in NYC to do “JewWalking,” the kind of term that only a Jewish group can use (I hope).

Their guy, a comedian named Simmy Kay, asks Jews basic questions about Judaism and then waits for their silly answers.

It’s all on “YouTube.”:

The punchline is that the NJOP offers all sorts of programs to teach Jews about Judaism. If you want to skip YouTube, you can find their offerings “here.”:

Southern Baptists fed up with public schools

Here’s another item on the question of where and how religion fits (if it does) in public education.

The Southern Baptist Convention is apparently so fed up with the absence of God in public schools that it wants to “train church leaders”: to open private schools.

“In the public schools, you don’t just have neutrality, you have hostility toward organized religion,” Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, told Yonat Shimron, the terrific religion writer at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. “A lot of parents are fed up.”

I know Southern Baptists are little more than a curiosity to many New Yorkers, as there are few Southern Baptist churches around. But the Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, representing more than 16 million people.

What the Convention does in regard to education could rub off on other traditions.

Right now, evangelicals who don’t like public education often choose home-schooling for their kids.

But, maybe, down the line evangelicals will start to build a system of private education like the Catholic schools. It’s a big undertaking, but who knows?

Can tax-funded schools teach Jewish culture (without God)?

A controversial Hebrew-language public school in Florida has apparently got Jewish mega-philanthropist Michael Steinhardt thinking big.

The Hollywood, Fla., school, a charter school, promises to teach Hebrew and Jewish history — without teaching Jewish religion.

There is much debate about whether or not this is possible.

Steinhardt, who made a ton on Wall Street and lives on a 51-acre estate in Bedford, is very intrigued, according to an “article”: in the new Jewish Week.

tjndc5-5b4v8hzuq8i1fjy167p4_layout.jpgWhen I interviewed Steinhardt for a profile a few years back, he told me that one of his dreams was to start a series of secular Jewish day schools, which would teach Jewish culture and history but leave out the God parts.

Steinhardt (that’s him) is an atheist. But he life’s goal is to preserve the Jewish community in the U.S.

He told the Jewish Week that he has spent nearly $2 million over the last 10 years trying to set up secular Jewish schools. But now he sees the charter school option as a real possibility.

“The bulk of Jews today would probably consider themselves secular, and that easily fits under the rubric of a charter school,� Steinhardt told the JW. “It would create problems of church and state, but it would ultimately survive the problems.�

He recently met with Peter Deutsch, who founded the charter school in Florida, and the two may work together to create similar schools in other states.

Deutsch told the JW that he plans to open five more charter schools in Florida and one in LA next year. And he wants to open a high school in NY in 2009.

All with public money.

As the JW article makes clear, many in the Jewish education world are deeply concerned about where all this is going.

It’s mighty interesting, isn’t it?

Greek Orthodox focused on fires

With wildfires blazing across Greece, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is asking all parishes to hold a memorial service this Sunday for victims of the fires and to take special collections to send to Greece.

Demetrios, the Archbishop of America, writes in a short “encyclical:”:

As our good and gracious Lord is merciful, may we offer our love and gifts to our brothers and sisters. Knowing the boundless generosity and love of you, the faithful of America, we are confident that you will respond most generously to this appeal to help those people who have lost loved ones, their homes and their livelihoods and who will need our assistance both on a short and long term basis to recover from this devastating tragedy.

An influential Episcopal priest moves on

When the Rev. Angela Boatright took over as priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Spring Valley back in 2002, one parishioner told the JN “I think she’ll wake up the church.”

How right she was.

Boatright came with an usual resume. She had worked as a journalist before becoming an Episcopal nun and later a priest. She was divorced with two kids.

tjndc5-5b4xguxiw68b71yx7p4_layout.jpgSt. Paul’s hadn’t had a priest-in-charge for six years. Boatright came in and shook things up, recognizing that Spring Valley was a rapidly changing community. She wanted her parish to serve the needy, in particular the growing numbers of day laborers who were gathering on street corners, looking for work.

St. Paul’s began to host the Jornaleros Project, which provides food and other aid to day laborers. Needless to say, it’s a controversial cause to take up these days.

Now Boatright is gone. As my colleague Suzan Clarke “reports today,”: Boatright has remarried and moved to Wadesboro, N.C.

The future of the Jornaleros Project is up in the air. As is St. Paul’s identity.

It will be interesting to see what happens to the parish. Will its priorities stay the same with new leadership?

As one volunteer at the Jornaleros Project said about Boatright, known by many as Mother Angela: “She was a powerful force. She saw the need and just jumped in and she got a lot of flak.”

Emmitt Smith the evangelist

I was out yesterday, but want to quickly catch up with Michael Vick finding God.

As he said during his already famous apology:

“I’m upset with myself, and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. And I think that’s the right thing to do as of right now.”

tjndc5-5frmde03ura1cw3y9vo_layout.jpgMonday evening, I was watching a football show on ESPN when Emmitt Smith, the former Cowboy great (that’s him), was talking about Vick. I didn’t get his exact words, but he said, more or less, that some people really have to suffer before they find Jesus.

It struck me as an unusually strong statement of belief on a non-religious TV show. He was looking right into the camera.

Smith, like former Cowboys Michael Irvin and Deion Sanders, is a disciple of T.D. Jakes, the prominent Pentecostal pastor from Big D.

Several years ago, Jakes’ people sent me (and every other religion writer in America) photos of Jakes baptizing Smith and Sanders. It was a press release for a baptism.

I have those photos somewhere…

Americans like science, but love faith

When Faith and Science compete, Faith Usually Wins.

That’s the headline of an interesting analysis by David Masci, Senior Research Fellow for the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Masci contends that when science seems to contradict religious teachings, most people ignore the science:

How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

Read the whole article “here.”: