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.

Rabbis to Boy Scouts: Lift ban on gay members

More than 500 rabbis and cantors urged the Boy Scouts of America to drop its ban on homosexual members when the youth group’s National Council convenes in Dallas this week.

Representatives of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements signed the letter, which was coordinated by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism and sent to the BSA leadership on Tuesday night.

“Many of us are former scouts, the parents of scouts or children who aspire to scouting, and admirers of the mission and purpose of the BSA,” the religious leaders wrote. “Each of us, however, opposes the BSA’s discriminatory policy that excludes gay scouts and leaders.”

A spokesperson for the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism said it did not know if any of the signatories were Orthodox.

Some 1,400 leaders from the National Council are scheduled to have their final vote Thursday on changing the long-standing ban on openly gay boys in the scouting movement.

The National Jewish Committee on Scouting has been vocal in calling on the BSA to drop the ban.

In their letter, the rabbis and cantors expressed their dismay that the current proposal would lift only the ban on gay youth and called on the BSA to end the exclusion of homosexual adults as well.

Rabbi David Hartman’s learned students remember their rebbe

An Advocate for Divine Honesty

David Hartman was sui generis; he was a unique individual who was very excited about ideas and at the same time pragmatic. Who believed that believing is best expressed in behavior. To believe is to behave.

This is very clear in his latest book, “The God Who Hates Lies.” It was his opportunity to express the great hope that he had for a renaissance of Jewish life in the State of Israel, and his frustrations at the people who were returning to an ideological, self-centered kind of life that was very disillusioning to him.

His great teacher was Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and he told me as he was working on this book, “I have to break with Soloveitchik.” In his treatment of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, Soloveitchik said this was the glory of a divine absurdity; the act of being about to do something that is against logic itself. 

Hartman chastised Soloveitchik for this. He said that this is not what we need; we need divine truthfulness and honesty.

He literally gathered hundreds of rabbis, gathered them together and enabled them to speak together without any of their insularity — Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist were able to speak, to present, without hostility and without denigration.

He had a remarkable, charismatic approach to the teaching of Judaism. When he was on, it was sheer idealism and enthusiasm. From my point of view, it’s a monumental loss in the Jewish community. He was able to see within Orthodoxy a liberation. 

— Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Valley Beth Shalom, as told to Susan Freudenheim

‘The crown has fallen from our head’ — Lamentations 5:16

There was a man and he is no more.

A thinker, a teacher and a lover of humanity. My teacher and friend, Rabbi David Hartman.

He was larger than life: a dynamic force; a public figure with an international following. But when you became his student, he attached himself to you; he became your rebbe. I was privileged to be one of his students for almost 35 years. He was my rebbe. He was my mentor. He shaped my thinking, and he touched my soul.

My mother passed away just over a month ago. Losing David Hartman feels like I’ve lost my intellectual and spiritual father. 

What made David Hartman so special was that he was a yeshiva bocher who gained enlightenment but never stopped being a yeshiva bocher. And so he was at the same time both critical and loyal. He encouraged us to boldly challenge the tradition but never stop loving it. He gave us the greatest gift that a teacher can bequeath: the freedom to inquire, to ask, to probe and to speculate. He accompanied us on the journey — he wrestled with us — all the while reminding us that our personal growth was bound up in a collective responsibility. He so loved the Jewish people. And he loved humanity.

When I first met R’ Duvid, as I fondly called him, he asserted that the most serious religious question that the Jewish people had to confront was how to rule over a minority as Jews. It was the critical question back in 1978, and it continues to be the most vexing moral issue that we face. 

That’s why I became David Hartman’s student, and that’s why he will always be my rebbe. 

— Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, Executive Director, UCLA Hillel

The Holiness of Now: A Memory of David Hartman

Torah commands: “You shall follow after the Lord your God.” (Deuteronomy 13:5) So the Talmud asks: “God is a consuming fire! How is it possible to follow after God?” It answers: Follow the ways of God. My teacher David Hartman offered a different answer: Become the fire! Reflect God’s passion, God’s rage, God’s vision into the world. He was a blazing fire, and learning with Hartman was always an adventure. He thundered. He raged. He wept. Torah meant that much to him.

Hartman’s passion rose from his belief in the singular spiritual significance of this moment in Jewish history. For Hartman, our emergence from the Holocaust and the rebirth of Israel initiated a new stage in the unfolding covenantal drama of the Jewish people. There was Sinai, the revelation of the Written Torah, expressed in the language of Mitzvah. There was Yavneh, the revelation of the Oral Torah, expressed in the language of Midrash. And now there is Israel, the revelation of a Living Torah, expressed in the textures and rhythms of Jewish life reborn in its land. Our return to sovereignty in Israel redefines the collective Jewish project. It reshapes our relationship to God. Israel redefines what it means to be a Jew. The holiness of this moment was his Torah. And his fire was our blessing, bringing new life to the soul of the Jewish people. 

— Rabbi Ed Feinstein

A Mensch

Rabbi David Hartman told it like it is. He didn’t mince words. He argued with Maimonides, as if he were living and shouting back.

When he spoke of his love for Israel and the challenges it faces, his words were strong and backed up through action — by educating the Israeli community and military. He didn’t hesitate to share his ambivalences with Orthodox Jewry as we know it; he welcomed women into the Bet Midrash at the Shalom Hartman Institute over 25 years ago. I’m so grateful to have studied with him every other year for those 25.  

A Man, a Mensch, a Visionary.

— Rabbi Karen L. Fox, Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Hartman and the Orthodox Discourse

Figures of great influence and authority within contemporary Orthodoxy, (such as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on religious pluralism and Rabbi Yehuda Amital z’l on non-messianic Zionism) have shared ideas that Rabbi David Hartman had developed years earlier. His intellectual legacy is broad within Orthodoxy and his ideas are easy to find. But it is harder to find the voice of Rabbi Hartman himself. There is much to celebrate in his legacy after such a productive and rich life, but for the Orthodox community, the absence of Rabbi David Hartman from our communal discourse is a warning for the future.

Rabbi David Wolkenfeld, Center for Jewish Life, Hillel at Princeton University. Excerpted from “Reflections on Rabbi David Hartman z’l.” The full text can be read on the Morethodoxy blog.

A Voice That Was Freed — and Now Is Silent

Rabbi David Hartman has gone to his eternal rest, but not before making a monumental contribution to Jewish life and Jewish thought.

Best known for his pioneering work as founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute,  an innovative and original think tank and teaching center of pluralistic religious Zionist thought and perhaps Israel’s leading institution for  teaching Torah to Diaspora leadership, both rabbinic and lay. In all its programs, and especially within teacher-training programs, it conveys the majesty of tradition, and its many texts [speak] to students often alienated from those traditions and put off by the parochialism of Israel’s religious establishment and by the extremism of some of the most vocal religious voices. It engages modern thought and contemporary thinkers, offering them the insights of traditional learning and engaging traditional scholars with the finest of contemporary thought. For that alone, David Hartman must be revered.

Yet Hartman never aspired to be an institution builder. He wanted most of all to be known as a Jewish philosopher.

For most of his career, he paid homage to his masters. His work on Maimonides was less a pristine work of scholarship than a work of dialogue between a 20th century thinker wrestling with 20th century problems and grappling with the ethos and the thought of the pre-eminent 12th century Jewish philosopher. His treatment of Yehuda Halevi was an extended essay on the Jewish encounter with history: Hartman in dialogue with Yehuda Halevi. His work on his own teacher conveyed the brilliance of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, mediated through the inquisitive mind of one of his most gifted pupils. A protector of his teacher’s honor, he defended his thought against all critics until … until he could no longer defend it.

As he approached 80, and as illness forced him to confront his own mortality, he began to speak in his own voice, accepting some basic categories of modernity, including the transformed role of women, the empowerment of the Jewish people in Israel, an acceptance of the dignity and decency of non-Jews and an overwhelming desire for a synthetic religious worldview. Unlike the Charedi world of his youth, he would not withdraw from the modern world. Unlike Modern Orthodoxy, which seems to want a faith untainted by modernity and a modernity untouched by faith, Hartman looked for integration between life and faith. And unlike Conservative Judaism, he did not make history paramount and push the halachic worldview to the side. A generation ago, he would have been heralded within his own community for that attempt at synthesis and harmonization. Not so today.

He continued to grow to the very end. One can only celebrate his achievements, yet deeply regret his untimely passing, for there was much that he left unsaid, once he was free to speak out.

Read the full text of this reflection.

— Michael Berenbaum, Director, Sigi Ziering  Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics, American Jewish University

Remembering David Hartman

As I enter the courtyard of the Hartman Institute, I am always moved first by the warmth and beauty of its welcoming presence and then by the excitement and challenge of its covenantal drama.   

Rabbi Dr. David Hartman was a master of haknassat orchim — welcoming and gathering countless Jewish — and non-Jewish — guests into his pluralistic beit midrash.

He was also a master of intellectual haknassat orchim.  With passion and drama and humor, he knew how to bring learners to the table so that they would “feel intellectually empowered to participate in Judaism’s ongoing interpretive tradition.”  

On the one hand, he championed the modern virtues of creativity, interpretive freedom and self-assertion, proclaiming: “A discussion concerning Jewish tradition is open-ended.”

On the other hand, in his beit midrash, you felt claimed by the voices and concerns of significant others, who engaged your own limited perspectives and challenged you to deepen your dignity and expand your covenantal responsibility.  

— Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Rabbinic Director, Milken Community High School

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage

Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.

The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies. 

We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.

It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity.  As Rabbi David Dunn Bauer, creator of Queer Spiritual Counseling teaches, the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in. The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded–it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.

It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition. 

I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer — it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

Amid roasted pigs, country music and rabbinical blessings, Romney seeks to define himself

Whole barbecued pigs, cheerleaders and elegies to skinny-dipping farmers’ daughters.

That was the organized noise Sunday night at the opening bash of the Republican National Convention at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

For those seeking Jewish content, a noted rabbi was set to kick off the formal proceedings on Tuesday, and scattered through the rain-drenched towns of Tampa Bay were a number of events addressing the pro-Israel community’s foreign policy concerns.

At the opening party, delegates availed themselves of free wine and dug into the roasted pigs, a Cuban delicacy, while watching cheerleaders grind to Rodney Atkins singing “Farmer‘s Daughter“ and “What I Love About the South” (“Hot women skinny swimming, barely belly button deep”).

Other noises reverberating across Tampa Bay: There were the winds roiling the waters that lap the bridge that links Tampa with St. Petersburg, echoes of Tropical Storm Isaac, heading west toward New Orleans. The storm mostly missed the Tampa region, but its threat was potent enough to shut down the convention’s first formal day on Monday.

And there was political noise, too: Tea Partiers met at rallies in the region to protest what they depicted as an attempt by Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential candidate, to marginalize the hard-line conservatives as he attempts to steer the party toward the center ahead of November’s elections.

“This is what the Tea Party is not: We are not an unwanted second-class political party,” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leader of the movement, was quoted by the Tampa Bay Times as telling a packed church hall on Sunday.

There were reports that small groups of delegates in state delegations would protest either by not voting at the convention or by switching votes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only contender from the primaries who has not formally relinquished his nomination fight.

Followers of Paul unleashed their anger with the party’s establishment—and particularly its advocacy for a robust U.S. posture overseas—at a packed rally on the University of South Florida campus.

Paul, to cheers, blamed recent wars on “powerful special interests behind a foreign policy of intervention and the military industrial complex” and said “neocons” are “all over the place, and they’re not in one place, they’re in all of the parties.”

The rally was structured as a passing of the torch from Paul, 76, to his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), 49. When Rand Paul appeared, the crowd, estimated at 7,000, began chanting “16!”—underscoring the expectation that he would be a contender for the GOP nomination in four years.

The younger Paul has avoided the associations with bigots and the outright hostility to Israel that have frustrated his father’s multiple bids for the presidency. He has, however, embraced Ron Paul’s isolationism, opposing foreign assistance, including to Israel. And at the Sunday rally he posited a new challenge—an audit of the Pentagon—to a Romney campaign that has pledged increased defense spending, in part to make it clear to Iran that it was not reducing its profile in the Middle East.

“Republicans need to acknowledge that not every dollar is sacred or well spent in the military,” Rand Paul said.

There also were remnants of the moderate Republican Party nipping at the edges of the convention. Events were planned for the Log Cabin Republicans, an umbrella for gays in the party, and Republicans for Choice, an abortion rights group.

The convention schedule, constantly shifting because of the weather, was a template of Romney’s struggle to define himself and to accommodate the party’s multiple strands. Organizers pointed reporters particularly to the primetime 10-11 p.m. slot on Tuesday that featured Romney’s wife, Ann, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Both choices were aimed squarely at attempts by Democrats and the Obama campaign to depict Romney as a flip-flopper beholden to ultra-conservatives. Ann Romney, seen as his most appealing surrogate, would once and for all humanize him, and Christie would show how a moderate Republican could prevail in a Democratic state, as Romney had done when he governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

The party’s conservative wing also will be present, with speeches by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was Romney’s most pronounced social conservative challenger during the campaign, and Rand Paul. There also will be a video tribute to Ron Paul, an event that Jewish Democrats have derided.

Notably absent as speakers were any remnant of the past decade’s GOP bids for the presidency. Former President George W. Bush is not present or speaking, nor is his vice president, Dick Cheney. Missing also is the 2008 ticket, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor.

Romney has, however, surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers from past presidents. Most notably for the pro-Israel community, his top Middle East adviser is Den Senor, who has close ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was the U.S. spokesman in Iraq in the period following the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

AIPAC, as it has at past conventions, was running a number of closed events with top campaign advisers in the Tampa area during the convention, and is planning to do the same next week in Charlotte, N.C., when the Democrats meet. On the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda in Tampa is a bid to understand how Romney would distinguish himself from President Obama in confronting Iran and a broader Middle East roiled by change—the principal source of tension between the president and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One signal of consistency with the Obama presidency emerged last week during platform debate when Romney surrogates, led by Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), pushed back against bids to remove a commitment to eventual Palestinian statehood from the platform. Talent noted at the time that two states remains the official Israeli government position.

Jewish officials, committed to building bipartisan consensus on Israel and other issues, expressed concerns about navigating a polarized Washington. At an American Jewish Committee event on energy policy, Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledged the difficulties of making the case for an AJC energy security policy that strives for a middle ground between exploiting U.S. natural resources, which Republicans favor, and alternatives to fossil fuels, the choice of Democrats.

“It’s our role as advocates to say we are not free to desist, even though we are dealing in a polarized and difficult time to move those agendas,” Foltin said.

The convention schedule also underscored Romney’s bid to make more diverse a party that has become increasingly identified with white Christians. Delivering Tuesday’s opening invocation is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family who has opined on (small c) conservative issues. He also is the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Also delivering blessings are Hispanic evangelical leader Sammy Rodriguez; Ishwar Singh, a leader in Central Florida’s Sikh community (who approached convention organizers about delivering an invocation in the wake of the recent massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin); Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Ken and Priscilla Hutchins, the president and matron of the Mormon temple in Romney’s home base of Boston; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Obama campaign launches rabbis list

More than 600 rabbis joined a campaign initiative called Rabbis for Obama.

Obama for America announced Tuesday that Rabbis for Obama is designed to “engage and mobilize grassroots supporters.”

The rabbis represent themselves and not individual synagogues or organizations, according to the news release. The names of all the rabbis can be found on the website barackobama.com/rabbis. Most of the rabbis are Reform or Conservative, although a handful are Orthodox.

“This list of rabbis represents a broad group of respected Jewish leaders from all parts of the country. These rabbis mirror the diversity of American Jewry,” Ira Forman, the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach director, said in a news release.

“Their ringing endorsement of President Obama speaks volumes about the president’s deep commitment to the security of the state of Israel and his dedication to a policy agenda that represents the values of the overwhelming majority of the American Jewish community,” Forman said.

The number of rabbis signing on is more than double the number who added their names to President Obama’s 2008 campaign at the launch of a similar effort then.

Rabbis Sam Gordon and Steven Bob, both of Illinois, and Burt Visotzky of New York are co-chairs for this initiative. The first two started Rabbis for Obama in 2008.

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.

Rabbi’s use of discretionary funds spurs new policies

In response to the Haiti earthquake in January 2010 and the Carmel forest fires in Israel in December 2010, members of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay, like so many others, wanted to donate money to help the victims. So, many of them directed donations through Rabbi Isaac Jeret’s discretionary fund.

But their money never made it to organizations working on the ground in Haiti and Haifa.

Jeret, who led the 500-member Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes for seven years, allegedly not only did not send the money where he was supposed to, but instead he is believed to have taken money from his discretionary fund to make political donations to congressional campaigns across the country, according to Timothy Weiner, the synagogue’s treasurer from September 2009 through June 2012, who participated in an internal investigation of the matter.

Discretionary funds, common in most synagogues and churches, typically empower clergy to discreetly assist the needy and to support other charitable endeavors. Jeret’s case, while an aberration, could prompt other synagogues to asses their own balance between, on the one hand, trusting their rabbi and keeping the confidentiality of recipients, and, on the other, providing greater oversight and accountability for how the funds are dispersed.

The board of Ner Tamid accepted Jeret’s resignation on May 24, following an investigation initiated by the board last February that uncovered evidence indicating that Jeret had used somewhere around $10,000 from his discretionary fund to support political candidates going back several years, according to attorneys leading the investigation. The investigation is not yet complete, so a final number is not available.

Use of synagogue funds for political purposes could have potentially threatened the synagogue’s tax-exempt status, an outcome Congregation Ner Tamid has worked to head off. The IRS has not contacted the synagogue, and attorneys do not expect the federal agency to get involved.

“Given the congregation’s swift and decisive action in investigating Rabbi Jeret’s conduct, accepting his resignation once that investigation was completed, and implementing more robust corporate governance and oversight procedures to prevent any similar issues from arising in the future, the congregation has best positioned itself to address any future IRS concerns,” said attorney Nathan Hochman, a partner with Bingham McCutchen in Santa Monica, who is assisting the synagogue pro bono. Hochman headed the tax division of the U.S. Department of Justice in 2008-2009.

Jeret declined to comment.

Jeret’s attorney, Nancy Kardon, said the rabbi left the synagogue on a medical leave of absence in February 2012.

“After that time, on behalf of Rabbi Jeret, we worked diligently to assist CNT in its effort to reconcile any purported misuse of the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund. Rabbi Jeret has since paid back to CNT all monies for which it sought reimbursement, and, as of May 2012, formally resigned from CNT, due to his medical condition. The Rabbi offers his thanks and prayers to those who have stood by him in this trying time,” his attorney, Kardon, wrote in an e-mail to The Journal. Kardon declined to elaborate on Jeret’s medical condition, and attorneys for the synagogue also declined to elaborate.

Rabbi Joel Rembaum, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Am on the Westside, has agreed to lead the congregation on an interim basis; a search for a new rabbi will commence in the fall. Cantor Sam Radwine delayed his retirement and canceled a two-month sabbatical in Israel this summer to stay with the congregation.

Debra Schneiderman, president of the 51-year-old congregation, says Ner Tamid is well positioned to move forward.

“At Congregation Ner Tamid, we share in each other’s joys and comfort one another in our sorrows. Our community, always strong and vibrant, has rallied together in the last few months and is looking forward to building upon that strength in the coming year, when we will have the honor and privilege to be led by Rabbi Joel Rembaum and Cantor Sam Radwine.”

While Jeret was on medical leave in February 2012, board members received statements from his discretionary account, and that is what tipped them off that something was awry, Weiner said. Ner Tamid then placed Jeret on administrative leave and hired an accounting firm to begin an investigation. Board member and attorney Laura Abrahamson and Hochman headed the investigation, both offering their time pro-bono.

The investigation took a comprehensive look at all spending Jeret was involved in.  The political contributions from the discretionary fund were the most significant instances of wrongdoing, according to Abrahamson.

Weiner, who was involved in the investigation, said Jeret made the political donations privately and then used the discretionary fund to reimburse himself.

Public records indicate that Jeret made campaign contributions totaling $6,500 in 2008 and 2010. Another $6,000 came from a Rabbi Leslie Jeret; Jeret’s full name is Leslie Isaac Jeret. It is not clear which, if any, of these donations were reimbursed from the discretionary fund.

Jeret has supported both Republican and Democratic congressional candidates from a broad geographic range.

Hochman said the synagogue has already taken all the actions the IRS would require if it were to investigate. In addition to accepting Jeret’s resignation, the synagogue has revamped how it oversees the discretionary fund. Lay leaders have contacted donors who made directed gifts that were not fulfilled and offered to reimburse them or donate the funds to the intended recipients, Weiner said.

While many rabbis can tell stories of discretionary fund misuse — colleagues paying for their own child’s bar mitzvah, leasing a car or simply writing checks to oneself — it is believed that cases like Jeret’s are few and far between, said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of rabbinic placement of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR).

“When you consider how much money goes through discretionary funds on an aggregate basis for several thousand synagogues, remarkably little of it is misused. The money is used for positive and productive purposes,” Henkin said.

The size of funds varies widely from synagogue to synagogue, ranging anywhere from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Donations to honor the rabbi, pushkes (collection boxes) and honorariums for lifecycle events typically fill the funds.

More often than outright abuse, the funds are the subject of misunderstanding, rabbis say.

“There is a lot of confusion on the part of rabbis and congregations about discretionary funds — what is appropriate use for them and what is not appropriate. We have tried over the years to provide some clarification for congregations and rabbis,” Henkin said.

A few years ago, the CCAR updated its discretionary fund guidelines. Ellen Aprill, a professor of tax law at Loyola Law School and a past president of Temple Israel of Hollywood, helped craft the guidelines.

Aprill cautions that if rabbis use the fund for personal benefit — even mixed personal-professional benefit, such as attending a conference — the IRS could consider the entire fund personal taxable income for the rabbi. (The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly guidelines allow for conference fees).

In addition, for congregants to take a tax deduction on their donation, the money must go to charitable purposes.

Congregants also can’t earmark a donation for a specific family, because that would essentially be laundering a person-to-person gift through a tax-exempt body. A congregant can, however, suggest a recipient to the rabbi, as long as the gift is not conditional, Aprill said.

And, of course, the disbursement must comply with the synagogue’s nonprofit status.

Aprill said while the IRS could theoretically go after Ner Tamid for influencing a political campaign, it typically doesn’t pursue cases if the nonprofit is addressing the situation.

Before this incident at Ner Tamid, the rabbi’s and cantor’s contracts stipulated that they must administer their respective discretionary funds according to Rabbinic Assembly (RA) guidelines, but no one checked regularly to make sure that was happening, said Weiner, a deputy attorney general for the state of California.

The new policy requires the board’s financial secretary to review the ledgers quarterly, and the financial secretary will also be a signatory on the account with full access to records. In alternating years, an outside accountant will review the rabbi’s and cantor’s funds, and the clergy will present to the membership an annual general breakdown of the fund. Direct reimbursement from the fund to personal accounts will not be permitted, according to Weiner.

Rabbis’ love for Israel: Is it a generational thing?

Do Conservative rabbis become more politically conservative on Israel as they grow older, or are older rabbis simply more right wing than younger rabbis when it comes to Israel?

A new study by the Conservative movement’s flagship institution presents some evidence of a generational gap among rabbis, finding that older ones tend to identify more closely with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, while younger ones also favorably view J Street, the more liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group.

The author of the Jewish Theological Seminary survey, demographer Steven M. Cohen, suggests that it’s a function not of the rabbis’ ages but the era in which they came of age.

“It is a major shift in a Zionist worldview—a movement towards a more progressive Zionist position,” said Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy research at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a senior adviser to the seminary’s chancellor.

In an interview with JTA, Cohen surmised that younger rabbis identify as more liberal because “they grew up at a time when Israel’s relationship with its Arab neighbors was more complicated than the binary relationship that the older generation grew up with.” He suggested that because the rabbis are closer and more exposed to “real life” in Israel because their rabbinical programs require that they spend a year there, they are “more willing to adopt views critical of the Israeli government.”

The online survey of 317 JTS-ordained rabbis and 51 JTS rabbinical students, titled “JTS Rabbis and Israel, Then and Now: The 2011 Survey of JTS Ordained Rabbis and Current Students,” found that 58 percent of students and 54 percent of rabbis ordained since 1994 view J Street favorably, while 42 percent of students and 64 percent of rabbis view AIPAC favorably.

In the older cohort—rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994—80 percent of the rabbis responding viewed AIPAC favorably, but only 32 percent had a favorable view of J Street. The survey also found that the students and younger rabbis were more concerned than their elders about social issues in Israel, such as the treatment of Arab citizens, women and Palestinians.

The survey was prompted by a controversial essay in the June issue of Commentary that argued that a growing proportion of non-Orthodox rabbis in training hold alarmingly hostile views toward Israel, and that rabbinical seminaries were refusing to address the issue. The author of the piece, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, vice president of the Shalem Center, a hawkish Israeli think tank, declined to comment for this story.

“We didn’t think it was true,” Cohen said of the Gordis essay, “but felt we needed to check it out.”

The new survey is the latest salvo in the intense debate over Israel among American Jews, and American Jewish groups concerned with Israel already are debating its findings. J Street officials told JTA that the study is indicative of a generational shift among American Jews toward more progressive Zionism.

“It’s very encouraging that rabbinical students are finding ways to bring their Jewish values with them when they talk about Israel,” said Rachel Lerner, vice president of the J Street Education Fund.

But a former AIPAC official dismissed the idea that the findings reflect a generational shift in the rabbinate.

“A lot of 22-year-olds say things they don’t believe when they’re 30,” said AIPAC’s former spokesman, Josh Block, who is now a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Thirty-year-olds change by the time when they’re 40. By the time they’re at a place where they’re joining positions of leadership, they will have matured.”

Block also said the survey questions were unfair, characterizing AIPAC as “the Israel lobby” and J Street as “the ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace’ group.”

AIPAC declined to comment for this story.

Cohen said the survey’s results suggest that JTS rabbis across the generations have similarly high levels of attachment to Israel but expressed the attachments differently.

Asked how concerned they are about security threats toward Israel, 83 percent of the rabbis ordained between 1980 and 1994 said they were very concerned, compared to 80 percent of those ordained between 1995 and 2011, and 78 percent of current students.

Choosing among AIPAC, J Street, StandWithUs, Rabbis for Human Rights and the New Israel Fund, the rabbis said they viewed AIPAC most favorably, while the students were most favorable to the New Israel Fund.

At Conservative rabbis’ confab, it’s not about the organization, but the future

Listening to Conservative rabbis talk about their movement is like witnessing an intervention.

They talk of “saving” Conservative Judaism – and sometimes they blame the parents when things go wrong.

“Reform rabbis speak positively about their movement and less positively about their synagogue, while Conservative rabbis speak positively about their synagogue and less positively about their movement,” said Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md., paraphrasing a refrain he says he has heard often from Reform and Conservative colleagues.

Weinblatt was one of nearly 300 Conservative rabbis who came to Las Vegas this week for the annual convention of the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s rabbinic group. On the agenda, as usual, was the future of Conservative Judaism – what it is, where it’s headed, and how rabbis can get that message out to the world.

“The Conservative movement belongs to us, and we’ll either fix it or bury it,” said Rabbi Edward Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., during a panel Monday on what Conservative Judaism will look like in 20 years. “We’re the rabbis. We need to get together, stop the bulls—t, and get it done, or we’ll become a shrinking, dwindling, heteronomous movement with very little to say.”

At this gathering, there was little of the grumbling by key Conservative synagogue leaders that reportedly prompted the development and release last month of a new strategic plan to restructure the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Instead, there was energy, even a little bravado, at the Rabbinical Assembly conference, and criticism was tempered by concern for the Conservative movement’s future.

“We need a new financial model,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president and CEO of United Synagogue and the man in charge of overseeing the restructuring of the congregational umbrella group. “Less edifice and more personnel. Multiple minyanim in the same building—the Hillel model.“

What will the new strategic plan, a year and a half in the making, mean to members of Conservative congregations? Not much, said Wernick—at least, not for a while. “It’s navigational. The implementation plan – how do we get there – is what we’re working on now.”

At any rate, institutions do not a movement make, rabbis at this convention reiterated. That’s particularly the case in the Conservative movement, whose three main institutions – the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue – are modeled on the separation of powers within the U.S. government rather than on anyone’s notion of the most effective way to deliver religious services and build Jewish community. Those are two of the main interests on rabbis’ minds today.

“The Conservative movement is not these institutions,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “These institutions are more than 100 years old and in urgent need of rethinking.”

The ideas and values of Conservative Judaism, on the other hand, are as relevant and compelling today as ever, she said.

“People get hung up on the Conservative institutions—are they good or bad. That’s beside the point,” she said. “They’re only good or bad in terms of how they help us get out our message of building a sustainable, joyful community that finds meaning in Jewish tradition and is committed to making the world a better place.”

The convention featured formal discussions among the United Synagogue leadership and key figures among a group of about 50 rabbis who have been pushing for completely overhauling United Synagogue. They call themselves Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism. Those discussions took place behind closed doors, but their message is no secret, nor is the rabbis’ dissatisfaction with the new strategic plan.

“The clock has started moving faster, and it’s up to the chancellor and the R.A. to determine the fate of the North American Conservative movement,” said Rabbi Menachem Creditor of Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif., a leader of Hayom. Creditor helped craft the strategic plan, which, he says, “left some of the most dissatisfied communities dissatisfied,” despite his and his colleagues’ best efforts.

Some of the Hayom congregations, including Netivot Shalom, have refused to pay the full dues assessed them by the United Synagogue. Those dues can run upward of $80,000 a year for the largest shuls. It doesn’t pay, said one rabbi who preferred to remain anonymous, “because we don’t get anything for that money.”

That’s what Wernick is trying to deal with by rebuilding his board, bringing together educators, rabbis and lay leaders in a new leadership development program, and re-imagining the old synagogue model of dues-paying membership. The changes won’t come quickly or easily, he said.

But this was a rabbinic conference, not a United Synagogue gathering, which meant less interest in strategic plans and more intellectualizing about what Conservative Judaism is supposed to be—and how its rabbis can best serve their congregations.

“I’m not sure the organizational structure matters to people in my pews,” said Rabbi Howard Lifshitz of Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, Ill. “The institutions of the Conservative movement are unknown to them. Most people who come into my synagogue want to know how their participation will touch them, what it will add to their lives.”

At Monday’s morning plenary, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Ansche Chesed in Manhattan locked horns with Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles over solutions to the movement’s malaise.

Kalmanofsky championed a Judaism of purpose and complexity, one that moves beyond the 20th-century emphasis on helping Jews fit into American society and concentrates instead on helping them “find moral and spiritual purpose”—a “passionate authenticity” that will “seed, nurture and harvest opportunities for people to find depth.”

Wolpe argued, on the other hand, for a coherent ideology that “could be put on a bumper sticker,” to let Jews know what the movement stands for.

“Intellectual complexity is not the way to bring people into your synagogue,” he said. “You have to pray to something expressible. You can’t beseech a nuance.”

While that big picture conversation was going on in the main plenary, rabbis of congregations outside the major metropolitan centers opined that although they found the discussion fascinating, those weren’t their day-to-day concerns.

“I’m not that much into the politics,” said Rabbi Michael Werbow of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pittsburgh. “Our shul is 80,000 square feet. The sanctuary seats 1,800, and we get maybe 100 people on Shabbat.”

With a $150,000 deficit and less than one-quarter of his membership paying full dues, Werbow says the future of his synagogue doesn’t depend on how the movement is reorganized.

“Our deficit isn’t going away if we don’t pay our dues to the United Synagogue,” he said.

“I don’t think the work I’m doing is ‘saving’ the movement,” added Ita Paskind, assistant rabbi of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Va. “In my daily work I try to touch Jews and help them connect to their tradition. I get a fair amount of questions about what the movement says about certain things, but that’s an opportunity for me to explain what Judaism says about it.”

Philadelphia-area Rabbi Tapped to Head Conservative Body

PHILADELPHIA—Rabbi Steven Wernick, religious leader of Adath Israel in Merion Station, has been tapped to be the next professional leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm.

“I’m coming into this job with no illusions about all the challenges that exist,” said Wernick, a Philadelphia native who has led the Main Line synagogue for seven years. Before that he spent six years at Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.

“I still feel that United Synagogue has something very important to say to the Jewish world,” the rabbi said in a phone interview.

The news leaked out Wednesday as his contract was still being negotiated and before he was able to inform his congregation.

Wernick is slated to replace the organization’s longtime executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

Wernick’s selection marks the latest in a series of key leadership changes in the Conservative movement.

In 2007, scholar Arnold Eisen, who also grew up in Philadelphia, replaced Rabbi Ismar Schorsch—who was largely viewed as a traditionalist—to head the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, a change that paved the way for the admission of openly gay rabbinical students.

Last year, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld became the first woman picked to lead the Rabbinical Assembly, the movement’s clerical arm. She is slated to assume the post this summer.

The 19-member United Synagogue search committee made its decision within the past week, according to movement officials.

“He really impressed us with his level of energy and his preparedness,” said Ray Goldstein, the lay president of United Synagogue. “He evidently took a congregation from a good solid base and helped to re-energize that congregation.”

Goldstein credited Wernick with helping to create the Conservative movement’s Leadership Council, a regional body that brought together the various arms of the movement. The council, for example, helped organize a series of educational events related to the King Tut exhibit at the Franklin Institute two years ago.

In recent years, the movement’s leadership has engaged in serious and sometimes bitter debate on the future of Conservative Judaism. It has grappled with such issues as the approach to intermarriage and the place of Jewish law in contemporary life. The decision on ordaining gay rabbis was among the most contentious issues.

The Conservative movement, once the strongest stream in the United States, has been losing ground steadily among American Jews to the Reform movement on the left and Orthodoxy on the right. Some observers have made dire predictions that the center position might not hold.

Last week, a group of Conservative rabbis and leaders sent a letter to Goldstein asserting that a fundamental change of direction was needed.

Wernick brushed aside predictions of doom and gloom for the movement. At the same time, he said one of his goals is to re-engage the movement’s core leadership and create stronger partnerships with synagogues that are facing difficult economic times.

“The biggest challenge facing the movement isn’t about ideology or theology,” he said. “It’s about re-engagement, setting priorities and carrying them out.

“Now is a great moment. We need to work together and create an agenda.”

In just a few years, Wernick helped to revitalize Adath Israel and also became involved in the larger community. He serves as co-chair of the adult education committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Center for Jewish Life and Learning.

At his congregation, he said, an innovative program he helped fashion was the Tuttleman Leadership Institute, which each year identifies some 15 congregants who engage in text study, leadership training and personal growth programs.

Wernick, a father of three, is the son of Rabbi Eugene Wernick, who served two congregations in the area, including Beth Am Israel.

As a child, he lived in Philadelphia but moved several times, including to California, as his father switched synagogues.

Wernick said he is not sure yet whether he’ll have to relocate to New York for his new position.

Bryan Schwartzman is a staff writer for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.

Live in the ‘hood: words of awe

I love a good sermon. There’s nothing like the uplift you get from hearing words that go right to your soul.
Words on a page can’t do thatfor me. In a live sermon, you can almost taste the breath of the rabbi. You can feel the occasional struggle for the perfect word. If the speaker has sparkling insights, with just the right pitch and cadence, the words ebb and flow like a river taking you to new discoveries. All along, you feed off the energy of the crowd. Your adrenaline keeps pumping until the rabbi finally wraps up the sermon to a sigh of quasi-relief from an audience that was clinging to every word.You can bet that the Jewish world will be clinging to every word during the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons. These are the much-anticipated Words of Awe: the Rose Bowl and Super Bowl of Jewish sermons.
Personally, I think we make too big a deal of these annual sermons. Judaism is not about annual resolutions; it’s more about daily renewal. But daily renewal doesn’t sell tickets, so like it or not, the Super Sermons are upon us, and rabbis all over town are getting ready to elevate our souls. What can we expect?
The truth is, all sermons, whether Reform, Conservative or Orthodox, are there to promote something “good.” But how do they get there?
In the Reform sermon, the dominant punctuation is the exclamation point! Many Reform congregants go to synagogue only during the High Holidays, so the rabbis better grab them while they can. Here you can expect a lot of dramatic stuff like the Jewish obligation to assist the genocide victims of Darfur, and other very worthy and worldly causes. It’s empowering, and it sounds a lot juicier than the commandment to put on tefillin every morning.
In the Conservative sermon, the punctuation of choice is the comma. Their debates never end, and they love it that way. They get turned on by tension, especially the noble, Jewish kind of tension, like having to balance our love for humanity with our love for our fellow Jew, or reconciling our obligations to Israel with our obligations to America, or struggling with our desire to go to synagogue against our inclination to visit Neiman Marcus.
In my new Pico-Robertson neighborhood, you can enjoy the Orthodox sermon, and here the punctuation that rules is the period. You don’t walk out of an Orthodox sermon all perplexed, wondering what to do next. Hard-core Torah is what you do next. Lots of it. But before you reach this state of closure bliss, you will wallow in delicious detail, some of which might appear trivial at first, but if you can suspend your ADD instincts long enough, you will witness how the Torah can transform the tiny into the big and meaningful.
At an Orthodox sermon, for example, you might hear an explanation of why you shouldn’t eat nuts at Rosh HaShanah (in Hebrew, the word for “nut” has the same numerical value as the word for “sin”); why the shofar can’t come from a bull’s horns (it would remind God of the sin of the Golden Calf); or, like I once heard from a Chassidic rabbi, how the word atonement can be read as at-ONE-ment, the idea being to be at one with all of our roles in life — parent, worker, sibling, friend, citizen, neighbor, student, teacher, Jew, etc. — and remember on Yom Kippur to atone for each one to create a higher and holier ONE in each of us.

If you want to experience the most intense Orthodox sermon of the year, come back on the Shabbat afternoon before Yom Kippur, for the ancient tradition known as “Shabbat Tshuvah” (repentance). Rabbis can spend months preparing for this Talmudic discourse that will punctuate the Days of Awe. (A little scoop: the title of the discourse by Rabbi Elazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City will be “Like a Good Neighbor…”).
Of course, things are never as neat as they seem. There are rabbis of all denominations who often go beyond the expectations of their “label.” Still, it’s clear that there are major differences among the denominations — both of style and substance — which shouldn’t surprise anyone: since the Maschiach hasn’t arrived yet, not every Jew wants to be part of the same movement or listen to the same sermon.
Sometimes, though, I wonder what would happen if everything got switched around. What if, for example, an Orthodox sermon got smuggled into a Reform congregation, or vice versa? What would happen then?
Actually, it looks like something is already buzzing in my neighborhood. If you visit B’nai David-Judea Synagogue on the first morning of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will announce a major initiative to get his members involved with environmental protection. Although this is an area that is usually associated with the Reform branch of Judaism, not the rabbi’s Orthodox branch, Rabbi Kanefsky believes this should be an Orthodox concern, and he’s got the Torah sources to back it up.
It makes you wonder what’s next. A Reform synagogue promoting no driving and no TV on Shabbat? A Chassidic shul fighting for universal health care? The possibilities are endless. Go ahead, think big.
It’s that time of year.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is the founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Them and Us

“Jews are just stupid. I’m telling you Rob, they’re just stupid.”

“Can I quote you on that, rabbi?”

Rabbi Harold Schulweis hesitated a second, then said, “Sure, you can quote me.”

Of course, he wasn’t talking generally. Some of the rabbi’s best friends are Jews. He is passionate in his love of Judaism, second to none.

That’s why it sends him into a rage to see how the Jews — from the leaders of his Conservative movement to the man and woman in the street — deal with converts and the whole issue of conversion.

And he’s right.

At 81, frail of body but sharp-tongued and wise, Rabbi Schulweis has made it his mission to preach the gospel of conversion to the Jews. That is we, as individuals and as a people, must seek and embrace converts. Doing so will not only improve Jewish life but improve our own lives as Jews.

Here’s the second half of his quote:

“Jews are losing such an opportunity to enrich their lives,” Rabbi Schulweis said. “I want them to see the blood transfusion into the veins of the people. Converts are the most articulate and dedicated Jews I have met in a long time. For the life of me, I don’t understand why there should not be a proactive effort to accept converts.

“It’s a mitzvah to embrace these people.”

On June 1, Schulweis’ synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, held a Shavuot service welcoming converts within the community. The holiday has special meaning for converts. On it, we read the Book of Ruth, the story of a non-Jewish woman whose love for God and Torah led her to convert to Judaism.

To coincide with the VBS event, the synagogue created and distributed “Your People, My People: Journeys,” a 36-page booklet compiling the personal stories of 27 converts. I didn’t get to the service, but I did get the book.

What’s inside are the kind of heartfelt, moving stories of personal transformation that Oprah would kill for.

Cheryl Gillies had little religious upbringing and was out searching for a meaningful tradition when she read about the VBS outreach program. She walked in and found a tradition that matched her inner yearnings. “Judaism,” she writes, “places emphasis on the deeds and actions one performs in this world, and the accountability hit home.”

Chris Hardin fell in love with Jennifer Rea, who was studying for conversion at the time they met. He attended some classes with her and grew to feel he belonged. “Judaism,” he concluded, “is the best kept secret in the world.”

Elisabeth Kesten was raised a devout Protestant in Germany, the step-granddaughter of a concentration camp officer. As she read more about Judaism, she resisted the feelings that drew her toward it.

At 13, she decided to learn Hebrew; at 14, she was confirmed in the Protestant church. “Being Jewish didn’t seem like an option to me,” she writes, “but God wasn’t giving me the choice.”

She stopped going to church and joined the small Jewish community in Nuremburg. She informed her parents she was converting.

“A protestant evangelical minister told me I would go to hell for rejecting Jesus. I asked him if all Jews murdered by the Germans would go to hell. He said, ‘Yes,’ and I said, ‘Then I’ll be with them, and that would be fine with me.’ Only when I am Jewish,” Kesten writes, “am I truly happy.”

And yet … Jewish organizations and synagogues refuse to make conversion more of a priority.

There are several reasons Jews treat conversion like kryptonite, all of them bad. In Roman times, according to the historian Salo Baron, Jews who proselytized were beheaded. Under the Emperor Constantine, converts were burned alive. Eventually, their punishments became our aversion.

Today, with no such threats hanging over our heads, why do we still desist?

My guess is twofold: blatant ignorance and subtle racism.

In order to reach out to others, we must first know what we are talking about, and most of us don’t. Why be Jewish? What does it mean? What does it offer, and what does it require?

If only we could answer these questions for ourselves (go ahead, try it), much less discuss them with non-Jews.

Jewish leaders who oppose widespread conversion efforts often use this very reason: There is so much education to be done among our own, why go outside?

But Rabbi Schulweis has found that engaging his congregants in conversion efforts actually increases their own understanding.

“One cannot have outreach without inreach,” he said. “And you can’t have inreach without outreach. Jews can only learn when they can teach. The only way they learn is to do something with their learning. They have to discover what is so important about Judaism. Our outreach program complements our inreach program.”

The other barrier to such programs is nastier. Many Jews cling to their identity as a status marker — it makes them feel different and special. To admit the multitudes is, in their minds, to dilute the brand, to fling open the gates of the country club. This is a message too many Jews never fail to convey to spiritual seekers from other faiths.

“They are scared of us,” said Schulweis of those seeking to learn more. “They are scared of the synagogue, because they have been told to be a Jew is a racial matter. They’re told it’s a matter of birth, and you can’t come in, because you will not be trusted and not be embraced.”

Few groups are bucking this trend. A Web site — www.convert.org — exists to make it somewhat easier, and VBS is leading the way among synagogues.

At his shul, said Rabbi Schulweis, prospective converts “are overwhelmed by the greeting. They know the rabbis of VBS love these people.”

As for the critics who say VBS is wasting too much time and money on outreach: “When they became us,” said Rabbi Schulweis, ” they are no longer them.”

For information on how to receive a copy of “Your People, My People” e-mail Jane Jacobs at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue: < href="mailto:jjacobs1@vbs.org">jjacobs1@vbs.org


New JTS Head Faces Trouble, Opportunity

Arnold Eisen doesn’t need to be reminded that he’s not a rabbi. It’s certainly not news to him.

The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) announced this month that Eisen, 54, the chair of Stanford University’s religious studies program, would become just the second nonrabbi to serve as the New York City seminary’s chancellor and the first since 1940. He succeeds Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, who held the post for two decades.

“I would have preferred a rabbi in this position, too,” said Eisen with a laugh. “I’ve been writing and thinking for 25 years about changes I’d like to see made, and now I have a chance to help make them.”

Eisen ascends to the helm of a Conservative movement that is hemorrhaging memberships on a congregational level and cannot, at present, reach consensus about whether to ordain openly gay and lesbian rabbis. Perhaps more than any other branch of American Judaism, the Conservatives must walk a difficult line in maintaining a coherent identity as halachic Jews in the modern world. Eisen is well aware of these quandaries and has spent a lifetime considering various solutions.

Take the pressing question of what to do about openly homosexual rabbis. Eisen offered a three-part answer.

“No. 1, this is a halachic movement, period. I want honesty and integrity in the halachic process carried through, and I would be upset if it were not. And No. 2, it’s a faculty matter. The faculty has to teach the people who are going to be ordained. So there will be a halachic decision by rabbis and there will be faculty discussion as well. Then, I voice my personal opinion about how I’d like things to turn out, and you know what that is.”

Eisen personally favors the ordination of gay and lesbian rabbis, while also insisting, “I’m not qualified to decide on matters of rabbinic law. That’s one of the things that changes” with a nonrabbi at the reins of the seminary. The halachic decisions of the JTS will now fall to a yet-to-be determined rabbi or perhaps even a number of rabbis. They simply haven’t figured it out yet.

Bay Area Jewish community leaders, while intrigued by the novelty of having a nonrabbi lead a rabbinical seminary, were far more preoccupied with praising Eisen’s record over two decades as one of the nation’s foremost scholars in the field of modern Jewish thought.

Because the JTS selection committee chose to look outside the rabbinate, the Conservative seminary now has a leader who was never mired in political infighting, said professor Lee Shulman, the president of Stanford’s Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching and a longtime colleague of Eisen.

Rabbi Stuart Kelman of Berkeley’s Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom said that Eisen’s academic record indicates “that the seminary, which has consistently stood for academic excellence, will continue to do so.”

“Arnie didn’t live in [a] cloister,” added Rabbi Brian Lurie, former director of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation. “He mixed with students and donors and is a person who understands what’s going on on the street. His research at school really gave him a very unique and strong vantage point on the American Jewish community. They didn’t give this job to some ivory tower isolated person.”

A colleague praised Eisen as a scholar with his feet firmly planted on the ground and one who has long devoted thoughtful consideration to issues of the Jewish community.

“The questions that have engaged him most as a scholar are arguably the central questions that engage Jews today,” said Steven Zipperstein, Eisen’s Stanford colleague.

Eisen’s dissertation explored the ramifications of being both Jewish and American. A subsequent book, “Galut: Modern Jewish Reflection on Homelessness and Homecoming” (Indiana University Press, 1986) explored Jewish feelings of being at home and homeless in the Diaspora.

“His concerns begin with the preoccupations of everyday Jews,” Zipperstein said.

And, as far as Eisen is concerned, too few everyday Jews are preoccupied with Torah.

“There are literally a couple of million Jews in this country who have never had Torah taught to them in a live and exciting way. They just don’t get it. They don’t get how much Jewish tradition could mean to them. So they’re turned off and disconnected, and we’ve got to reach them better,” he said. “I now have a chance to help train a lot of the people who are going to be serving them for the next generation.”

Eisen, an active congregant at Palo Alto’s Kol Emeth, can’t deny the declining synagogue rolls in the Conservative movement but insists that “the numbers for all [affiliated] Jews are down…. It’s a very strong movement, and I don’t understand the sense of malaise some people feel.”

Rather than obsess solely on wooing new members (or disenchanted old ones), Eisen said that the movement must provide more for its existing membership: “We need a better prayer experience, better schools, better adult learning and better communities. If we can do any or all of these things, we will have an improved movement.”

Conservative thinkers have, for some time, pondered how to invigorate the movement. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Westwood has suggested a name change to something that better reflects the direction and potential of the movement. He suggested Covenental Judaism.

Eisen disagrees with that approach: “Rather than have a name change [of the movement], I’d rather we live up to our potential.”

For his part, Wolpe has enthusiastically embraced the choice of Eisen.

Eisen’s selection to head the JTS follows a trend. Richard Joel, the former president of Hillel, took over the presidency of the Orthodox Yeshiva University in 2003; like Eisen, Joel is not a rabbi. In 2001, David Ellenson took over the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). And while Ellenson is a rabbi, he is best known for his scholarship in Jewish studies.

“That JTS needed to go to Stanford to pick their president a couple of years after HUC had to go to Los Angeles to get David Ellenson, now the myth is finally broken. The West Coast is not a backwater of the Jewish community. Indeed, it’s very likely the cutting edge of the new leadership of the Jewish community,” said Stanford’s Shulman.

Eisen, for his part, downplayed any rivalries between East Coast and West Coast Conservative Judaism, namely Los Angeles’ University of Judaism and New York’s JTS. But, as a native Philadelphian who has lived in the Bay Area for nearly 20 years, he says he could serve as a natural bridge.

He’s also not quite ready to leave the Bay Area yet, and as “chancellor designate,” he doesn’t have to assume full duties until July 2007. In the meantime, he will serve at both Stanford and the seminary. But he says he’s ready to take on the challenges, while also realizing the inherent limitations of his new mission.

“You know, I’m a pluralist,” Eisen said, “and I don’t think Judaism is the only way to be a good person and serve God. I don’t think Conservative Judaism is the only way to be a good Jew. But having said that, I’ve been a Conservative Jew all my life, and this is the path that matters most to me. And I will do all I can for it.”

This article is reprinted from the J Weekly, a Northern California publication.

Studio Secured to Create Spiritual Art

On the small, darkened stage, a lone streetlight illuminates the façade of a front porch that, hours later, will serve as the set of Billy Crystal’s Long Island home in his one-man show “700 Sundays.”

But for now, the streetlamp throws a pale light out onto the empty Wilshire Theatre — an old-time art deco 1,900-seat venue in Beverly Hills with worn-down plush red seats, a fading red patterned carpet and walls painted a dark mahogany that obfuscates the intricate woodcut of the early 20th century, when the theater was built.

Soon, though, if all goes according to plan, the woodwork will be repainted, the stained glass cleaned and the seats refurbished to accommodate The Temple of the Arts, which recently acquired the venue in hopes of turning it into a full-service Jewish community performing arts center.

Reimagining the 24,000-square-foot property, which also includes a six-story office building and restaurant, is the vision of Rabbi David Baron, who views arts as means to a spiritual end.

“I am driven by an objective, a goal: to get more Jewish people who were disconnected to connect,” he said. “Kiruv, or return — whatever you [choose to] call it.”

His temple, he added, is an “exploration of Jewish mission through the arts.”

The $20 million project — which includes the purchase price as well as the renovations — also encompasses a state-of-the-art cinema and an after-school arts and religious program, with funds left over, Baron hopes, for an endowment. Think the 92nd Street Y in New York City, the half-block Jewish community center on the Upper West Side that hosts lectures, concerts, performances, a school and serves as a center for Jewish cultural life. Except that the Wilshire Theatre seats three times as many patrons and also will be the home for regular services for a 1,400-member congregation.

The Temple of the Arts, unaffiliated with an organized Jewish movement, is one of three congregations locally that bill themselves as arts and religious communities. The first Synagogue for the Performing Arts, started some 30 years ago, has 700 members, and holds a monthly service at the University of Judaism; its High Holiday services are led by scholar and author Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. Rabbi Jerry Cutler served at Performing Arts Temple for six years, and then started the Creative Arts Temple, which holds a monthly service at Temple Beth Am on La Cienega Boulevard. Baron headed the Performing Arts synagogue from 1985-1992 until he founded the Temple of the Arts (formerly Temple Shalom for the Arts). Baron’s temple, funded by donations and loans, is the only one of the three with its own permanent structure.

Baron incorporates drama, music, readings, paintings and speakers into different parts of the monthly and High Holiday services. The congregation’s own prayer book is illustrated with paintings by Chagall and Matisse and includes both traditional and nontraditional inspirational readings. Congregants stage skits, and singers and composers perform original or relevant pieces. During the last High Holiday Yizkor memorial service, there was a medley of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “I Will Remember You.” Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) also spoke on the topic of forgiveness.

“These things touch people in ways that traditional services don’t,” Baron said.

If you were going to casting central for a rabbi to lead a Los Angeles arts temple, you’d probably choose the tanned Baron, who is in his 50s and has soft blue eyes and receding brown hair. He’s got the debonair looks of an aging Pierce Brosnan combined with a subtle missionary zeal that pays scant attention to naysayers.

Baron was raised in an Orthodox family on Long Island and had always planned to be a lawyer — even though he got smicha, or rabbinical ordination, from his grandfather in Jerusalem. But a friend asked him to take over a Conservative congregation in New Jersey, and he later accepted a posting in Miami.

When he first came to Los Angeles in 1980, he noticed that Jews were not connecting to services.

“A lot of Jewish people have minimal Jewish education. They suffered through their bar mitzvah and ran away,” he said. “I could just see how synagogues — except the Orthodox — are empty. Unless you do something special.”

Baron left the original Synagogue for the Performing Arts to, as he put it, “take it to the next level.”

The Temple of the Arts attracts a few thousand worshipers on the High Holidays, less at other times. Besides, the monthly service, Baron intends to offer a second, smaller monthly service on alternate weeks, led by a new assistant rabbi, Lynn Brody.

As a cultural center, planned projects include more shows like Crystal’s as well as community events, such as Sinai Temple’s 100-year anniversary party.

On March 17, the temple will host a pre-Passover gospel service, joined by Bishop Charles E. Blake, The Tova Marcos Singers and The Tabernacle Gospel Choir of the West Angeles Church of God in Christ. It will bring together Jews and African Americans to “rejoice in the shared heritage of freedom from slavery with songs of freedom and faith,” according to the program.

Baron said that a Beverly Hills/mid-Wilshire center focusing on the performing arts “complements” a Jewish cultural mix of venues that already includes the Skirball Cultural Center, the University of Judaism and others.

As Baron walks around the high-ceilinged lobby atrium, pointing out architectural beauties from the 1930s-era theater, it’s as if he can actually see the old glory days of star-studded Beverly Hills premieres — even as he envisions the future of a Jewish gathering place.

Baron hopes to close the synagogue for the summer and be ready for his own premiere by the High Holidays.

“People say I’m a dreamer, but that’s really why we’re here.”

Temple of the Arts will be holding its Gospel Service Friday, March 17 at 8 p.m. 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. For more information, call (323) 655-4900.


First Person – A Miraculous Trip

It was a nippy, star-filled Friday night, and we were on our way to a bar mitzvah. We — Julius, my husband of 50 years; our son,

David; and I — had traveled from the Valley to Santa Maria for the celebration.

The service was called for 6:15 p.m. We started out for the new Temple Ner Shalom, located in a new area of San Luis Obispo, about 5:20 p.m., explicit instructions clutched in Julius’ hand. He became the navigator, and from the backseat, I became the one who oversaw speed control. I did what all good motherly backseat drivers do: I nagged.

The family had asked Uncle David to lead the congregation in “L’cha Dodi,” “Ahavat Olam” and to sing a solo of his own arrangement of Helfman’s choral piece, “Hashkivenu.” David was honored to be asked and was excited about adding something special to his nephew’s bar mitzvah.

There was little traffic on the freeway north to San Luis Obispo. Julius asked if the heat could be turned down. Julius is always warm, and David always has a sweater draped over his shoulders to ward off any chills that are chasing him.

David didn’t answer, just opened Julius’ window. The instructions in Julius’ hand went “whoosh” and were sucked out of the car.

Luckily, between the three of us, we remembered (amid nervous laughter) that we had to exit the freeway at the Los Osos off-ramp.

David pulled up at a gas station and went in to ask whether anyone knew of a new synagogue up the road. Of course, they didn’t, so he checked the phone book for Conservative Temples in San Luis Obispo. David got good directions to the old site, and off we went, hoping to find information there.

We found the place, a door, with no lights anywhere. It turned out the address was for the whole building. David found a photography shop with a young lady who knew about the shul, its move and where it was now.

“Take a left turn at the corner to Foothill,” she said, pointing. “Go way out into the country to O’Connor. Turn right. You can’t miss it.”

We called that the first miracle of the evening. Off we went.

O’Connor was a very dark street in a sparsely populated area. There were a few houses on private hilly roads.

We went all the way to the end of O’Connor, where a gate and sign told us not to go any further. David turned the car around, and we began to retrace our route. By this time it was 6:30 p.m. We were missing the service.

“Look,” I said. “There’s a house up that hill with a Star of David on it.”

“Nah, those are Christmas decorations,” said Julius, our official directions-loser and naysayer.

“Why don’t we check the house out anyway,” I said. “Maybe it’s the shul. That certainly is a six pointed star. And it’s on the way back anyhow.”

David slowed the car at the driveway. A sign told us we were at the approach to a Benedictine monastery, “Visitors Welcome.” So up we went to the parking lot.

Then miracle No. 2 occurred. A pleasant lady at a desk inside gave David directions:

“Turn left out of our driveway, go back down the road. Just before you get to Foothill, there’s a narrow dark road named Laureate. Turn left. You’ll find the synagogue after a short drive.”

So down we went again, out the driveway and onto O’Connor, where David’s car met a skunk. The men saw the animal in the car’s lights.

David swerved to avoid the skunk. He is convinced we were its destiny, that God sent us from the San Fernando Valley because it was that particular skunk’s time to meet his maker.

To paraphrase lines from the musical “Man of La Mancha”: “It doesn’t matter if the tire meets the skunk or the skunk meets the tire … it’s going to be bad for the skunk.”

Julius said it was beautiful, and David said we were his fate. I just heard the crushing of bones. I hope I never hear that sound again and prayed later that the little critter died instantly.

The miracle of the skunk was the lack of smell. It didn’t spray us on the dark road between the monastery with the six-pointed star and the shul.

It was 7 p.m. when we entered the synagogue. The rabbi immediately invited David to come up to sing the “Hashkivenu.” We don’t know if we entered in time for that prayer or whether the rabbi was just happy that we had arrived safely.

David sang. It was beautiful, and he was delighted to have fulfilled the honor bestowed on him by the family. It was a miracle that we’d made it with enough time for David to sing.

I looked up the “Hashkivenu” in the prayerbook. The translation says:

“Help us, our Father … guide us with Your good counsel … guard us and deliver us.”

If God didn’t guide, guard and deliver us to the bar mitzvah, who did?

Rae Shapiro is a member of Temple Ner Maarav and has written its newsletter for the past two years. She is a published author in “Women Forged in Fire” and in three charitable anthologies.

In Search of a Leader

It is only the second Rosh Hashanah for Ikar, a new congregation in Los Angeles, and some 600 people will be attending its services at the Westside Jewish Community Center.

Six-hundred people.

Not bad for this synagogue-less community that was started in April 2004 by Rabbi Sharon Brous, a 2001 graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), the flagship institution of the Conservative movement.

While the congregants will be praying from the Conservative prayerbook, and following the Conservative halacha, such as mixed seating and having prayers led by women and men, don’t call them Conservative. Brous has not affiliated with the Conservative movement.

The same goes for Nashuva, which meets in a Westwood Blvd. church, and Kehillat Hadar on the Upper West Side in New York. Both boast mailing lists of 2,000 people, many of whom are in the coveted 20s and 30s demographic. Both define themselves as independent, egalitarian communities committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action. That sounds like the very definition of Conservative. But instead of calling themselves Conservative, Nashuva and Kehillat Hadar go by the term “non-denominational.”

Call it the Conservative Crisis.

The Conservative movement has been losing members in droves over the last two decades: It went from claiming 40 percent of American Jewish households in 1990 to 33 percent by 2000, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01.

This from what was the largest Jewish denomination in America, one that served as the middle ground between the stringency of the Orthodox movement and the modernity of the Reform movement. In the 1990s both movements grew — and the Reform movement became the largest denomination in America, surpassing the Conservative movement for the first time in 100 years.

The crisis came to a head this summer, when the de facto head of the momement, Ismar Schorsch, announced his retirement, setting off a search for a new leader — one who must confront the challenge of dwindling membership, decide the movement’s position on homosexuality, stop the flow of breakaway synagogues, and make people understand what it means to be a Conservative Jew. In other words, the movement is seeking a leader to save Conservative Judaism .

A Crisis of Leadership

So why didn’t Rabbi Brous affiliate with the Conservative movement?

“We have a lot of people of very different backgrounds,” she explained. “We wanted to celebrate the breadth and diversity of the community and not feel restricted by certain movement parameters.”

Brous has nothing against the Conservative movement per se — she’s grateful for the in-depth education JTS provided — but she wanted a community “that was creative, vibrant and spiritually awake, where Jews would have a sense of responsibility to the world and a real sense of the Jewish community.” That she and others seek these goals outside the movement has to be disturbing for Conservative leaders. Reversing this trend, however, will fall to a new generation of leaders.

Early this summer, JTS chancellor Schorsch announced that he will be retiring in June 2006. The seminary in New York is the flagship institution of the Conservative movement. As head of the JTS for two decades, most observers agree that Schorsch has been impressively successful: He transformed JTS from just being a rabbinical school to a full academic institution of renown, whose five schools include a graduate program in Jewish education, which Schorsch sees as the future of Conservative Judaism. During his tenure, enrollment at the schools increased from 500 in 1994 to 700 today, as did the number of faculty from 90 in 1994 to 120 today. He oversaw the integration of women into the movement as cantors and rabbis in the 1980s, and, philosophically, he also defined what he saw as the seven principles of Conservative Judaism in his 1995 book, “Seven Clusters.”

His JTS-trained Jewish rabbis and cantors have entered the Jewish world and done positive work for the movement. The number of Conservative day school students and campers has risen: 25,000 students attend Conservative Schechter Schools, and 25,000 more are enrolled in nondenominational Jewish academies. Conservative students now make up 25 percent of the national day school population, according to the seminary.

But with the modesty of a thoughtful, retiring academic, Schorsch has been reluctant to tell people what to do or — some would say — to lead.

“I think Schorsch’s vision for the seminary was seminary-centered, more than movement-centered,” said Rabbi Elliott Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism. “He saw it as his job primarily to foster the seminary, and that is what he did. He didn’t see it as his job — not his primary job –to be the leader of the movement.”

There also are financial concerns for the movement, including conflicting accounts of the seminary’s financial health. A story in New York’s The Jewish Week cited unnamed faculty members as the source of a story about an alleged $50 million debt that had to be retired by selling property. School officials denied budget problems without specifically addressing the story’s claims. Administrators insist the seminary’s financial health is solid, with philanthropic contributions rising every year. There’s no debate over the financial stuggles of the Masorti movement — the Israeli branch of the Conservative movement. In June, Masorti eliminated the position of president, effectively laying off Ehud Bandel, its top professional staffer as well as the organization’s professional spokesperson.

Within the movement, Dorff said, people are hoping the next head of the seminary will be a lot of things besides a fundraiser — “a scholar, a warm person, a rabbi who is also a good administrator, someone who doesn’t sleep…. The person you really want for this job is the messiah.”

Schorsch’s retirement next year, when he is 70, is likely to augur a generational shift. The heads of the three major arms of the denomination — JTS, the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents congregants — all started their jobs in the mid-1980s and are set to retire in the next five years.

“What does the movement look like, five years from now, three years from now?” said Rabbi Joel Myers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, in an interview with The Journal. “What should be the driving vision of the movement? Who will articulate that? How it will be articulated?”

“How will the arms of the movement be brought together to plan collectively and collaboratively to reinforce the strength of the movement?” Myers continued. “That is the essential question.”

Uniting the movement won’t be easy, especially when different factions have determined that unity means seeing things their way.

Too Gay or Not Too Gay

For many, “vision” and “leadership” means resolving one looming and seemingly unresolvable issue: homosexuality, which is, in many ways, pulling the movement apart. Right now, the Conservative movement will not ordain a gay rabbi, and it will expel students who come out while they are in seminary. But it won’t excommunicate ordained rabbis who subsequently say they are homosexual.

The last time the Conservative movement ruled on the issue was 1992, when the Law and Ethics Committee, the halachic arm of the Rabbinical Assembly that decides issues of law, issued a “Consensus Statement.” It welcomed homosexuals into the community, but denied them admission into the seminaries and cantorial schools. The ruling left it up to individual rabbis and synagogues to decide whether homosexuals could function as educators or youth leaders or receive honors in worship and in the community.

In June, a group of Conservative rabbis set up a Keshet-Rabbis to influence the Rabbinical Assembly on changing its policy toward gays. Keshet-Rabbis, which uses the Hebrew word for rainbow, believes the next chancellor will play a part in what the Assembly decides when it takes up the matter next March.

In the tradition of Conservative Judaism, which believes in working within an evolving halacha to adapt to modern times, the committee must decide how to come to terms with the verse in Leviticus, which many take as a blanket prohibition of homosexulaity: “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind: it is abomination.”

Traditionalists in the movement, such as Schorsch — and Jack Wertheimer, the JTS provost who is a front-runner to succeed Schorsch — support the status quo. Although both men declined to be interviewed for this article, Schorsch wrote a letter to the Law Committee in 1992 warning that ordaining and including gays would be a major break from Jewish law, and would detrimentally ally Conservative Judaism with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements, the two liberal branches of Judaism from which the Conservative branch has always tried to distance itself.

But liberals in the movement line up with Gordon Tucker, the rabbi of the White Plains Jewish Center in New York, who is also considered a front-runner to follow Schorsch. Tucker asserts that if gays don’t receive equal rights in the movement, they will leave. And so will other Jews.

That’s also the view of Rabbi Benay Lappe, head of Chicago-based “Svara: The Yeshiva for Queers,” who pretended she wasn’t gay in order to qualify for ordination. She came out again after receiving her rabbinate certificate.

“Very few liberal Jews are going to align themselves with a movement that doesn’t accept gays,” Lappe said. “So the movement is losing respect, loyalty, affiliation. A lot of people are thinking, ‘Why should I affiliate myself with this movement that I can’t respect or give my allegiance to?'”

But others, like Dorff and Myers call the issue a red herring. They don’t want to focus excessively on any particular issue, including the status of women in the movement, which also has come to the fore in recent years. While the Law Committee allowed the ordination of women in 1983, a recent study found that women rabbis earn less, lead smaller congregations, leave their first jobs earlier and apparently have much more trouble finding a mate than their male counterparts.

“When people talk to me about the gay issues or the women’s issues, I don’t think they’re the crucial issues,” Myers told The Journal. “Whatever the current internal debates are on certain social issues, that’s going to be worked out no matter who the chancellor is. It’s going to be worked out in terms of time, culture and society.”

A Movement Divided

Whether one issue ought to be decisive is debatable — think Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court nominee — but factions have broken off from the movement exactly because of the movement’s direction on a handful of key issues. For example, after the Conservative movement admitted women rabbis in the movement in 1983, the Union for Traditional Judaism (UTJ) formed from a group of splinter congregations.

UTJ is a modest entry in a long line of dissenters, the primary one being the Reconstructionist movement. It originally developed as a school of philosophy under the Conservative movement in the 1920-1940s. Reconstructionist Judaism holds that a person’s autonomy overrides halacha. (But unlike Reform Judaism, Reconstructionists believe that a default position should be an adherence to halacha and tradition.) The Reconstructionist movement broke from the Conservative movement in the 1960s, forming its own seminary in 1968.

“You can date the decline of the Conservative movement to the Reconstructionist beginning,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of Jewish studies at Brandeis University. Sarna spoke at the Rabbinical Assembly last year, and read to its members a list of organizations that have seceded from the movement. This included the popular Bnei Jeshrun synagogue in New York, which judged the movement was too traditional, and Shar Hashamayim in Montreal, which felt it was too liberal.

The more serious problem, Sarna said, is the numerous Jewish startup communities, including Ikar and Nashuva in Los Angeles and Kehillat Hadar in New York, that don’t even take the Conservative label, despite their similarities to the movement, namely, a focus on egalitarianism, an evolving halacha and an adherence to tradition.

Kehillat Hadar on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is perhaps the best example. Hadar, which means glory, claims a mailing list of more than 2,000, most of whom are in the coveted demographic of the 20s and 30s. It defines itself as an independent, egalitarian community committed to spirited traditional prayer, study and social action — a description that obviously evokes principles of the Conservative movement. And yet, while a majority of the people who attend grew up Conservative — 60 percent, as opposed to the 20 percent who grew up Orthodox and 12 percent Reform — the group insists on calling itself nondenominational.

Ikar and Nashuva in Los Angeles also follow traditional Hebrew prayers, have mixed seating and call themselves post-denominational, i.e., unaffiliated with any movement, even though Ikar’s Brous and Nashuva’s Rabbi Naomi Levy, like the leaders of Hadar, trained at JTS.

“The tragedy of the Conservative movement is that those who innovate want to cast off the Conservative label,” Sarna said. “Whereas in Orthodoxy, the innovators are deeply concerned to hold fast to Orthodox label.”

The evidence supporting his analysis is plain enough. Shuls on the cutting edge of Orthodoxy, like Bnei David-Judea in Los Angeles or Rabbi Avi Weiss’ Riverdale Jewish Center in New York, which allow women’s prayer groups, try not to cross any line that would exclude them from the Orthodox movement.

Sarna said that the Conservative movement — and JTS in particular — has spawned great innovations in Judaism, but “many of those who have been innovators want to chuck the label. It’s a huge problem.”

This modern-day reluctance to identify as Conservative may be reflected in the movement’s apparent fundraising difficulties. Some people don’t want to give money to Conservative Judaism, because they either don’t know what it means to be Conservative or they do not like what it means.

A Crisis of Being

“I grew up between my local Reform and Conservative shuls. I went to Sunday school at the Conservative one,” wrote a person who goes by the screen name Laya L. on the Web site, Jewlicious.com, which is discussing the future of the Conservative movement.

“No one in my class returned to that place after our bar or bat mitzvahs if we were given the choice. They failed to instill in us any sense of passion or joy about being Jewish. They failed to instill a sense of community between the members, or relevance to the real world in the stuff we were learning. In fact, I barely remember what they taught us,” she wrote. “If Conservative Judaism worked, I really might not have much of a problem with it. But I know my experience isn’t unique, and the Conservative movement keeps losing numbers for a reason.”

Laya’s experience isn’t unique.

The 2000-2001 National Jewish Population study found that nearly half of all adult Jews who were raised Conservative no longer consider themselves to be Conservative.

And Conservative Judaism also has failed to attract committed members. Only 10 to 15 percent keep kosher and observe Shabbat, most rabbis said, according to Rabbi Neil Gillman’s book, “Conservative Judaism: The New Century” (Behrman House Publishing, 1993). That disconnect between the leadership and its constituents is causing dwindling numbers.

Gillman wrote that the Conservative movement’s failure to attract passionate adherents — and the fragmentation that resulted from constant tension between modernity and tradition — can be traced to movement’s origins. The movement, after all, was founded only as a traditionalist response to Reform Judaism’s abnegation of halacha, which was embodied in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885.

Conservative Judaism saw itself then as a stalwart against the recklessness of the Reform movement, while also being an innovator compared to what the founders believed to be backward Orthodoxy.

But this middle-ground movement never defined a coherent set of principles. By comparison, “the American Reform movement published a platform that articulated its ideological position clearly and coherently. Indeed, the Pittsburgh Platform was but the first in a series of platforms to be published during the next century. In contrast, it took Conservative Judaism over 100 years to prepare its very first platform: Emet Ve-Emunah was not published until 1987,” Gillman wrote.

Of course, it was never the intention of the founders to have a declaration of principles. To be a Conservative Jew meant to appeal to “history and to the will of the community as sources of authority,” said Rabbi Zechariah Frenkel, the ideological father of Conservative Judaism.

Gillman noted: “That complex and subtle message … shares the ambiguity of all middle-of-the-road positions, it eludes clear definition, and it is inherently more complex than the polar positions.”

In concert with the movement’s tradition, the Law Committee does not typically issue binding rulings, as do Orthodox rabbis. The Law Committee can present both a majority and a minority opinion, either of which is enforceable by the synagogue rabbi. That is why there are some synagogues today that are not egalitarian — they won’t allow women to lead prayers. These rabbis haven’t chosen to accept the minority opinion. As a matter of fact, there are only three standards of rabbinic practice that are binding in the movement: matrilineal descent — if your mother is a Jew that makes you Jewish, a prohibition on a rabbi officiating at an intermarriage and a prohibition on a rabbi performing a re-marriage of a Jew whose first marriage has not been terminated according to accepted religious tradition (Even though the movement will not ordain openly gay rabbis that policy does not implicitly carry the inviolability of the three “fixed” standards.) .

This pluralism, this lack of a constitution, has today wrought a movement of Judaism that is often seen as anarchic, disorganized and lacking a clear vision. In other words, it has fueled the movement’s identity crisis.

And yet, the disappearance of Conservative Judaism is not inevitable. Rabbi Brous, of Ikar, is considering an affiliation with the Conservative movement, now that her spiritual community has defined its own parameters.

“We had to make it clear to our community first who we are and what we are,” said Brous, who can envision her congregants as trailbrazers for a re-invigorated Conservative movement. “I want other communities in the Conservative world to see that it’s possible to be innovative, creative, dynamic — to ask new kinds of questions of Jewish life, to not do things the way they always have been done and work within the Conservative movement.”

Her evolution of thought is a hopeful one: “Ultimately what I care about is God, Torah, humanity and the Jewish people. The Conservative movement is not an end in its own right. I think the movement is a mechanism to get us there. And I think Ikar has more of a chance of impacting the movement by being in the movement.”

In a way, though, the Conservative movement’s crisis applies to all Jewish denominations; they are all forced to confront adapting the traditions of Judaism to modernity. The Orthodox, too, must deal with women’s issues and homosexuality, just as Reform Jews must deal with the yearning for tradition. All of Judaism is seeking to increase membership, combat assimilation and evolve the next generation of leaders.

The right leader for the Conservative movement could become a leading voice of the faith, while also saving a movement that could otherwise subsist in persistent decline.

Its extinction would be a blow for for the thousands of unaffiliated Jews searching to re-connect to their tradition, to the hundreds of thousands of Conservative Jews today who are at various stages of affiliation and to the movement’s 100-year legacy as a bridge between the Reform and Orthodox movements.

“The Conservative rabbi was traditionally the one who could talk to both the Orthodox rabbi and the Reform rabbi,” Sarna said.

In today’s increasingly polarized world — of Democrats and Republicans, doves and hawks, screaming talk shows and extremists groups in all religions — it is crucial for Judaism to consist of more than the extremes.

“I think that the center is very important for Judaism,” Sarna said. “Otherwise, the left and right will split apart.”


Conservative Death Prophecy Draws Fire

A top Reform rabbi is predicting the death of Conservative Judaism, drawing protests from the Conservative movement’s leadership.

The objections surfaced this week in response to an essay by Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis. The essay argued that within several decades, Conservative Jews likely will move either to the more liberal Reform movement or to the more traditional Orthodox world.

Major wedges between the modernist movements will force this exodus, Menitoff argued, including the Conservative movement’s opposition to intermarriage, its ban on ordaining homosexual rabbis and same-sex marriages and its opposition to patrilineal descent, all of which the Reform movement supports.

The Conservative movement may continue to attract those for whom Orthodoxy remains "too restrictive" and Reform "too acculturated," but a more likely outcome will be "the demise of the Conservative movement," Menitoff wrote.

"If the Conservative movement capitulates regarding these core differences between Reform and Conservative Judaism, it will be essentially obliterating the need for its existence," he wrote. "If, alternatively, it stands firm, its congregants will vote with their feet."

Conservative leaders called the argument "delusional" and the product of "immature" analysis.

"His description of the future is rather silly," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. The essay "is an immature look" at the currents shaping American Jewry, "or maybe it’s wishful thinking."

Unusual in its bluntly pessimistic predictions, Menitoff’s essay comes as Conservative Jewry, which once dominated the American Jewish landscape, is facing major challenges. In the past few years, the movement has been split over major issues, including its stance on homosexuality, and some rabbis have accused the movement’s leadership of lacking vision.

Menitoff’s predictions came in a January missive to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ 1,800 members. He later outlined the premise at a joint meeting of the western chapters of the rabbinical group and its Conservative counterpart, the Rabbinical Assembly, in Palm Springs in January.

Within a few decades, "you’ll basically have Orthodox and Reform," he said. "This is in no way an attack, it’s just a reasonable analysis of how things could work out. I hope I’m wrong. I’m just looking at the landscape and providing a perspective."

Some signs lend weight to Menitoff’s theory. Last September, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey found that of the nation’s 4.3 million Jews with some religious or communal connections, the largest group — 39 percent — identified as Reform, while 33 percent called themselves Conservative.

That represented a major decline from the 43 percent that the Conservative movement polled in the 1990 survey. By contrast, the Reform movement rose during that period from 35 percent, and Orthodoxy grew to 21 percent from 16 percent. The Reconstructionist movement rose from 2 percent to 3 percent.

Though Menitoff lamented the blurring of denominational lines as the result of "extreme assimilation" — 44 percent of Jews do not align with any movement, according to the survey — his Conservative counterparts believed they were being attacked.

"The Talmud says prophecy has been taken away from the prophets and given to children and fools," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean and vice president of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, one of the Conservative movement’s two main seminaries. "No one can predict the future."

Artson and others pointed out that a century ago, many predicted the death of the Orthodox movement and were proven wrong.

Conservative leaders also maintain that their movement’s communal organizations are thriving.

Of the approximately 120,000 students in Jewish day schools, more than 50,000 are in the Conservative movement’s 70 Solomon Schechter Day Schools, while 8,000 youngsters attend the movement’s Camp Ramah system each summer. Another 20,000 youngsters participate in the movement’s United Synagogue Youth organization, and many adults are "engaged in lifelong Jewish study," Schorsch said.

Rela Mintz Geffen, president of the nondenominational Baltimore Hebrew University and a Conservative scholar, also rejected Menitoff’s argument.

If "there are clear lines of demarcation" between all of the movements and they maintain theological differences, "I don’t think they will merge," she said. More likely, she added, is that traditionalists in the Conservative movement might merge with the modern Orthodox movement.

However, Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs for the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, agreed with Menitoff. In 2001, Shafran wrote in Moment magazine that the Conservative movement was a "failure."

"It does seem the Jewish community is heading for a crystallization between those who affirm the full truth of the Jewish religious tradition and those who, to one degree or another, don’t accept that," Shafran said.

Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families

Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand’s ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985.

Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA’s membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They’ve had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.

"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.

"I’ve been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I’ve never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it’s on my own or through networking."

Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she’s currently associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.

She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it’s been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."

As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.

"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."

Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren’t women here, this would never have happened."

Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.

"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.

"Now, I think there’s more of a realization … that for many of us, there are some positions that aren’t worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."

Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it’s a very slow process."

Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she’s frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it’s deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they’re a long way from where they were."

Bias Hits Rabbis on Mommy Track

When Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform rabbinical seminary, ordained its first female rabbi, Sally Priesand, in 1972, the event was more inevitable than revolutionary. It had been 50 years since HUC-JIR had come within a whisker of ordaining faculty daughter Martha Newmark, and other women had attended liberal rabbinical schools since then.

Meanwhile, in 1968, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) opened, with women admitted from the first day. Priesand’s ordination — and that of the first female Reconstructionist rabbi, Sandy Sasso, in 1974 — were newsworthy, but they quietly found pulpits and began to build careers, the first of an accelerating number of women to join the rabbinate in American Jewry’s most liberal denominations.

Today, the 377 women in Reform’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) constitute about 20 percent of Reform rabbis — closer to 25 percent when retired and inactive rabbis aren’t counted — up from about 10 percent in 1991. Currently, there are 246 Reconstructionist rabbis, 45 percent of whom are women.

Female rabbis serve synagogues, schools, hospitals and Jewish communal organizations in every metropolitan area; more than 20 women work in Los Angeles congregations, with possibly a similar number of women holding down other rabbinic jobs. Their ubiquity has had an effect on Judaism — but motherhood, a factor for most women in the rabbinate, may be keeping them from real power.

Transforming the Synagogue

Women in the rabbinate are widely credited with making rabbis seem friendlier and more approachable: the common buzzword is "accessible."

"We used to say that women’s presence has shifted the rabbinate out of the priestly, hierarchical model into a more egalitarian model," said Karen Bender, associate rabbi at Temple Judea in Tarzana, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1994, though she added that younger male rabbis strive for accessibility, too.

"Congregants want a closer, personal relationship with their spiritual leaders, and for many women this intimacy comes easily," according to Judith HaLevy, rabbi at Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, a Reconstructionist temple.

"Women are historically seen as good listeners," said Zoë Klein, associate rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park. "I think all of those negative stereotypes from the past actually fit well with what people want from a rabbi: a gracious hostess, care, gentleness and strength."

Another rabbi said she thinks women are more comfortable talking to female rabbis about issues such as menopause and domestic violence.

"It’s important that girls are growing up with women rabbis," Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and a Conservative rabbi, told The Journal, adding that women bring "a keener eye and a fresh perspective [to Jewish texts]."

For many female congregants, there’s a comfort level in connecting with a woman rabbi when one is searching spiritually.

"Walking that path with another woman can be powerful," said Sheryl Nosan-Blank, a 1993 HUC-JIR graduate and rabbi of Temple Beth Torah in Granada Hills.

Some see women rabbis as an engine for Reform Judaism’s recent attention to traditional ritual. Male rabbis during Reform’s first 150 years were interested in shedding ritual, said Temple Judea’s Bender, but women, having been excluded from ritual for so long, don’t feel the same way. "For women, there isn’t meaning in shedding; women embrace ritual," Bender told The Journal. "They’re more, ‘Let’s make more ritual, let’s make new ritual.’"

And women have most definitely made new ritual. Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, who became the third female Reform rabbi in 1976, said at last November’s Reform Community Shabbat that women in the rabbinate have made it possible for women to mark the milestones in their lives in Jewish ways. They’ve created rituals for menarche, menopause, weaning, miscarriage and abortion, she said, and they are responsible for making the ceremony for bringing a new daughter into the covenant as prominent in rabbis’ manuals as brit milah.

She added, though, that this contribution goes beyond women’s ceremonies to "new rituals for men as well as women: rituals for retirement; new rituals for divorce; gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies; rituals for becoming a grandparent."

"The presence of women in the rabbinate opens up the perspective," Temple Beth Torah’s Nosan-Blank said. "It changes what we see and what we hear and therefore what we listen for and what we look for."

The Mommy Track

Bender, who works full time and is rearing two children with a female spouse, is active in the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a group of female Reform rabbis. Five years ago, she said, women attending the group’s convention would state guiltily that they were leaving congregational work; today, she said, they brag, "I’m pulpit-free."

"Most people are finding that the pulpit rabbinate is incompatible with being a mom," Bender said. When significant numbers of newly or recently ordained rabbis leave congregations or won’t go into congregations at a time of shortage, she said, "that’s a crisis."

"I don’t think I could have done this when my children were small," said Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, whose children were 12 and 14 when she entered RRC and who was ordained in 1994. "I would not be a pulpit rabbi with children at home."

There’s wide acknowledgment of a "mommy track" in the rabbinate. "Certain [jobs] lend themselves to ‘mommyness’: those with clear hours, evenings and weekends off," Lewart said. Such jobs include teaching, Hillel work and administrative positions in Jewish communal organizations, though plenty of male rabbis do that work, too.

Women comprise the bulk of rabbis holding down part-time positions in Reform congregations and affiliated organizations, said Rabbi Arnold Sher, director of rabbinic placement for the CCAR. Even a "part-time" job, particularly in a congregation, often means working 40 hours a week for 20 hours’ pay, several women said. Some rabbinical mothers limit their careers to part-time teaching or officiating at weddings and funerals.

When Rabbi Karen Fox’s two sons were small, she worked a two-thirds-time schedule at Wilshire Boulevard Temple for five years except during the summer, when she ran the temple’s camps in Malibu. She brought her sons and a housekeeper to camp with her, but when one of the boys complained, "You’re not their mom, you’re my mom," Fox left Wilshire Boulevard and switched to education, teaching and then directing the middle school at Pressman Academy in Pico-Robertson.

"That allowed me to have structure as a mom and as a rabbi, and I was home for Shabbat," said Fox, who was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1978 and is back at Wilshire Boulevard as associate rabbi. "There were times when I thought I might be trading something away, [but] I don’t think I gave anything up; I allowed myself to have a soul."

Several rabbis mentioned the arrival of a second child as the breaking point at which full-time congregational work (which in a typical rabbi’s contract involves working six days a week, including Saturday and Sunday) becomes too much for many mothers. Temple Isaiah’s Klein, however, has had a son and a daughter since her 1998 ordination, and she embraces the rigors of the job.

"Being a rabbi is hard work, but I chose it because I feel called to it and I love it with all my heart," Klein said. "Sometimes, when my weekends are eaten away in service of families, I wonder if it is worth it, but … when my son runs through the halls of Temple Isaiah and then stops suddenly in his tracks, points up to my picture and says proudly, ‘That’s my mommy,’ I know it is worth it."

"The hardest thing about being a mother, a wife and a rabbi is that when most people have family time — Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday — that’s when I am the busiest," said Michelle Missaghieh, associate rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Her decision to remain in full-time congregational life with two children under age 4, though, is a lonely one. Of the women in her 1996 ordination class at HUC-JIR, Missaghieh said, "they’ve either left congregational life, left rabbinical life and become mothers full time, they’re working part time or they’re lesbians and have a partner at home."

But she has no plans to leave full-time work.

"That’s the struggle, that I am so fulfilled in my work," Missaghieh told The Journal. "I would not be as effective as a full-time mother as I am as a full-time rabbi; I could not be the best Michelle I could be if I were a full-time mother."

Parenthood deepens experience and makes men and women better rabbis, several women noted. Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi, said that as a young, single woman, she wasn’t taken seriously when she first came to Sinai Temple in Westwood, but during those five years, she met and married her husband, bore her first child and helped nurse her father through a terminal illness.

"People say, ‘I really didn’t support you when you first came here, but now I honor you as my rabbi,’" Hirsch said.

"I think that I am greatly aided by my role as a mother, especially in dealing with families," said Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue’s HaLevy, who entered the rabbinate after her children were grown. "My son refused to wear anything but his favorite tennis shoes with holes in them to his own bar mitzvah, so I can relate to all those parents of 13-year-olds who wonder where the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel has gone."

The setting of limits on one’s time is crucial to keeping one’s sanity, several rabbis commented. "I have very strong boundaries: If I’m working at night, I make sure I’m home in the middle of the day; if I have to work all day Sunday, I’m home all day Monday," Hirsch said.

Bender is more skeptical that rabbis have the ability to say no.

"How much power do you have to craft a rabbinate that lets you have a family life?" said the Temple Judea rabbi. "Do I ask to miss that meeting, or do I just say I’m going to miss that meeting? I think rabbis are afraid: ‘If I keep missing meetings, they’ll fire me.’"

"My joke is, ‘And I have a wife,’" said Bender, whose partner works part time. "Just because I have a wife doesn’t solve the problem."

However, the presence of mothers in the rabbinate is credited with raising congregations’ consciousness that all rabbis need to set limits on the time they give their synagogues, though that may contain a generational element as well, as younger men assert a need to spend time with their spouses and children.

Janet Marder, who recently became the first female president of the CCAR, suggested that when women rabbis set the example of making time for family life, they put in motion a new way of looking at the rabbinate.

The rabbi who sets time boundaries and doesn’t burn out "is better able to serve because you have more to give," she said. And the need for rabbis to pull away from synagogue demands, Marder added, has led to the empowerment of laypeople, who develop ritual and administrative skills to pick up the slack.

The perceived need for boundaries for both men and women, however, has fed a shortage of rabbis willing to take pulpits, especially the senior rabbi positions at large congregations, which historically have been seen as the most prestigious jobs but are also the most demanding.

The CCAR’s Sher said that the aspirations of male and female rabbis are becoming "pretty equal," with fewer men going into congregational work than ever before.

While Missaghieh loves her present job, she isn’t looking to move up. "I’m not interested in being a senior rabbi…. I really want to spend time being a mom, being a wife, and exploring my own strengths and weaknesses." Marder, who became senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Am, a 1,200-household temple in Northern California, in 1999, said she probably would not have applied for the position when her daughters, now 17 and 20, were younger.

On the other hand, Temple Emmanuel’s Geller, who became the first woman to lead a large congregation when she took her current job in 1994, says that once the temple hired an associate rabbi six years ago, they were able to divide up Friday nights and otherwise share responsibilities.

"Generally, you have some control over your time," Geller told The Journal. "The reason many women choose not to pursue senior rabbi positions has less to do with the job than with the ability to see it in a different way."

From Influence to Power?

Power at work is generally associated with presence at the top of a hierarchy and the ability to dictate standards, and by that definition, women have a distance to travel toward power in the Reform rabbinate.

HUC-JIR ordained equal numbers of men and women this year, but Sher says the rabbinical program does not strive for gender parity, and he doesn’t expect women to comprise 50 percent of Reform rabbis in his lifetime.

The CCAR is currently conducting a salary survey; Marder said that there’s no pay gap between newly ordained men and women, but salaries may diverge in later years. Locally, the Board of Rabbis’ Diamond sees a significant pay gap and knows of synagogues that have offered women lower salaries than to men for the same position.

Not every congregation offers maternity leave, Marder said, adding that many temples are reluctant to hire women of childbearing age because they don’t want to deal with the issue, a situation driven more by tight finances, she said, than by sexism.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Fox said that over 25 years, she expected women to have more effect on pocketbook issues.

"The time for change has already come," she said. "I never thought you would have to keep asserting those questions."

Women do not hold top executive positions at HUC-JIR or the national headquarters of Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), the Reform movement’s synagogue arm. However, women have become a much stronger presence among HUC-JIR faculty of late, filling 10 of the 17 tenure-track positions open during the past seven years, and six of the UAHC’s 14 regional offices have female rabbis as directors.

Women Reform rabbis also are beginning lead large congregations. Although it took 22 years for a large Reform temple to hire a woman as senior rabbi, Sher estimates that 10 women currently lead congregations of 1,000 families or more.

"It’ll be interesting to see what happens when a lot of women rabbis are empty nesters," Temple Beth Torah’s Nosan-Blank said.

And it may be that the real revolution brought about by women in the rabbinate is not about top-down leadership but about liberal Judaism in each synagogue sanctuary, where women have already begun to bring about change — and to represent normative Judaism.

"I’ve made a huge impact on the congregation as a role model for mothers and daughters," Missaghieh said. "A lot of congregants see me up there with my daughter on my hip, and she’s sucking her thumb as I’m telling a story, and that tells them, OK, this is what Judaism is about."

"I look forward to women rabbis being old and gray and creased and being emeritas," Klein said, "because I believe that once there are enough of us who are elderly, with white hair and thick glasses, we will start to complete the landscape of clergy."

New Burbank RabbiBuilds on Legal Past

Richard Alan Flom is a rabbi come lately. Now the rabbi at Burbank Temple Emanu El, a Conservative synagogue, Flom was 41 before he entered rabbinical school, after a successful career as a lawyer and a management consultant. And it was not like he had always had a spiritual bent either.

"The whole idea of rabbinical school –even now when I think about it — just seems strange," said 48-year-old Flom in an interview with The Journal. "When I was a kid growing up, anybody that I knew who kept kosher was either my Bubbe or Zaide or somebody who I thought was really weird. None of it computed for me when I was young. I was raised in the classic tradition of, ‘We belong to a Conservative synagogue, but except for me being dropped off at Hebrew school, we never went.’"

Flom was completely irreligious until he married Lynn Kronzk 22 years ago. "The rabbi marrying us asked us, ‘What do you do Jewishly?’ and I said, ‘We don’t do a damn thing. We don’t do anything Jewishly.’ He said, ‘Promise me you’ll light candles Friday night. You don’t have to make a blessing or make "Kiddush," but just light the candles.’ So we started lighting candles, and then we started saying blessings, and then, because we like to drink wine, we started drinking wine with ‘Kiddush.’"

Flom found that his increasing interest in religion corresponded with his decreasing interest in the legal profession. Upset with the lack of collegiality and the prevarication he encountered as a lawyer, Flom yearned for something more. "Certainly, there were monetary rewards, but at the end of the day, I didn’t feel like I had done anything meaningful or useful," he said. "It sounds really corny to say, but I wanted to answer to a higher authority."

The opportunity to answer to a higher authority came when Flom was offered a job teaching ethics at the MBA program at the University of Judaism. There he met a lot of rabbis and rabbinical students. "I thought, I could really get into this, and so in 1995, I enrolled in the ordination program," he said.

In 2000, Flom met up again with the rabbi who performed his wedding ceremony. "I said, ‘Look what you started. You got me to light candles in 1980, and now I am graduating from rabbinical school.’ He told me that he had ‘pulled a Chabad on me’ (referring to Chabad’s campaign to get people to light Shabbat candles)."

The lesson that Flom drew from his religious journey is that in matters of faith, nothing is instant. "You can’t expect to say something to somebody and overnight change their lives," he said. "As a rabbi, you might never see the results of your labor, or it might be 15 or 20 years later before you see some results."

During his tenure at Burbank Temple Emanu El, Flom hopes to inspire the 130 member families of his congregation to grow as Jews, and he wants them to understand that there is a Jewish way of doing things that might be different to what their Christian neighbors do. He plans to develop a Bikkur Cholim program so that his congregants can understand the Jewish way to visit and comfort the sick, and he hopes to use every opportunity he can to teach his congregants Jewish texts.

"To me, adult education, family education, teaching from the bima or speaking at a bris, are all teaching moments," he said. "People don’t realize it, but they can actually learn Torah at a bris. I like to teach –and perhaps that is part of my legal background, because good lawyers educate their clients."

Flom describes his congregation as an active bunch of middle-class families, ranging from young couples with newborns to people celebrating their 60th wedding anniversaries. The community boasts a sisterhood and men’s club, a 50-student pre-school and a religious school. It is the only Conservative synagogue in the area.

Flom hopes to increase membership in the synagogue by 50 percent, and he also hopes that his congregation will be able to grow spiritually, just as he did. He wants to create a "hands-on" approach to Jewish practice, with congregants reading from the Torah, leading services and getting involved with Jewish textual study.

"What drew me here was the potential for growth," he said. "The congregation wants to grow physically, but they want to grow Jewishly, too. Programs that cause us all to grow in terms of our knowledge and in terms of our practice might or might not draw new members, but it will improve our membership, and that is really important to me."

"I want the members to develop as Jews, and to understand, as I learned, that [religious growth] is a ladder," he said. "Even if you go up only one rung higher than you were before, then you have still advanced."

The Rabbi, Divorced

Four years ago, Perry Netter feared his divorce from his wife, Esther, would end his career as a rabbi. Sitting in his office at Conservative Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, he said he knew that people want their rabbi married. Congregants like to gaze upon the rabbi’s family as the ideal Jewish family. If anybody’s going to get Jewish life right, it should be the rabbi, he said. The rabbi’s divorce also heightens a sense of vulnerability; anybody might be next. And for the first three or four months after Netter and his wife announced their separation, congregants neither wanted the separated rabbi under their chuppah nor performing their premarital counseling.

Now Netter performs the same number of weddings he did while married and is doing more counseling than before. "People need to talk through issues," he explained. Rather than fearing Netter’s divorce might somehow have a domino effect and topple their marriages, congregants have come to see that everybody goes through transitions and their rabbi, imperfect like they are, might be better equipped to help since he has walked in their shoes.

Netter said he did not intend his new book, "Divorce Is a Mitzvah," to be a confessional. The impact of his divorce on his career and his three children is not the book’s subject. He said that so far, his kids have only read the dedication page to look at their names. "I am certain they will soon read the text, particularly when their friends start to," he said, "and will rise from it with pride."

But fellow rabbis who have already read the book have responded enthusiastically. A rabbi in the Midwest, separated from his wife for a month, sent an e-mail to Netter: "In times of despair and hopelessness and anger, it has given me comfort, hope and calm." The e-mail moved Netter to tears. In the past, when congregants came to him in this kind of pain, there was no book he could put in their hands, which was why he wrote his own. Several other rabbis from around the country, whom Netter did not know, called him following the book’s publication to speak about their own marital difficulties.

Many of these rabbis faced the same crisis Netter did four years ago. He felt he had to fulfill the fantasies of congregants of what a rabbi is. His divorce has freed him from acting in some artificial role. "Married or divorced, I’m still a rabbi and I hope a healthier one now," he said.

What Do You Tell the Kids?

So what do you say to children when hate explodes in our world, taking with it thousands of lives?

That is what educators at Pressman Academy at Temple Beth Am dealt with Tuesday, after they made an early morning decision to keep the Westside Conservative day school open, even as other Jewish day schools across Los Angeles canceled classes for the day.

“Once we were confident about security, we decided it was better to have the kids together and doing something than to have them at home, just watching TV and getting more and more nervous about what happened, and not really being able to respond,” said Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman. “We could give them a place and framework to talk about this that was safe and nurturing and supportive.”

Many classes began late, as parents, apparently wavering over whether to send their children to school, brought students in later then usual. By midday, the upper grades had about 90 percent attendance, while the preschool was at about 50 percent. About 85 percent of the school’s 400 kids in early childhood through eighth grade came for the day.

The decision about what to tell the students varied from grade to grade, using the developmental stages of the students and the questions they asked as prompts for where to carry the discussion.

Malkus instructed the teachers to answer the kids’ questions and to let discussions on the issue eat into class time.

For all the grades from kindergarten on up, the day began with special prayers.

“Our message to all of them was that when sad things or terrible things happen, there are ways to respond, and one way Jews respond is with special prayers,” Malkus said.

In the younger grades, that meant singing “Oseh Shalom,” asking God to bring peace and hope. In third through eighth grade, students recited the prayer for the government of the United States, portions of the Yizkor memorial prayer and the blessing of “Baruch Dayan Emet,” blessed is the Judge of truth, traditionally said upon hearing of someone’s death. They ended prayers with a “Kaddish.”

“Everybody is entitled to be sad, and together we can deal with it better than individually,” said Aliza Liran, Judaic Studies principal. “Praying together is a great way to take off the burden.” Uppermost on the minds of sixth- through eighth-graders seemed the concrete and factual details. As Malkus and Rabbi Joel Rembaum, spiritual leader of Beth Am and headmaster of the school, shared news they had heard, the students were eager to have rumors that had been circulating confirmed or dispelled.

“I heard there were probably 50,000 people killed,” one boy offered.

“Is it true they are planning attacks on all the major cities?” a girl asked.

Students wanted to know whether flying would be safe again, if Los Angeles were a target.

Some wanted to determine what connection the tragedy had to Jews and Israel, and one student simply wanted to know if school would be open the next day.

Rembaum and Marcus did their best to confirm only the known details, which were still sketchy Tuesday afternoon. They encouraged students to listen to the news carefully but not to jump to conclusions or believe all the rumors they heard.

Rembaum tried to open up the discussion at another level. “Is there anything else about this bothering you?” he asked the 50 or so students gathered in the synagogue’s chapel. “Are there any moral issues you want to ask about?”

One girl raised her hand. “How did they hijack all those planes?” she asked.

The existential and theological questions apparently would be left for another time. Malkus said interest in such concrete information is in keeping with the developmental expectations for these ages.

Still, he acknowledged, “We felt it was important to have a communal gathering, but most of the work is done in the classroom.”

In Amy Ament’s sixth-grade class, after a long discussion of the logistics of the events, students came to the bigger questions.

The class discussed how God could let this happen, and why people thought it was OK to kill themselves and other people.

After talking about the tragedy for part of the class, Marlynn Dorff tried to steer her seventh-grade students toward their regular Mishna lesson.

Midway through, a boy raised his hand. Would the people who did this go to heaven? he wanted to know.

Dorff said they would come back to his important question at the end of the lesson, at which point they discussed the Jewish concept of the afterlife.

While some classes were sidetracked by the days’ events, many lessons seemed to be proceeding as usual for the second week of school, especially in the younger grades. A first-grade teacher drew a row of alefs on the board, and sixth-grade students went into a round robin to check each other’s homework. A necessary dose of normalcy seemed to be in order.

Teachers knew the questions would come soon — yet how do you explain the hate?

“You can’t talk about hate, because then you lose hope, and what we need to teach them is about hope,” said Andy Polsky, elementary school principal at Pressman. “So we say today is a sad day, today is a difficult day. It’s a hard day to be a human being today, but we hope tomorrow will be better,” he said.

“They have to see things are going to be better, otherwise what’s in it for them to make the world a better place?”

Condemning the Vote

It’s bad for Jewish unity, but not as bad as the decision to recognize the children of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers as Jews.

That’s how Orthodox and Conservative rabbis are viewing the Reform movement’s recent decision last week to affirm the right of its rabbis to officiate at gay and lesbian commitment ceremonies.

But even though the leaders of Judaism’s more traditional movements say the Reform rabbis’ decision is less divisive than the 1984 move on patrilineal descent, Orthodox leaders are harshly condemning the vote.

The criticism of Conservative leaders is more subdued.

Also, those active in promoting Reform Judaism in Israel insist that because the resolution recognizes the diversity of views on same-sex unions and does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding,” it will not pose a serious obstacle to attracting Israelis to the movement. The Israeli Reform movement has generally taken a more cautious approach to controversial issues because it does not want to give the Orthodox establishment ammunition.

Not surprisingly, leaders in the Reconstructionist movement — which recognizes patrilineal descent and in 1993 supported same-sex commitment ceremonies — backed the Reform decision.

Other movements, though, predict it will undermine Jewish unity.

While the Reform resolution means the movement will now develop and circulate ketubot — or Jewish marriage contracts — and liturgy for same-sex ceremonies to its 1,700 rabbis, the resolution does not require rabbis to officiate at same-sex unions. Many Reform rabbis had officiated at same-sex ceremonies even before the resolution was passed.

Rabbi Richard Hirsh, executive director of the 200-member Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, speculated that the resolution’s passage will encourage Reform rabbis who do not yet officiate at same-sex unions to consider doing so. He said his movement’s 1993 resolution “started what became a significant shift in Reconstructionist rabbis.”

Public discussion of the issue “made it less possible for individual rabbis to avoid the issue,” said Hirsh, who began officiating at gay and lesbian ceremonies after 1993.

“Having support of the rabbinic group makes it easier for you to make a stand in your own congregation,” he said.

The executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,500 Conservative rabbis, said that while his movement supports civil rights for gays, it does not approve of its rabbis officiating at same-sex ceremonies.

Rabbi Joel Meyers acknowledged that despite this position, some Conservative rabbis officiate at same-sex ceremonies and — unlike Conservative rabbis who officiate at intermarriages — they are allowed to remain in the Rabbinical Assembly.

Meyers does not expect Reform’s move to strain Conservative-Reform relations, and he predicted it would have less of an impact than the patrilineal descent issue, which he said “goes to the heart of defining who’s Jewish and who’s not and that’s a more serious question.”

The Rabbinical Council of America, the organization representing 1,100 Orthodox rabbis, issued a statement that said, “Conferring legitimacy upon relationships which our Torah and tradition specifically prohibit is beyond the pale of acceptable Jewish teaching and practice.”

“It’s another step of fragmentation and disunification of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Steven Dworken, the RCA’s executive vice president. “First they did it with patrilineal descent, and now this.”

Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the fervently Orthodox Agudath Israel of America, was even more outspoken in his criticism, saying it should “convince all Jews that anything goes in Reform leadership.

“Even the prohibition against incest could go,” he said.

But Shafran did say that unlike the patrilineal descent issue, the new resolution would not “split the Jewish people in two.”

Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative leaders say they will continue to work together, despite their differences on the same-sex issue.

Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, said he supported the resolution and was particularly happy about its compromise language.

“I imagine there’ll be some attacks from various quarters, mostly Orthodox, and I think it will be used from time to time by those who have an ax to grind against us,” he said.

However, he noted that he “could care less what the ultra-Orthodox say about us,” and is far more concerned about Reform’s image among its “target audience — all those people between Orthodox and nothing.”

The leader of Israel’s Conservative counterpart, Rabbi Ehud Bandel, said he does not agree with the resolution, which he thinks will undermine both movements’ efforts in Israel, but said it will not affect his willingness to work with the Reform movement in efforts to gain recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism.

“It will make our position hard — we’re always associated with Reform, and Israelis don’t always differentiate between Masorti and Reform. But I think it will create more understanding to the fact that these are distinct movements.”

Yolanda Potasinski, left, and her partner under the chuppah. Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum officiated at the 1997 commitment ceremony.

A Step Forward

Gay Jews say Reform vote is

a step toward acceptance.

By Julie Wiener, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Steven Fruh, 56, grew up thinking homosexuality and religion were incompatible.

So, when he realized he was gay, he abandoned Judaism. But 11 years ago when he discovered Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, it was a “revelation” to him that one could be “observant and gay.”

The feeling of acceptance Fruh found upon discovering the world’s oldest and largest gay synagogue was experienced by other gay Jews last week when Reform rabbis overwhelmingly approved a resolution affirming that “the relationship of a Jewish, same gender couple is worthy of affirmation through appropriate Jewish ritual.”

In Los Angeles, the only city in the world with two synagogues serving primarily gay, lesbian, and bisexual Jews, Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC) lauded the Reform movement for “taking a leading role” in the inclusion of gay and lesbian Jews. Some date Reform’s historic path toward the recent vote to 1972, when it formally accepted BCC as a member in the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood credited the Women’s Reform Network, the national organization of Reform women rabbis, with pushing the issue of gay marriage before the plenum. “We feel the vote of the Reform rabbis is in keeping with the views of the liberal Jews of California,” she said.

Back at Manhattan’s Congregation Beth Simchat Torah — where the rabbis already officiate at gay and lesbian weddings — the bimah features two rainbow-colored gay liberation flags alongside the United States and Israeli flags. During a recent Hebrew class, Fruh and his classmates said the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ resolution was an important step toward greater acceptance for gays and lesbians.

“It’s important from a symbolic point of view,” said Fruh, who was seated next to his partner, Paul Marsolini. “The largest Jewish organization has said our relationships have just as much validity” as the relationships of heterosexual couples, he said.

The resolution, which does not use the words “marriage” or “wedding” and which was modified shortly before the vote to emphasize that not all Reform rabbis agree on same-sex unions, does not make as strong a statement as the Beth Simchat Torah students would have liked. Rachel Gartner, a rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, who was teaching the Hebrew class that night. “I would’ve liked to see kiddushin,” she said, referring to the Hebrew word for marriage. “But as a general broad statement, it’s thrilling.”

Modifications or not, Marsolini said the resolution is still a “tremendous step forward.”

Another st
udent, Marsha Cohen, who introduced herself as the “straight mother of a gay son,” said she was excited about the resolution, which she called “a step.”

“It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty good, and the more people get used to it, the better,” she said.

“Why shouldn’t my one son have the same rights and privileges as the other son?” Cohen added.

Class members said they hope the resolution would influence other religious movements.

“May the Conservative movement be next!” Fruh exclaimed.

Conservative Conversions

Reuven Hammer is an American-born Conservativerabbi who has lived in Jerusalem since 1973, working as a writer andteacher — Conservative rabbi is not much of a career option inIsrael — and raising five kids along the way. Among variouspart-time jobs, he heads the bet din, or rabbinical court, whichoversees Conservative conversions in Israel.

Alert readers may stop here and ask: What on earthdoes a Conservative conversion panel do, in a country that forbidsConservative conversions? A fair question, Hammer says. Israel doesnot actually prevent Conservative or Reform rabbis from convertingnon-Jews to Judaism. It simply doesn’t recognize those conversions –not for citizenship, not for marriage, not even burial near one’sfamily. Conservative converts get none of the state benefits ofJewishness in a Jewish state. But Rabbi Hammer can call them Jewishif he wants. It’s a free country.

And yet business is booming. “Right now we haveabout 150 people in conversion classes,” Hammer says, up from perhaps20 per year a decade ago. Why do they bother? Because thousands ofnon-Jews in Israel want to join the Jewish people and become part ofthe Israeli mainstream. They include spouses of Israelis who studiedabroad, foreign children adopted by Israeli couples, and perhaps200,000 Russian immigrants with non-Jewish mothers. Most won’tqualify for state-sanctioned conversion: the Orthodox rabbinatedemands that converts vow to live a fully Orthodox lifestyle, and feware willing. An unrecognized non-Orthodox conversion is their onlyoption.

The real question is not why so many hundreds havejoined Hammer’s program, but why thousands more have not.

The reason is simple. Few Israelis have heard ofit, despite all the passion and drama of the decade-long struggle forReform and Conservative legitimacy.

This mass ignorance results from a little-noticedfact, the dirty little secret of the religious pluralism battle: TheReform and Conservative movements have no real allies in Israel. Theynever bothered to develop any.

In the three decades since Orthodox politiciansbegan pushing to bar their conversions, American Reform andConservative strategists — if that is the word — have lookedautomatically to Israel’s secular majority for backing. Non-OrthodoxIsraelis, famously resentful of Orthodox coercion, were expected tojoin hands with non-Orthodox Americans to protect non-OrthodoxJudaism.

Time and again the Israelis have disappointed.Although 80 to 85 percent of Israel’s 4.8 million Jews are notOrthodox, few practice non-Orthodox Judaism. Most don’t even know itexists. Their schools and media teach them little about Jewish lifein the Diaspora except that it is empty and doomed. Nobody tells themotherwise.

Lacking a grasp of the issue, Israelis oftendismiss the religious pluralism campaign as a power-play by Americanleaders without followers. Knesset members, asked to supportpluralism at the expense of issues they genuinely care about — thepeace process, for example — drop pluralism without blinking.

What have the American Reform and Conservativemovements done about it? Not much. The two movements, claimingtogether some 80 percent of affiliated American Jews, spent anestimated $4 million between them last year on programs to spreadtheir beliefs in Israel (not counting money muscled out of the UnitedJewish Appeal). That comes to less than $1.50 per American Reform orConservative Jew.

Results match the effort. The Conservatives,spending some $3 million a year, have about 50 congregations inIsrael with between 5,000 and 25,000 adherents, depending on howgenerously one counts. Reform, spending about $1 million, has some 20congregations with between 2,000 and 10,000 adherents. Scientologyhas more Israeli followers than Reform and Conservative Judaismcombined.

This lost opportunity has a tragic irony to it.Masses of Israelis are searching for something like non-OrthodoxJudaism and spiritual quest — from Jewish text study to born-againOrthodoxy — is one of Israel’s most talked-about topics. In shosrt,Israelis are seeking a path to God; few will adopt Orthodoxy and mostdon’t know any other way.

“There’s a generation that’s grown up in Israelwith no connection to Judaism,” says Beth Wohlgelernter, executivedirector of Hadassah and a keen observer of Israeli life. “We saw iton television after the death of Yitzhak Rabin — thousands of kidssitting on sidewalks, lighting candles, singing folk songs, trying toinvent a religion to comfort themselves. Judaism has a rich traditionof mourning, but those kids didn’t know about it. If they’re notgoing to go into Orthodox synagogues, someone has to find a way toteach them Judaism.”

The work has begun, too late and too little, butjust enough to show what might be done. The movements’ spending inIsrael, though meager, is up radically from a decade ago. Additionalfunds from the UJA and the Jewish Agency will help.

Moves are afoot to find political allies, too.Just last month the UJA brought eight Knesset members here to seenon-Orthodox Judaism up close. Participants said they were astoundedby the vibrancy of American Judaism, and most said they went homewith a new appreciation for its legitimacy. A handful of similardelegations have been brought in the last three years by the Reformmovement, the American Jewish Committee and others — perhaps 200 or300 Israelis in all.

American Reform and Conservative Jews havesomething many non-Orthodox Israelis are desperate to find: a modernpathway to God. If they had shared this gift years ago — byorganizing exchange visits, publishing Hebrew texts, sending rabbisand teachers to Israel as shlichim — they would now have an army ofIsraeli allies. The Orthodox parties would not be in a position todictate government religious policy.

And Rabbi Reuven Hammer could have worked in hisown profession.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment.” He writes from NewYork.

All rights reserved by author.

Taking the First Step

Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core .”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom , or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha , or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am , the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Taking the First Step

Taking the First Step

More than 40 rabbis, from Orthodox to Reform, look for ways to increase respect among Jews

By Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Religion Editor

One of them calls himself a hardliner. Another says he doesn’t believe in pluralism. Still another admits he has never actually called a woman a rabbi. And yet all these Orthodox rabbis, along with an impressive list of others, have spent several evenings over the past few months sitting with Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis figuring out how to tone down the rhetoric and turn up the level of respect among Jews with sharply differing beliefs.

“This group has a different focus from other attempts,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute of Yeshiva of Los Angeles. “Nobody has any interest in persuading anybody to modify his or her stance. We are dealing with a lot of strongwilled people who are not in any mood to budge on principles, but who feel strongly that Jews can treat each other with respect even when we disagree to the core.”

The rabbis involved consider themselves civilians — all represent only themselves and have left institutional affiliation behind. And the group, which recently named itself Darchei Shalom, or paths of peace, is, by its own admission, highly limited in its goals. There is no pretense of ecumenism or even pluralism, no discussion of the great debates ripping at the Jewish people, such as the conversion controversy in Israel.

Rules for Coexistence

Rather, as a statement signed by 40 prominent Los Angeles rabbis attests, the goal is simply to “explore ways in which to change the often shrill and derogatory way that many of us treat the ‘other.'”

The statement outlines a code “to govern the way we speak and write about each other.”

At first glance, the list reads almost like the rules on a sixth grade bulletin board: “Address issues rather than people. Avoid stereotyping and sweeping generalities, such as defining whole groups by the behavior of some. Avoid words of incitement. Language meant merely to mock, deride and insult should never be used.”

But, basic as the list seems, “I wonder if we could get 60 members of the Israeli Knesset to sign on to it,” says Adlerstein. In fact, the impetus for the group stems from some of the abusive and increasingly uncivil language heard among Jewish leaders in Israel and the United States.

Dr. Bill Bender, (left) a veterinarian in Canoga Park, spent much of last year’s High Holidays thinking about the bickering. Bender’s rabbi, Solomon Rothstein — a conflict resolution expert — had spoken about the issue at services, and Bender approached him afterward looking for ways to help.

With the assistance of Rabbi Paul Dubin, then executive director of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, Bender contacted local rabbis from across the denominations asking them to come to a meeting to explore ways to change the way Jews speak to each other.

Rabbi Aron Tendler, a teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school and rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in North Hollywood, says one of the reasons he so readily agreed to participate was because the request came from a concerned Jew, someone without the baggage of institutional affiliation.

“I felt that the goal was really a proper one and an appropriate one and one that everybody could concur with,” says Rabbi Elazar Muskin, leader of Young Israel of Century City. “We’re not talking halacha, or debating where we differ. We’re trying to work to treat each other with mutual respect, and that would benefit the Jewish community at large.”

Participating in interdenominational halachic dialogues or debates has long been seen by some in the Orthodox community as lending validation to the other movement by placing them on seemingly equal footing as Orthodoxy.

For Rabbi Janet Marder,(left) director of the Reform movement’s Western region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, it is the overriding concern for Jewish unity that allows her to overlook the limited scope of the group, though she herself would like to see more theological dialogue.

“I hope those in the Orthodox community will come to appreciate that there are significant numbers of liberal Jews who are serious about Torah and learning and observance and continuity,” she says. “And I hope those in my community will learn that the Orthodox are not demonic, not necessarily filled with hatred and contempt for Reform Jews.”

Making those inroads is beginning with Darchei Shalom, where establishing personal contact has been a major force in “de-demonizing” the other, as Tendler puts it.

“I never got the feeling from even the most Orthodox among them that disparaged my form of Judaism in any way, but rather I heard and I felt from them a respect for the seriousness with which I take Judaism,” says Rabbi Steven Carr Rueben, rabbi of the Reconstructionist Congregation Kehillat Israel.

While there was some initial tension at the first meeting, that broke down quickly as honesty about fundamental differences and a strong mutual respect emerged.

“The thing that resulted from the meeting was the realization that the people who lead the other denominations are sincere. I don’t agree with their approach, and not necessarily with their goals. But I do agree with their sincerity. They fell for the Jewish people, they are passionate about what they would like to do and give over to their congregants,” says Tendler.

The group’s next step will be to bring that concept to lay people. The rabbis are currently setting up guidelines for study sessions where interdenominational groups can focus on their commonalties, rather than their differences.

“We don’t have to argue about what is women’s role in the synagogue where there are significant differences of opinion,” says Rabbi Aharon Simkin of Young Israel of Northridge. “But I think everybody can agree upon v’ahavta lerayacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself.”

Even such benign activities could raise some eyebrows on the right end of the Orthodox spectrum, where any religious communication with other denominations is viewed as breaking down important walls. But those involved hope naysayers will realize that these rabbis are committed to holding firm to their form of Judaism — and that the unity of the am, the nation, is paramount.

“We all have this feeling that there is something special about being Jewish that pulls at our heartstrings whenever we are dealing with other Jews,” Adlerstein says. With that in mind, he sees the dialogue he is participating in as holy work.

“I think, personally, this brings us a lot closer to where Hakodesh Baruch Hu [The Holy One, Blessed be He], wants us to be.”

Power, Politics And People

New York publishing executive Steven Baum is a lifelong Conservative Jew who recently joined a Reform temple, and he’s not happy about it. “There’s hardly any Hebrew,” he says. “They don’t wear yarmulkes. It’s just not the Judaism I grew up with.”

So why did he make the switch? Because, he says, his oldest child was reaching bar mitzvah age and his Conservative congregation had introduced a rule that bar mitzvahs must attend services with their families twice a month for the year before being called to the Torah. “There’s just no way we can do that,” says Baum (not his real name). “We had no choice. My shul drove me out.”

Steven Baum is one of a growing number of American Jews who are victims of the most troubling and least discussed conflict in Jewish life today: the war between the Jews and their rabbis.

It’s a war that cuts through the heart of every Jewish denomination, but most sharply through the two biggest ones, Conservative and Reform. It leaves rabbis feeling lonely and abused, and congregants feeling angry and abandoned. Indirectly, it is helping to embitter the conflicts among the denominations.

To hear the rabbis talk about it, the problem is simply that Jews are wandering off the reservation. But it isn’t true. Most American Jews are still quite Jewish by their own definitions. Those just don’t happen to be the rabbis’ definitions.

Upward of 80 percent of all American Jews attend a Passover seder and light Chanukah candles every year, according to most recent surveys. Nearly that many fast on Yom Kippur and send their children for bar mitzvah training (including those married to non-Jews). As many as 95 percent say that being Jewish is very important to them.

The trouble is that’s quite enough for most of them. Only about a quarter to a third do much more: going to synagogue regularly, lighting Sabbath candles, participating in organizational life, celebrating Israeli independence day. For the rest, Passover-Chanukah-atonement-bar mitzvah is as Jewish as they want to be. Like it or not (for the record, this correspondent doesn’t much like it), they are going to show up three times a year, year after year, period.

This is not any rabbi’s conception of Judaism. Rabbis are trained to lead their congregants toward ever-higher standards of piety. Watching the flock sit there and glare at them, flatly refusing to move, must be deeply frustrating to the shepherd.

In fact, it’s one of the little-noticed side effects of the modern era. When the ghetto gates were thrown open 200 years ago, rabbis lost their age-old authority to enforce rabbinic law by fining violators or casting them out of the community. Jews were suddenly free for the first time in history to do whatever they pleased, and that’s just what they did. Rabbis have been fuming about it ever since.

The rabbinic frustration has flared up into helpless rage in recent years, fueled by the nationwide panic over intermarriage rates. For many rabbis and their closest lay allies, nonobservance and intermarriage are two sides of the same deadly coin, like marijuana and heroin. Skip services, end up in the gutter with grandchildren named Chris.

Lately, rabbinic alarm is turning histrionic. At the recent Dallas convention of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the union’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, devoted most of his surprising keynote speech to attacks not on the Israeli chief rabbinate but on backsliding Reform Jews. “Never in our history has the gap between the serious Reform Jew and the non-serious Reform Jew been so great,” Yoffie told the delegates, adding that the non-serious “are the majority, even in our synagogues.”

Conservative rabbis are, if anything, even more upset. At a recent Conservative symposium on Long Island, some of that movement’s leading rabbis expressed “despair” at the low level of ritual observance among their congregants. To the rabbis, Conservative Judaism is a doctrine of binding rabbinic law — evolving, updated, streamlined and user-friendly, but still binding. Only a fourth to a third of their congregants buy into it at all. This depresses the rabbis deeply. “An ignorant, empowered laity is dangerous,” said Rabbi Neil Gillman, a distinguished professor of philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

How do the lay folk react to all the fireworks? Based on anecdotal evidence and fragmentary hints from surveys, it appears that in the seven years since the Great Intermarriage Scare began, nonstop rabbinic breast-beating has essentially heightened the polarization between the deeply committed (25 percent or 30 percent) and the three-times-a-year majority.

Day-school attendance is creeping up, taking in a somewhat larger minority of Conservative congregants. At the same time, afternoon-school attendance is shrinking, as more and more families settle for the two-years-and-out model of bar mitzvah training. Similarly, sales of kosher food are booming among a growing minority, while surveys show that a strong majority now expresses no alarm at the prospect of intermarriage.

Overall, both Conservative and Orthodox Judaism have lost ground as shares of the Jewish population in the last generation. The Conservative movement, for generations the largest American wing, has dropped to second place in the last decade as it raised its standards of piety, driving increasing numbers of young families into the less rigorous Reform movement. Reform Judaism, in turn, finds itself under pressure to shift from its longtime tradition of voluntary halacha and begin to adopt standards of behavior for members.

If and when that happens, it’s not clear where the rest of the Jews will go. They clearly don’t want to leave Judaism. But they don’t want anyone telling them what to do either. Just ask Steven Baum.

Dues and Don’ts

Brandeis study finds benefits in free-membership policy at synagogues

By Susan Jacobs, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

A Brandeis University researcher is maintaining that synagogues can increase their numbers by offering free membership.

Joel Streiker bases his thesis largely on a recent study he conducted for San Francisco’s Temple Emanu-El, which last year began to offer new members free membership for one year. Between July 1996 and June 1997, 220 people joined the Reform congregation. Usually, 50 new members join every year.

In his survey, Streiker found that 78 percent of the new members said that the dues policy was important in their decision to join the synagogue. About 73 percent of those surveyed had never belonged to a synagogue as an adult.

After one year of free membership, nearly half of the new members decided to pay the annual dues and become regular members of the congregation.

“There is a perception in the Jewish community that Jewish living is expensive,” said Gary Cohn, executive director of Temple Emanu-El. He said that the congregation wanted to tell prospective members that “the most important thing is to get connected.”

Although members who could not afford dues were never turned away from the temple, “people are embarrassed to ask,” said Cohn.

The no-dues policy eliminated this embarrassment.

Temple Emanu-El’s membership dues are $1,400 for families and $800 for single adults. Different rates are available for young adults and senior citizens.

A similar program is now being tested at Congregation Shearith Israel in San Francisco, said Streiker, but such programs require considerable financial risk by the congregation.

“Emanu-El has a lot of financial resources. Any synagogue that tried this would have to have deep pockets,” he said. Temple Emanu-El did not lose money, because nearly half of the new members decided to begin paying dues, he added.

Streiker was enthusiastic about the potential success of such programs, but said, “If synagogues don’t have anything to offer, after a year, new members will drop off.”

According to the study, the cost of membership is often a deterrent to potential members for financial and
psychological reasons. New members were “reluctant to make large payments for benefits they didn’t know about or didn’t appreciate,” said Streiker.

Emanu-El has been inundated with questions from other congregations about the program, said Cohn, who estimates that as many as 20 congregations across the country will adopt similar programs within the next year.