Conservative synagogue body restructures, reduces dues

The umbrella body for Conservative congregations will undergo a major restructuring that includes a significant staff reorganization and dues reductions.

The changes within the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which were announced Tuesday in an internal memo, are part of the organization’s new strategic plan that was released in February.

The strategic plan itself was designed to address concerns that United Synagogue was not providing adequate services to synagogues—a complaint that led to the emergence of the Hayom coalition of dissident Conservative leaders in 2009.

The changes announced in the memo include a broad restructuring of United Synagogue similar to one in 2009 by the Union for Reform Judaism.

The current regional structure will be replaced by “kehilla relationship managers” responsible for the specific concerns of individual congregations, called kehillot.

About 27 percent of United Synagogue’s approximate 115 full-and part-time staff positions will be eliminated or replaced by new positions, with the affected staffers either moving into the new positions or replaced by new hires. The reorganization comes on the heels of a 22 percent staff reduction over the past four years.

Several top positions have been created, including the organization’s first chief operating officer. Others include a chief kehilla officer to oversee the relationship between staff and the individual congregations; a chief learning officer to oversee Conservative Jewish education; a chief resource development and marketing officer; and a chief outreach officer to focus on younger Jews, particularly those in member congregations and minyans.

A 5 percent reduction in dues for the 2011-12 fiscal year will apply only to those congregations that are fully paid up by Dec. 31.

Insiders describe the restructuring as less about saving money and more about addressing the concerns of congregations that say they are not getting enough for their dues.

As part of its enhanced development efforts, United Synagogue says it already has raised $800,000 in new commitments over the next three years. Also over the next three years, the organization plans to train 5,000 lay leaders for its congregations.

A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday

Back in 1971, a group of young married rabbinical school graduates with small children requested a meeting with Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am. Many of them had just moved back to Los Angeles after graduating the Jewish Theological Seminary, and they were looking for a meaningful prayer experience. Not only that, their children were being shushed for being disruptive in the main sanctuary.

Pressman proposed creating a separate, “parallel” service for the young Jewish professionals and took the concept back to his board, who did not like the idea at all. One man pointed his finger at Pressman and warned, “Rabbi you are going to create another shul that’s going to grow up and leave.”

Temple Beth Am library
In fact, the board member was half right. Pressman and the group did create another entity, what has become known as “The Library Minyan,” named for the downstairs library where the 15 families began to meet weekly to pray. Members organized and participated in all parts of the service (especially the weekly sermon), discussed all aspects of Judaism and debated the increasingly complex issues of the changing times. But even as the group grew — eventually eclipsing the main sanctuary in attendance — it stayed at Beth Am. In fact, it became a draw for new members, some of whom went on to serve on the synagogue’s board and who are now among the top Jewish professional leaders in and beyond Los Angeles.

Thirty-six years later, the Library Minyan, with its opportunities for engagement and intellectual rigor is seen as having helped to start a revolution — empowering lay leaders in the essential structure of spiritual leadership. It has become a model for many Conservative and Reform congregations seeking to create alternatives both within and outside the fold of conventional synagogue structure, and has allowed individual congregations to morph it into new and ever-changing incarnations.

This weekend, the Library Minyan will celebrate its double-chai anniversary (two times “life”) with a Shabbaton Nov. 2-4 that will remember the past but also look toward the future.

So, what does the future hold for the Library Minyan and its members? Will they continue to be a creative influence on Judaism? Or is it time for them to step aside and let other younger people establishing new and innovative communities of their own take over? Has the revolution ended?

Not that the Library Minyan set out to be revolutionary. “We were looking for a place where we could daven,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who worked at United Synagogue Youth, Camp Ramah and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before leaving town in 1984 to work in Jewish education in Northern California.

“Since most of us were knowledgeable, we could create a service that was more informal, more intimate, more participatory. I think this minyan was an evolution and not a revolution,” Kelman said.

Pressman, for example, helped found Camp Ramah and American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and got the hotels in town to have kosher kitchens. Under his stewardship, Beth Am grew from 218 families in the 1950s to 1,300 by the 1970s. He recognized the need for something new: “It was unreasonable we could serve all these people,” he said, so he gave the green light to the group, which was soon to include Rabbi Eliott Dorff (now rector of American Jewish University), professor Steven L. Spiegel (now UCLA’s director of the Middle East Regional Security Program) and Rabbi Joel Rembaum.

“I wish I could call it an immediate success, but it was not,” Pressman said. “There was scarcely a minyan” in the early years. Not that that mattered to its attendees, who were happy to have a mixed-seating, lay-led, traditional prayer group where members read from the Torah, delivered parsha sermons and held weekly potluck lunches. They also debated issues: first, whether women could read Torah (they could by the mid-1970s) and then whether women could lead prayers and be counted as a minyan (they could by the early ’80s).

“In the late ’70s all these people started coming,” recalled Dorff, who joined two months after the start, in April 1971, and is now considered one of the driving forces behind its egalitarian spirit. The minyan is filled with rabbis — more than a dozen — but has no one rabbi. “There were more and more people who wanted this kind of service.”

There was another attraction: “Word came out that the Library Minyan was a good place to meet the opposite sex,” Pressman said.

The group relocated a few times, first into the youth building adjacent to the shul, and then to the old chapel (today it’s in a newly renovated chapel).

“The minyan also acquired a certain star appeal, with members such as the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar of mysticism Jonathan Omer-Man, and the historian of ideas David Ellenson, a Reform rabbi who grappled with Modern Orthodox theology in his doctoral dissertation,” as described in a chapter devoted to the history of the Library Minyan by Samuel Freedman in his seminal book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” published in 2000).

Freedman pointed out that the participants were “products of the Jewish counterculture, committed to applying the New Left’s ideal of participatory democracy to religious practice. Yet they did not throw out all convention: Ninety percent of services were in Hebrew, and most members were Sabbath observant.”

Other forces were also at work: In 1985, Pressman retired and handed Beth Am’s senior rabbi mantle over to Rembaum, one of the original members of the Library Minyan, which was now considerably larger, with about 130 individuals on a Shabbat morning, Rembaum said.

The complaints continued: “Why don’t you bring those people in?” some of the same Beth Am members now complained to the new rabbi.

“I’m one of them,” Rembaum replied.

A congregation grows in Whittier — Hispanic outreach blooms

Something extraordinary is going on at Whittier’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, which has been in its present site east of Los Angeles since the early 1960s. As the area’s Jewish population base has dwindled — and as the Conservative congregation has aged — Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in the area.

“One of the purposes was to educate our neighbors about Judaism,” Beliak said. “But it was also to reach out to those in the Hispanic community who may have had some kind of Jewish connection: people in mixed marriages, those with a Jewish parent or grandparent or those who may have had a Jewish boss they felt close to. Was it with the hope of converting some to Judaism? I would say yes, that, too. All of the above.”

In recent years, several neighbors trickled in and converted, becoming part of the congregation, but it was last February that the real change took place. Beliak asked Argentine-born Rabbi Aaron Katz to teach a class — in Spanish — about Jewish history, philosophy and traditions. The class started with six students of Mexican and Central American background, most having been brought up in Catholic households.

Katz was surprised when the class quickly expanded, some bringing in spouses, friends and children. It was clear to him that the participants felt a deep spiritual connection to Judaism — they weren’t there merely to learn, they came for faith-driven reasons. These people wanted to practice Judaism.

Several in the Grupo Hispano, as a couple of the members referred to the group, said that they had grown up in homes with what they later realized were Jewish traditions: no eating of pork, devotion to study. They have no proof that they’re descended from those forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago, but several said that the first time they stepped into Beth Shalom it felt familiar, as if they had “come home.”

After a couple of months of study, members of the group asked Katz for their own services. So, since June, in a separate room within Beth Shalom, Katz has led them in Spanish-language services, as does another Argentine-born rabbi, Daniel Mehlman.

The Grupo Hispano is also learning Hebrew prayers and songs. It has become a community within a community and now numbers about 30.

Katz said that when he came to the United States four years ago, he had no intention of becoming a congregational rabbi again. He wanted to teach and study, which he’s done at several institutions.

“When I started giving classes to this group,” he said, “I thought it was just a teaching assignment. But their interest and enthusiasm drew me in. So now I’m once again a rabbi with a community. It’s these people. They made me a rabbi again.”

Nearly everyone in the group seems to be in the process of converting or intends to do so soon. Some have already done so.

How has the existing congregation dealt with this?

“Some have grumbled,” Beliak said. “But for the most part, the new members have been welcomed warmly.”

One congregant, 80-year-old Zelda Walker, said, “It’s wonderful! I’ve seen the conversion of two already. I’m delighted to see the community take in new members.”

Other congregants echoed the same thought. Recently, the two groups had Tisha B’Av service together, and now, after the Grupo Hispano has its separate Spanish-language service, members join the English-language congregation for Torah reading and Kiddush.

“Hopefully, in the coming months we will enjoy a renaissance,” wrote Beliak in the shul’s newsletter, Mishpacha, now published in English and Spanish.
Beliak said that the new members are extremely interested in matters of faith and have revitalized his shul.

“They have a yearning for divinity, as sincere as anyone I’ve ever known,” he said. “A sense of the spiritual. They are the ones setting the standard. In their own way, they’re more interested in being observant than the existing congregation.”

“This group,” Katz said, “is intensely involved in the spiritual aspect of our religion. That’s rare in Los Angeles or anywhere else. Of course, the social part is important, but [the Grupo Hispano] is looking for something more, and so am I. For many, it’s going to be their first High Holy Days, and they’re thrilled.”

Beth Shalom is located at 14564 E. Hawes St., Whittier. Parking is at 14579 Mulberry St.

On Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m., there will be a joint service of the two groups at Beth Shalom’s sanctuary. On Sept. 23-24 at 9 a.m., there will be separate services in Spanish and English, then the two groups will join for Torah reading.

On Kol Nidre, Oct. 1, the two groups will be together, and on Oct. 2, the Spanish-language group will have its own Yom Kippur service, then join the others for Torah reading.

For further information, call (562) 941-8744, visit

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 — — 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="">


PASSOVER – The Model Seder Begets Model Students

Lingering clouds huddle at the eastern edge of Los Angeles’ clear blue skyline, casting a dusty shadow over the snow-capped San Gabriel Mountains. Follow one of those meandering white trails down the mountain, and you’ll find yourself at Weizmann Jewish Community Day School in the eastern foothills of Pasadena, where 38 students and 11 staff members occupy a stronghold of Jewish education in an area of Southern California not known for its overall Jewishness.

On this day, two weeks before Passover, it’s time for a model seder.

The time-honored ritual of the classroom model seder, which happens everywhere from Chasidic preschools to confirmation classes at Reform temples, makes the seder familiar and comfortable. And here as elsewhere, the school ritual gives students knowledge and expertise to take home.

Prior to the start of the event, excitement is brewing in the classroom off the garden courtyard, part of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center, a 400-family Conservative synagogue where the 23-year-old school is housed.

The 12 kids in the combined first and second grades are eager to get started, ready to recite the story of strangers in a strange land.

Restless feet in sneakers or party shoes swing under the table, while kids remind each other to be on their best behavior.

“Remember, there’s a reporter here!” they scream-whisper across the table.

“The model seder makes me feel good because Pesach is my favorite holiday,” begins Joette Labinger, who has been teaching at the school for 17 years.

Labinger has set the table with everything from flowers to saltwater, and the group begins with the blessing over the wine (grape juice in this case).

Before each child a paper plate is arranged with seder foods — a sprig of parsley, some celery sticks, a mound of charoset, a glob of red horseradish and a hard-boiled egg.

As some moms bring around a bowl and a pitcher of water to wash small hands, arms shoot up into the air to answer Labinger’s question about why Jews do karpas.

“For spring,” one child answers.

“We dip it in saltwater to think about the tears of the slaves,” another answers.

The kids have been learning about Pesach since the day after the Purim masks were stored away. There’s a lot of material to get through, and Labinger’s goal is to make the children feel comfortable at any seder, and to be able to follow in their own hagaddah.

As the participants dip into the karpas, some choose celery while others brave — and a few even profess to like — the parsley.

Some of today’s bounty was picked from the kids’ garden right outside the classroom, part of an integrated learning approach at Weizmann. When the third- and fourth-graders learned about California, for instance, they planted and harvested native plants, and sold them at the local farmer’s market, sending the proceeds to a local food bank, explains Lisa Feldman, the school’s principal.

Activities with a service and science bent are strong here, which seems to fit the proximity to JPL and Caltech, where many parents from the school work or are students. The service component, Feldman says, includes going next door monthly to visit a retirement home, and the school has an ongoing relationship with the Eaton Canyon Nature Center up the block.

Labinger teaches both Judaic and secular studies to her class. So for Passover, the kids practiced reading English and Hebrew in the hagaddah, and used math skills for all the counting and measuring the seder requires.

The work is paying off, as the kids proudly read in perfectly accented Hebrew, a product of their five hours a week of language immersion with a Hebrew specialist.

The students count off the plagues — and come up with 11. They get 10 on the second try.

After a rousing rendition of “Dayenu,” they are ready for matzah. They joyously crunch while suspiciously eying the gnarly horseradish root.

“Does it taste like ginger?” Sharon asks optimistically.

The kids all take a dab of the red horseradish, tempered by a dip into the sweet charoset, and after the requisite wrinkled noses and mock heaving, Sharon announces definitively that maror does not taste like ginger.

The charoset is a hit, and the kids are invited to eat whatever is on their seder plate before they start the afikomen hunt.

In a snap, Maia finds the unleavened loot hidden in the bookshelf. She later reveals that her older sister cut a deal: She would tell Maia where Mrs. Labinger usually hides the afikomen, if Maia promised to give her sister one of the two Bazooka bubblegums the winner always gets (everyone else gets one). As afikomen bartering goes, it seemed fair — and enterprising.

By the time the kids get to the blessing after the meal and the concluding songs, it looks like a real seder — the table is decorated in purple stains and matzah crumbs, and the kids are slap-happy on four cups of grape juice.

The bubble gum treat is still sitting in front of them, and the chorus that brings this seder to a close is nothing if not universal — “It is time for dessert yet?”


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.

Orthodox But Not Monolithic

The last place most people probably wanted to be on the morning of Dec. 25 was at a convention in a Beverly Hills hotel.

But for Orthodox Jews the time and the place, the Crowne Plaza, worked fine for wrapping up the Orthodox Union’s 15th Annual West Coast Torah Convention, called “The Polarization of Orthodox Judaism: Finding Harmony Within Diversity.”

The four-day conference highlighted the diversity — and at times the tension — in what might appear to be, from the outside, a monolithic community.

The most observant of the four main denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy in the last decade and a half has shifted further to the right. The basis of Orthodoxy is an adherence to halacha — Jewish law as interpreted by Orthodox authorities — but Orthodoxy still encompasses a wide swath of opinions.

While Orthodox tensions might seem like insider baseball to non-Orthodox Jews, there is often a trickle-down effect on all Jewish denominations, especially on issues such as teaching creationism in schools and forbidding exposure to certain books. Another ongoing issue is how much dialogue should there be withnon-Orthodox Jews and how much engagement is the right amount with the world outside Judaism.

An ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox representative faced off in the first night’s “Fireside Chat” featuring two perceived “factions” of Orthodoxy. Representing the more “modern” faction was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the national executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU); representing the more haredi, or “Ultra-Orthodox,” faction was Rabbi Avrohom Teichman Mora D’asra (head rabbi) of Agudas Yisroel of Los Angeles. The two erudite, bearded men expressed opposing positions on issue after issue.

For one thing, while Modern Orthodox Jews support Israel as the Jewish State and hold as a goal aliyah, or moving to Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not put as much focus on aliyah as a mitzvah; nor are they necessarily proponents of Zionism. Also, Modern Orthodox Jews support secular education, and unequivocally send their children to university while the ultra-Orthodox often view a secular education as presenting a danger to the religiosity of their children.

The discussion between Weinreb and Teichman remained calm and civil, but the discourse grew more impassioned at a panel the following night, after Friday night Shabbat dinner at B’nai David Judea.

“How Flexible is Orthodoxy?” featured four rabbis, but it was the two local ones who ended up most at odds, when moderator Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, of Kehillat Yavneh and the OU, asked, “How is Orthodoxy meeting the needs of the modern Jewish woman?

A woman’s role in the synagogue should not change, said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Young Israel of Century City. Period.

But Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David reiterated his position that there are troubling issues regarding women that must be reconsidered. Kanefsky has drawn fire here for a number of his liberal practices, such as holding a woman’s-only prayer group. The interchange between the rabbis prompted a barrage of questions from the audience, blowing the lid off a volatile issue. The views of Kanefsky, who is currently serving as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, represent the far left of West Coast Orthodox rabbis, and even cause controversy within the modern faction of Orthodoxy.

Another perspective on women’s issues was offered in a Sunday lecture by David Luchins, OU national vice president and chairman of the Political Science Department at Touro College for Women. He placed the matter in the context of Orthodox Jews’ broader view of engagement in the secular world, citing the example of secular education. Some Orthodox regard a college and professional education as an ideal; others accept this outside education as “necessary” for a professional life; and some reject it entirely. Rejection has long been popular among many Orthodox in Israel, and has become so among some American students who study at Yeshivas there.

On the matter of secular education, he said, the battle is now being fought. Not so, in his view, when it comes to support for Israel and women’s issues.

On the matter of Israel’s centrality, Luchins said, the Modern Orthodox have won. The ultra-Orthodox – who decades ago viewed Israel dismissively as a “Zionist entity” — now are as supportive as the Modern Orthodox.

But on the matter of women, he said, the ultra-Orthodox have prevailed. In 1976, he said, there were three women on the OU board. There are none today. The OU conference featured no women panelists, save for one all-women panel (“The Orthodox Women’s Influence on Her Community”) that was closed to men at the request of the women on the panel.

“Why have we relegated our women to third-class citizens?” Luchins asked. “We’ve done it for the tradeoff,” he posited.

The ultra-Orthodox accepted Israel as a central ideal, and in return, the Israeli community’s conservative attitude toward women has prevailed overall in most of the Orthodox world, he said.

“We’re so busy fighting over the form of where women sit in shul that I think we’ve lost the substance. There was a time that women were the pillars of the Orthodox community,” Luchins said. “We’ve lost on that issue, big.”

Off the record, one rabbi expressed concern about schisms within Orthodoxy. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think the movement is going to have to break into two.”

But OU President Steven Savitsky talked about such divides as challenges to be managed, rather than as a looming crisis.

“How do we find cohesiveness and harmony?” Savitsky asked, when he addressed the opening night dinner of 150 at Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills.

The short answer, Savitsky later told The Journal, is tolerance.

“We need to see the bigger picture: There are very few of us in this world, and we better find ways of working together,” he said.


New Year, New Orleans

“I think of Pompeii,” wrote Anne Brener in a September article for The Jewish Journal. “New Orleans was so beautiful.”

She wrote of her beloved New Orleans in the past tense, but during the High Holidays, she helped restore a measure of present hope. L.A. transplant Brener, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, conducted Rosh Hashanah services at Shir Chadash, a Conservative synagogue in Metairie, La., for congregants who braved a return. The challah came from Dallas.

The main auditorium was unusable, so some 80 congregants gathered in a smaller prayer room, according to a report by Associated Press. While their Torahs had been safely evacuated, hundreds of religious texts were damaged beyond repair and buried in a nearby cemetery last week, as per Jewish tradition.

“We’re being given a fresh start, a new beginning,” 19-year-old David Weber said. — Staff Report

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,, 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.”


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."

Casting their Differences Upon the Water

Four West Valley synagogues representing three different denominations — the Calabasas Shul (Orthodox), Temple Solael (Reform), Temple Aliyah and Shomrei Torah (Conservative) — will join together for a Tashlich ceremony Sunday, Sept. 19, at the Westlake Village Marina.

“The goal was to find a mitzvah where we could stand united before God as we approach the end of the High Holidays,” said Rabbi Yakov Vann, spiritual leader of the Calabasas Shul. “We’re well aware of our differences, but the beauty of performing this mitzvah can bring us together.”

Tashlich is a custom that takes place between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which Jews visit a flowing body of water, e.g. a river, lake or ocean, and symbolically cast away their sins by throwing bread crumbs into the water in accordance with the Biblical commandment, “You will cast [tashlich] your sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:10). Once relegated to the traditionally observant, the ceremony has seen a resurgence in popularity among Jews of all denominations and even the unaffiliated.

“It’s a perfect ritual in that it expresses for all of us the notion that we want to rid ourselves of behavior that estranges us from other human beings, God and even ourselves,” Rabbi Ron Herstik of Temple Solael said. “These are the relationships we need to consider during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”

Herstik credited Temple Aliyah’s Rabbi Stewart Vogel with coming up with the idea for the shared ceremony. Vogel and the three rabbis from the other synagogues have been making an effort to meet periodically for lunch at a local kosher restaurant.

“I knew all the rabbis but they did not all know each other,” Vogel explained. “Rabbi Camras [of Shomrei Torah] is new to the community, and Rabbi Herstik and Rabbi Vann have only been here a few years. So we decided to get together at Tiberias and share our experiences in order to better understand and appreciate each other. We wanted our congregations to experience that type of sharing and this [tashlich] naturally lends itself to inclusion by everybody. It was a natural.”

Vogel said he hopes to see such joint programming grow among Valley synagogues.

“We are all working for the same thing and each congregation has something unique to offer,” he said.

Sunday’s ceremony will take place near the Sail Club at the Westlake Marina in Westlake Village. For directions or further information, call Temple Aliyah at (818) 346-3545.