Conservative Judaism reborn — in Germany


Of late, it’s been depressing to be a Conservative Jew. News of demographic and organizational challenges have fed a frenzy of articles delighting in our imminent demise. Many of the criticisms of Conservative Judaism are rooted in serious and valid concerns. Many of them are criticisms that I’ve made myself for two decades now. But the glee with which some challenging statistics and personal complaints have been proclaimed, while examples of Conservative vitality are ignored or underreported, need some correction.

Two years ago, I received a call from a professor, Rabbi Walter Homolka of the University of Potsdam — Potsdam is the capitol of the State of Brandenburg, near Berlin — informing me that his university, one of the major public centers of learning in central Europe, was interested in creating a new rabbinical school to train Conservative/Masorti rabbis to serve the growing communities of Europe. Yes, you heard me right: Both the Progressive communities and the Masorti (Conservative) communities of Europe are growing. But their future growth is limited by the lack of educated leadership who can speak to them in authentically Jewish ways yet also share their embrace of modernity as contemporary Europeans. They need rabbis who share their worldview, engagement and values.

I flew to Germany a year and a half ago, accompanied by the chair of the board of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, Melissa Held Bordy, and we conducted intensive conversations with the university about the Ziegler School joining with the University of Potsdam, which would be responsible for the academic part of the education while Ziegler would supervise the religious standards and denominational training for this new generation of leaders.

It would be as though UCLA or USC had offered to fund and maintain a rabbinical school as an expression of its core mission in the heart of its own campus!

Last week, those conversations were rewarded. After a beautiful Shabbat in an egalitarian, intimate and moving service led by Rabbi Gesa Ederberg, a woman of vast learning and great warmth, at the Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue (the beautiful gold-domed building recognized as a living symbol of German Jewry), we launched the new rabbinical school: the Zacharias Frankel College. Already we have extraordinary young Europeans applying for our new program.

In an auditorium of this venerable building, hundreds of people — Jews and non-Jews from Germany and all over Europe, educators and academics from the great centers of learning, and members of the German federal and state governments — came together. We spoke of the great Jewish achievements of the past, and of the devastation of the Nazi regime, never to be forgotten. We affirmed that this open, vibrant approach to Jewish life retains the power to restore Jewish vitality across Europe and has much to teach non-Jewish Europeans, too.

Two days later, we gathered on the campus of the University of Potsdam and launched a one-of-a-kind institution, the School of Jewish Theology, which will teach Jewish religious texts and thought in the context of a modern Western university — not huddled in its own seminary or yeshiva, but out in the very apex of public learning. This school will house the two rabbinical programs: Abraham Geiger College (training Reform rabbis) and Zacharias Frankel College (training Masorti/Conservative rabbis). It will also serve hundreds of students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who want to benefit from a rigorous engagement with Jewish texts and study.

This double educational miracle embodies the best of Conservative/Masorti vitality — a joyous affirmation that one can be fully Jewish and fully modern, educated in the best of Western scholarship as a way of enhancing the depths of Torah learning, mitzvah observance and robust spirit. 

In fact, there is considerable vitality that Conservative Judaism demonstrates every day, in its hundreds of congregations, day schools, camps Ramah, rabbinical schools, vibrant youth groups and introduction to Judaism programs. That very vitality, coupled with our tradition of intellectual honesty and Jewish passion, is what will save us. 

The evening of the dedication, I gave a short speech, surrounded by German parliamentarians and government ministers, university presidents, ambassadors from several European countries, bishops and imams and rabbis.

I pointed out that after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, it took 70 years before Jews began to return to our ancestral home to rebuild what was to become the Second Temple. It took 70 years of mourning, grief and exile before we could begin the work of return.  

It is now approximately 70 years after the Shoah, I said, and the work begins. This time the Federal Republic of Germany, with its magnificent educational system, is the ally of the Jewish people.

The vital response to the modern age — a response that embraces the values of democracy and freedom, that relishes the openness of deep engagement with every branch of human learning, and affirms that Judaism authentically grows to integrate the best insights and new knowledge while retaining faith in sacred learning and passionate observance — this cluster of values has animated Conservative Judaism for hundreds of years, leaving a record of great scholars, great communities and great creativity.

Our task is now to mobilize those considerable strengths and to honestly face the unique challenges of our own time. Based on what I see every day at the Ziegler School — our brilliant faculty, talented lay leadership and our equally magnificent students, and based on the redemptive affirmation I witnessed in Germany, I want to share this news from the rooftops:

We’re not dead yet.


Rabbi Dr Bradley Shavit Artson (bradartson.com) holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is also dean of the Zacharias Frankel College in Potsdam, Germany, ordaining rabbis for the European Union.

Goy until proven Jewish


“Who is a Jew?” is a uniquely Jewish question. It is a question that epitomizes the Jewish people and culture. It is a philosophical question that embodies the history of Jewish debate. It is a question of belonging that symbolizes Jews as a minority. It seems like a theoretical question, until your Judaism is in doubt. The question “Are you a Jew?” is a much more personal question and it is a question that many more Jews are being asked. In Israel, American Jews who made Aliyah or are living in Israel are finding that the burden of proof for proving Jewishness is getting increasingly heavy.

When it came time for Julia to get married, she was prepared to fight to prove her Jewish identity. She had moved to Israel three years prior, from the East Coast of the United States, and had gotten used to things always being harder in Israel. But she was not prepared for what she would face.

As someone who keeps a kosher home, doesn’t drive on Shabbat, and considers herself religious, it was important to Julia to have an Orthodox wedding with the Israeli Rabbinate. She is proud of her Jewish heritage, which she can trace back to her great, great grandfather who was an Orthodox Rabbi. However, she knew that her heritage would be hard to prove because of a gap in documents. The gap is a result of her great grandmother and great grandfather being institutionalized, which was the regrettable practice at the time for people born deaf. Being institutionalized, her great grandparents did not form a connection with Judaism, which meant that they did not leave a paper trail, such as a Ketuba or tombstone, for Julia to prove her Jewishness decades later.

Knowing that as an American Jew the Rabbinate would scrutinize her files, she went to the Rabbinate armed with pictures of her great, great grandparents’ tombstones, her parent’s Ketuba from a Reform Rabbi, her Bat Mitzvah certificate, letters testifying to her Jewish identity from two people in her community, and a letter from her Rabbi from the Conservative movement. However, all of this proof was not enough for the Rabbinate and she was refused approval of her Jewish identity.

Speaking of the letter from her Conservative Rabbi, Julia said, “The Rabbi who knows me the most is from a Conservative synagogue. So, I thought it was better to get a letter from someone who really knew me, which was obviously a mistake. It is better for (the Rabbinate) to get a letter from a Rabbi who they know but doesn’t know me whatsoever,” Julia said, still distraught about the treatment she received.

The refusal by the Israeli Rabbinate to accept a letter from a conservative rabbi doesn’t only hurt Julia, but it impacts the entire Conservative movement. Conservative Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California and co-founder of ShefaNetwork and KeshetRabbis said, “For me as a Rabbi to be so marginalized by the religious authorities of my own sacred home demonstrates that the Jewish exile hasn’t ended yet and that the perpetrators of Jewish exile today are largely Jews. The State has only begun to acknowledge the corrupt form of Judaism that has reigned in the State of Israel and that it is going to take a lot more work to end the exile being perpetrated by Jews at Jews. Secular politicians have an obligation to the global Jewish people that they are beginning to acknowledge.”

After a long and painful process, and only about three weeks before the wedding, Julia finally did receive approval to get married in Israel. However, the process has left her with a deep scar. “It was equally frustrating and offensive to my identity. My whole family is Jewish. I have never once in my life doubted my Jewish identity. It was so shameful. It really made me feel ashamed. This is so not Jewish.”

Julia probably does not take any solace in the fact that she is not alone in this struggle. There is a systematic and epidemic distrust from the Israeli Rabbinate towards American Jews and Rabbis from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

Morgan, just like Julia, is a Jewish American immigrant to Israel who got engaged to an Israeli. While Morgan was opening up her marriage file at the New York Rabbinate so she could get married in Israel, her fiancé simultaneously went to his local Rabbinate in Northern Israel. They both faced obstacles related to Morgan being able to prove that she is Jewish.

In New York, Morgan was dealing with a variety of obstacles – from the Israeli Rabbis not understanding that religion isn’t listed on a driver’s license to them not appreciating the fact that Morgan’s mother, who grew up in the projects of New York had faced a lot of anti-Semitism growing up and was more focused on surviving than finding a kosher grocer. While Morgan and her extended family members were being interrogated by the Beit Din in New York, a Rabbi in Israel explained to her fiancé that Morgan’s parents are the equivalent of goyim because they were married by a Reform Rabbi in Los Angeles and affiliate with the Reform Jewish movement.

Speaking about the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to accept Reform Judaism as a legitimate form of the religion, Reform Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, Senior Rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles, California and recently named among the “Top 50 Influential Rabbis in America” by Newsweek stated, “I have little doubt that the rabbinical authorities who impugn the status of Reform and Conservative Rabbis, their congregations, and those who convert to Judaism within them, have gladly accepted financial assistance offered to Israel by those very same Jews and given countless sermons about the importance of unity among the Jewish people.  This makes these Rabbis, in a word, hypocrites.”

The Rabbi who called Morgan’s family goyim explained to her fiancé that she would need to provide documents that show her Jewish heritage for the past three generations. When her fiancé asked this Rabbi how the Rabbinate knew that he was Jewish, since his father had been born on the way to Israel from Yemen without any documentation, the Rabbi refused to give a reason.

Morgan says that one of the toughest parts of this process was that the Rabbinate approached the issue from the “assumption that we aren’t Jewish. They were asking questions to try to trap us, which is so insulting. I was so disgusted. This whole process for the privilege to be married in Israel made me feel as if I didn’t even want to come here anymore. How dare you question my mother and me like we are not Jews! It is a scourge on Israel what they are doing to people, to olim (immigrants), to people who served in the army. It all just disgusts me.”

The entire process to prove that she was Jewish enough to get married in Israel took Morgan approximately a year. After eventually getting a letter through a connection, Morgan can now joke about the experience. “I was making a good six figures in New York, and I’m coming here. Who else but a Jew would do this?”

The Israeli Rabbinate’s refusal to accept letters testifying to an American Jewish immigrant’s Jewish identity from Reform, Conservative, and even some streams of Orthodox Rabbis as sufficient proof is a growing trend and one that is well-known among the immigrant community in Israel, but not well known among American Jews.

“I think Israel’s religious decisions are under the radar for most of the young American Jewish population because most of the young American Jewish population is already distanced from Israel for other reasons,” explained Rabbi Creditor. “We can’t afford to continue distancing these young Jews for both political and religious reasons. It probably is a good thing that young Jews don’t know about those things yet. But as soon as they find out it is an absolute barrier to any sense of connectivity with the State of Israel.”

In recent years, there has been more coverage related to isolated incidents of the Israeli Rabbinate denying Reform and Conservative converts the right to get married, but these are reported as issues that mainly impact converts and their descendents. However, these stories show that converts are simply the canary in the coal mine. When the Israeli Rabbinate refuses to recognize conversions of Reform, Conservative, or other streams of Judaism, it is not a directed offense against converts; it is an affront against American Judaism as a whole. It is an assault against the legitimacy of the leaders, the Rabbis, and the members of one of the strongest Jewish communities in the world.

It is an issue that impacts many, if not most American Jews. According to the 2000-2001National Jewish Population Survey, in the United States there are 1.3 million Jews in Conservative household and 1.7 million in Reform households. This means that, just like Julia and Morgan, more than three million American Jews could face obstacles proving their Jewish identity and potentially be denied the right to get married in Israel. But surprisingly, the American Jewish community, one of the strongest supporters of Israel, is not demanding that Israel reciprocate that support.

Rabbi Creditor explains that being critical of Israel can by synonymous with being a Zionist. “It is absolutely essential that American Jews be engaged in Israel’s safety and life. What makes anybody an authentic Zionist is that they love their Jewish people, they love their Jewish family. And we are free thinkers. We should continue to be free thinkers who love our family. I raise my voice loudly, to demand of my homeland that it treat me like family. And in return, I model that kind of respect and love through everything that I do. My commitment to Israel is what gives me the right to demand of Israel that it treats me with respect.”

Jessica Fishman moved to Israel from the US in 2003 and writes the Aliyah Survival Blog, an irreverent portrayal of life as an immigrant in Israel. Her new book, Chutzpah and High Heels: The Search for Love and Identity in the Holy Land, will be published soon.

Reform, Conservative rabbis: step up gun control


Reform and Conservative rabbinical leaders called for increased gun controls in the wake of a spate of shootings.

“Our tradition teaches: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’ (Leviticus 19:16),” said a statement Thursday issued by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “As people of faith, the Rabbinical Assembly unequivocally calls upon lawmakers to take all available measures, to ensure the safety of the public to limit the availability of guns and the permissibility of their concealment.”

A statement the same day by Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of Reform’s Religious Action Center, noted the shooting attack Wednesday by a man on the Family Research Council, in which a guard was injured, and alluded to shootings this summer at a cinema in Colorado and a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin that have claimed 18 lives.

[Related: Who will protect us from the NRA? by Rob Eshman /
Jews and Guns by Dennis Prager]

“Guns are too pervasive in our society and too easily obtained by those with mental illness, nefarious goals – or both,” Saperstein said. “Abiding by the principles of the Constitution need not be incompatible with sensible gun control.”

Saperstein’s statement also noted increasingly vicious political rhetoric as an element; the FRC attacker reportedly opposed the group’s opposition to gay marriage, and the Wisconsin shooter was a white supremacist.

“This trend of violence threatens us all and violates the values of respect for others that must be paramount in American civic and political life,” he said.

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