Wow, nothing from me in weeks and now two postings in a day!
I spent a couple of days last week at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism convention in Boston. As befits the parent organization of our synagogues, important things happened at the convention. You will be glad to know that among those important things was the decision to distribute more than half a million dollars raised by our movement for longer-term relief from this season's hurricanes. The money is going to specific Jewish communities in three states, a series of interfaith relief organizations, and a fund being established to provide low-cost loans for individuals to rebuild.
There were also three major presentations to the convention, all of which received some notice in the press, both Jewish and general. One was a talk by Rabbi Neil Gillman, an old friend of our congregation, on the nature of Conservative Judaism. In it, he encouraged us to abandon the literal notion that we are a halakhic movement in favor of a more metaphorical approach. One was a major speech by Rabbi Jerome Epstein, the head of USCJ, calling for a new outreach to the non-Jewish family members of our synagogue members, with a special emphasis on encouraging conversion. Different than Rabbi Eric Yoffie's similar call to Reform Jews last month, Rabbi Epstein's presentation included a long essay and program detailing a plan for pursuing a uniquely Conservative approach. The third was an address by the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, proposing that the American Jewish community make education its number one priority by offering free Jewish education – supplemental school, day school, camping – to the children of anyone affiliated with any synagogue or JCC. He proposed funding it by spending the endowment funds of Federations.
All three presentations were provocative and controversial. Each one could set a new agenda for Conservative Judaism. (All three ignored the two items of greatest concern to the next generation of Jews – inclusiveness, especially regarding sexual orientation, and the fact that marriage and family life are less and less usual for Jews under the age of 35.)
And, true to the patterns in our movement, none of the three men spoke to either of the other two before letting loose on the convention. Having charted a course requiring the expenditure of intellectual, temporal and financial capital, they each set off in a different direction. Imagine seeing the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria peel off from each other in a fleur-de-lis, while Ferdinand and Isabella stood on shore shouting, "Where do you think you're going with our ships?"
Fortunately, the convention wasn't any longer. Given the opportunity, the Rabbinical Assembly, Women's League, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs and the other twelve or so Conservative/Masorti organizations would have identified various points on the rim of the compass for which to aim. Left to pursue their courses, lone ships each bearing a fraction of our resources would carry us farther and farther away from each other.
Intellectual struggle is not only a good thing; it is a hallmark of Conservative Judaism. Controversy for the sake of heaven is not only a hallmark of Conservative Judaism; it is the essence of Judaism itself. But in a time when our movement is graying and our population is shrinking, these unilateral attempts to assert authority without collaboration are not only irresponsible, they are the opposite of intellectual, and they are controversy for its own sake.
We who are caring and committed Conservative Jews need a revolution. Changes in leadership are pending at JTS and USCJ, and predicted for many of our other constituent organizations as well. We should be prepared to demand that our leaders confer with each other and chart a course for the good of the movement and the good of Judaism – not just the good of their particular institution. Not every good idea will make the cut. Not every project will get funded. Not every skilled sailor will captain a ship.
And for those who refuse to collaborate and decide instead to chart their own course, we must wave sadly as they sail off into the sunset without our support, our encouragement or our money