Is There Life After Denominations?

There were rabbis in hot tubs, rabbis on couches, rabbis in restaurants — rabbis just about everywhere you turned in Palm Springs this week as more than 300 gathered for the Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis’ (PARR) 58th annual convention and the (Conservative) Rabbinical Assembly Pacific Southwest Region’s regional convention.

While the Conservative rabbis — and Conservative cantors who were at the Cantors Assembly Western Region Mid-Winter Conference — stayed at the Hyatt Regency Suites Palm Springs, and the Reform rabbis were resting up at the Hilton Palm Springs Resort, the two groups came together for a number of joint sessions, on mysticism, kabbalah and the main one, "Jewish Denominationalism in the 21st Century," which discussed whether the boundaries between the denominations are blurring.

The Palm Springs events come at a time when many movements are reexamining their future direction. For example, the Reform movement is pushing toward a return to tradition and spirituality, the Orthodox movement is grappling with a pull toward the right, and the Conservative movement is reexamining its values vis à vis liberal social interests.

In light of the recently released findings of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-1, that the number of Jews is slowly decreasing, the question of how affiliation can serve Jewish identity is now more important than ever.

California is seeing a blurring of boundaries between the movements, said Rabbi Alan Henkin, the first vice president of PARR, who introduced the denominationalism panel on Monday, Jan. 5.

"I’m struck by the fact that the Los Angeles community has a beit din [Jewish court of law] that involves Reform and Conservative, that the [Conservative] United Synagogue Youth and the [Reform] North American Federation of Temple Youth have joint programming," he said. "We also have transdenominational organizations like Synagogue 2000."

The West Coast would be the harbinger of change, Henkin said. "If the movements ever dissolve, it will happen on the West Coast, because this Jewish community has shallower roots [than those on the East Coast]."

Will the future see a Judaism without divisions? Is there a Jewish life without labels Orthodox/Traditional/Conservative/Reconstructionist/Reform?

"There has to be more that unites us than divides us," said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (UJ). Other panelists were Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR); Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Elliot Schoenberg, the director of placement at the Rabbinical Assembly; and Dr. Arthur Green, a professor at Brandeis University and dean of the new Rabbinical School at the nondenominational Hebrew College of Boston, who served as scholar-in-residence during joint sessions between the two conventions.

How important is affiliation with a particular Jewish movement?

"Postdenominationalism can mean only one of two things," said Artson, who told the crowd that denominationalism has always been secondary to his service to God. "Your denomination has not yet coalesced, or its integrity is no longer primary. To have a rabbinical school that doesn’t have a stand on how we are to live Jewishly strikes me as deeply problematic."

Even at a conference discussing Jewish life without denominations, it was difficult to envision the Conservative and Reform movements coming together.

Menitoff said that the Conservative movement’s rejection of patrilineal descent, homosexuality and intermarriage would ultimately be detrimental to keeping people in the fold.

He envisioned the future as "dual denominational," asserting the Reform movement’s place in that structure.

"There will be Orthodoxy and some form of non-Orthodoxy, and I think it will be Reform, because Reform has been shaped by this society," he said. "The [Conservative] Jewish Theological Seminary might move more to the right and become part of the Orthodox fold, and the [Conservative] UJ and [Reform] HUC-JIR might come together."

Schoenberg countered that the Conservative movement will not disappear.

Rather, it needs a positive image makeover to become more than just the "default position" between Orthodoxy and Reform, he said.

Reactions to the panel discussion were mixed. One rabbi in the audience said he was disappointed because he would have liked to have seen more discussion about retaining denominational distinction on the one hand, but working for klal Yisrael (the Jewish people) on the other hand.

Others would like to have seen a critical examination of rabbis and synagogues that operate outside of the existing system. Still others believed the question of denomination was beside the point, because about 75 percent of Jews are not even affiliated.

"The largest Jewish group in this country is unaffiliated," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "Programs to bring them into the Jewish community ought to be an area for transdenominational cooperation that unites us."