Difficult days for Conservative Judaism

Much has been said and written in recent years about the challenges facing the “centrist” Jewish world of Conservative Judaism.

Membership is falling. There’s no sense of identity. It’s hard to be moderate or centrist in a culture dominated by “conservative” and “liberal” voices.

Conservative Judaism was once simply Judaism for a lot of second-generation types — very traditional, yet at ease with being American.

But the Jewish community has been spreading out (fracturing?). The Orthodox world is growing, bringing in people who once might have been happy belonging to a Conservative shul. The Reform world has pull for not only liberal Jews, but those who may have dropped observance and the large numbers of interfaith families. Then you have all those Jews who have slipped away or are “post-denominational,” meaning that they’re not interested in belonging to anything.

To make matters worse, many Conservative rabbis have been pretty critical of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the “umbrella” group for Conservative congregations.

Now the USCJ is looking to reinvent itself, both for self-preservation and to help lead a renewal of Conservative Judaism.

A draft letter from a planning commission puts it like this: “…we, the Commission, feel that Conservative Judaism in North America is at a crossroads and serious effort needs to be focused on strengthening and transforming the synagogue, the primary institution of our communal Jewish life.”

At a crossroads…

Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive VP of the USCJ, told the Jewish Week: “The motivation of North American Jews for synagogue affiliation has changed and we need to create an organization that operates as an engagement model.”

I’m not sure what that means, but it doesn’t sound promising.

Wernick is holding meetings around the country to discuss the state of things and the Big Plans. He’ll be at Temple Israel Center of White Plains on Feb. 22.

Will religious leaders speak out on immigration?

President Obama’s intention to press forward with immigration reform is certain to present serious challenges for religious leaders.

Most major religious denominations — especially those with a presence in New York — are all in favor of reform, including some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants already here. But they find themselves at odds with many citizens, including many in their pews, who have little patience with illegals.

Especially at a time of high unemployment, selling immigration reform could make the health-care reform mess look easy.

So here’s the question: How willing will religious leaders be to try to sell a controversial policy shift that many people do not want?

Just about every major mainline Protestant denomination favors immigration reform. Most major Jewish groups (including the Reform and Conservative movements) favor reform. And mostly importantly, the Roman Catholic Church, the largest and most influential religious community in many regions with high numbers of immigrants, is all-out, hog-wild in favor of reform.

Still, as I’ve written before, the Catholic Church is extremely active and vocal in Washington. But the message on immigration is rarely shared by bishops to their dioceses. And the word hardly makes it to the parish level.

An official with the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference told me last year that this disconnect was a real problem.

Will this change if the immigration debate becomes nasty, as it promises to do? How many priests and ministers and rabbis will want to promote reform from their pulpits if people might grumble or hiss or leave?

Over the past few years, religious leaders in New York met to talk about crafting a pro-immigrant statement they could release jointly. But it never came to pass. Which tells you something.

When I interviewed Archbishop Dolan soon after he came to New York, he told me that he wanted to take the lead on immigration in New York. The Catholic Church should be leading pro-immigrant rallies New York, he said, not smaller Pentecostal churches.

We’ll see.

Here in LoHudland, nothing riles people up like immigration issues. The idea of amnesty for illegal immigrants makes people go nuts. Will Dolan and other religious leaders — Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran bishops, Reform and Conservative rabbis — speak up?

We shall see.

The Latino Pastoral Action Center in the Bronx is hosting a pro-reform rally for clergy on Monday. The announced speakers are all Hispanic, so far.

MFA-logo-blueADD: I didn’t mention that a large rally for immigration reform will be held in Washington on Wednesday, March 21. Organizers say that tens of thousands will attend.

The rally is being organized and supported by dozens of religious groups.

Interestingly, the slogan for the “March for America” is “Change takes courage and faith.”

Clarifying Conservative Judaism’s position on intermarriage and conversion

I mentioned yesterday a Jewish Week article about strains within Conservative Judaism over whether to seek the conversion of non-Jews married to Jews.

Today, the leaders of the Conservative rabbinate issued a statement saying that they are quite united on the issue.

The statement says: “…it is understandable that this misunderstanding exists because the Rabbinical Assembly has boldly selected to embrace two seemingly contradictory points of view – the unconditional welcome of interfaith families and non-Jews within the community alongside the prospect of conversion to those who sincerely feel moved to join the Jewish people.”

In other words, Conservative rabbis want to welcome non-Jewish spouses without any strings or pressures — but will happily work with anyone who is thinking about the whole Jewish thing.

The statement is signed by Rabbi Jeffrey A. Wohlberg, president of the Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (that’s her), the new chief executive of the RA. I recently profiled Schonfeld (whose official title is executive VP) and noted that she wants the Conservative movement to have a higher profile and be more “vigorous” in its response to public debates and media coverage.

This would be an example of being vigorous.

The statement goes on to say:

*****

We honor the committed relationships non-Jews have forged with their Jewish partners in our communities. At the same time, we also adhere to the integrity of Jewish tradition and hope, wherever possible, to motivate people to become Jewish. Our first priority is always that the non-Jew experiencing our way of life do so at a pace and in an environment where he or she feels comfortable. Moreover, the unconditional welcome we extend to non-Jews is heartfelt and enthusiastic wherever they are on their journey.

*****

Here is the entire statement, if you’re interested: Continue reading

Conservative Judaism takes new tack on intermarriage (again)

Conservative Jews have been split for some time over how to reach out to intermarried couples and their children.

It’s one of the most sensitive subjects facing Judaism’s “moderate” movement.

Reform Judaism has had a much easier time, particularly since deciding in 1983 to recognize the children of Jewish fathers as Jewish. Traditionally, Judaism has recognized only matrilineal descent.

In the Orthodox world, intermarriage is rare.

Most Conservative congregations see some members — or the children of members — marry “out,” creating all kinds of potential tensions. How welcoming do you want to be of intermarried couples? How do you serve the spiritual needs of the non-Jewish spouse? What if the mother is not Jewish and their children are not recognized as Jewish by the Conservative world?

In 2005, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — which represents Conservative congregations — took the position that its synagogues should aggressively promote conversion for non-Jewish spouses.

Now, the Jewish Week reports, the Conservative movement is taking a somewhat softer approach. The JW says that the movement is about to produce a pamphlet on intermarriage that says:

All are welcome.
There is a commitment to fostering Jewish marriage and family life.
Interfaith couples are welcome.
There is “nurturing and support for the spiritual journey of non-Jewish partners who join us, to deepen their connections to the synagogue, the Jewish community and to the Jewish people, and to inspire them to consider conversion.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains, who retired last week as executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis, told the JW: “The movement is still very much in favor of Jewish family life, and so the question was how does one approach American Jewish communal life today without changing religious standards.”