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.

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.”

Leadership of Conservative Judaism continues to change

Much has been written in recent years (including by me) about the challenges facing Conservative Judaism — the “moderate” Jewish movement that seeks to reconcile tradition with the modern world.

It’s no easy task in an increasingly partisan culture, where most religious groups are identified as being with the right or left.

The incoming leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, an organization that represents Conservative synagogues, has a lot of work to do.

“I wanted this job because I think we are at a critical moment in the life of the movement and because the synagogue is the locus of Jewish life in the United States,” Rabbi Steven Wernick told the Jewish Week.

He’ll soon by taking over for Rabbi Jerome Epstein of New Rochelle, who has led the USCJ for 23 years.

This is a real period of change for the leadership of Conservative Judaism.

In 2007, Arnold Eisen took over as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC, the intellectual center of the Conservative movement. He replaced the long-serving Rabbi Ismar Schorsch.

And in a few months, Rabbi Joel Meyers of White Plains is retiring after two decades as executive vice-president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis. He’ll be replaced by another White Plains-based rabbi, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld.

I hope to write something about Schonfeld before she takes over this summer.

Calls ring for a new Muslim/Jewish era

Might we be seeing the first sign of a thaw in Muslim/Jewish relations?

Just an itty-bitty sign?

Last year, 138 Muslim scholars from dozens of countries called for a new era in Muslim/Christian relations. Their open letterA Common Word Between Us and You — was well received by many Christian leaders, and the Vatican plans to host several of the signatories for a conversation.

jewish_star.pngNow the Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations in the UK has issued an open letter to the international Jewish community, calling for the end of “stereotypes and prejudices” that divide the Muslim and Jewish worlds.

The letter says, in part:

This Letter is important for non-Muslims and Muslims because it illustrates that the Muslim world has diversity of opinion and that Muslims are willing to engage in a conversation with Jews, a conversation that is not wholly dominated by the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Although many Muslims and non-Muslims only know of Muslim-Jewish relations through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there needs to be an awareness of other positive encounters at different stages of our history as well as the pioneering work of inter-religious dialogue being undertaken by contemporary Muslims and Jews outside of the Middle East.

starmoon_yellow.gifThree significant American Jewish leaders — of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist worlds — have issued a joint response (which I received by press release and can’t find on the Web):

We deeply appreciate the hand extended in a letter from Muslim scholars at The Centre for the Study of Muslim-Jewish Relations, and we clasp that hand willingly. That we have much to learn from and about each other is clear – sometimes painfully clear. We look forward to the shared work of thoughtful dialogue.

We appreciate in particular the letter’s assertion, regarding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, that “The loss of every single life is a loss to humanity and a bloody stain on the tapestry of history. We call for a peaceful resolution that will assure mutual respect, prosperity and security to both Palestinians and Israelis, while allowing the Palestinian people their rights to self-determination�. We whole-heartedly share that perspective, and hope that our exploration of the troubling issues will enable us to understand each other’s narratives and to come together in explicit and stern denunciation of terrorism.

Clearly, the time for a respectful consideration of the issues that unite us and also of the issues that divide us has come; indeed, it has been too long postponed.

The response is from: Rabbi Jerome Epstein, Executive Vice President of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism; Dr. Carl Sheingold, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation; and Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Additionally, the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations — which often represents Judaism in talks with other faiths — has issued a call for a new dialogue between Muslims and Jews.

It says, in part:

As believers in the One Creator and Guide of the Universe, referred to in both our Traditions as the Merciful One, who demands mercy and compassion of us all, it is essential to recapture and develop the spirit of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and mutual respect. True love of God demands this dialogue, not only to uphold the aforementioned sublime teachings and to recapture the historical memory of mutual cooperation, but in order to facilitate genuine reconciliation among the different faith communities, between Muslims and Jews everywhere, and also for the sake of relations between the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world at large.

The language in the latter letter brings to mind the language in the Muslim letter to Christians…

What does this all mean? Many will throw water on these efforts, no doubt. But you have to start somewhere…