(photo credit: Courtesy)
Moreshet Avraham Synagogue, located in East Talpiot, looks like hundreds of Orthodox houses of prayer throughout the capital. Modest but inspiring respect, the Jerusalem-stone faÃ§ade building is adorned with the typical Stars of David and constructed at a slight angle so congregants face the Temple ruins when they rise to pray to God.
Barry Schlesinger, a resident of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, is Moreshet Avraham's rabbi. With his full, graying beard and crocheted kippa, Schlesinger looks like any other modern Orthodox or religious Zionist rabbi.
But Moreshet Avraham is not your average Orthodox synagogue and Schlesinger is not a run-of-the-mill rabbi. Schlesinger is the president of the Masorti (Conservative) Movement's Rabbinic Assembly, and Moreshet Avraham is one of the most vibrant, growing Conservative communities in Israel.
Ahead of the Masorti Movement's 30th anniversary celebrations on Thursday and Friday at Kfar Maccabia, The Jerusalem Post met with Schlesinger to discuss Israeli-style Conservative Judaism.
"The difference between us and Orthodox Judaism is that we look more critically at the Shulchan Aruch [code of Jewish law]," says Schlesinger. "We are willing to go back to the sources, to the Talmud, to the early rabbinic authorities to reinterpret the Halacha. The most obvious example is the role of women. They are full participants, not just in prayer and Torah reading, but also as rabbis who make halachic decisions.
"In Efrat, there are incredible frameworks where Orthodox women are learning Torah at a super-high level. But that is where it stops. You don't have women making halachic decisions."
Schlesinger says Moreshet Avraham and other Conservative communities are traditional enough that Orthodox Jews feel comfortable with the prayers and rituals, and at the same time secular Jews can participate without feeling intimidated.
Nevertheless, Schlesinger does not deny that Conservative Judaism is challenging.
"I am not worried about scaring people away because I expect too much of them," says Schlesinger, who, if asked by his congregants, tells them not to drive on Shabbat and is opposed to same-sex commitment ceremonies and the ordination of homosexual rabbis.
"We have to be clear about our demands and let our congregants know that we are totally committed to Halacha and mitzvot," he says. "But at the same time, we must not be oppressive or threatening, rather challenging and engaging. We should feel comfortable bringing people from all backgrounds into our communities without worrying whether we have to lower standards of commitment. I believe that when you make demands, you communicate seriousness, and that attracts people. If people don't feel challenged, they lose interest. We have to be open about our expectations, and people will respect us for that."
Schlesinger denies that the Israeli Conservative Movement is more stringent in its approach to practice and ritual than the American Conservative Movement.
"I'd say we share the same spectrum of opinions - Left, Right and Center. Just like in the US, we solve our differences through dialogue. Despite dissent, we part as colleagues and friends. We hug each other while keeping dry under the same umbrella."
Schlesinger, who is in his early 50s, grew up in a modern Orthodox household in Englewood, New Jersey. He immigrated to Israel and got involved in community activism, eventually becoming the head of the community center in Jerusalem's Old City. When he was in his mid-40s, Schlesinger decided to pursue a master's degree at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. He said his mid-life decision to become a Conservative rabbi had been heavily influenced by Rabbi David Golinkin, Schechter's president and senior halachic authority.
Despite his decision to become a Conservative rabbi, Schlesinger's wife and children have remained Orthodox.
"But while I am nominally Conservative, there has been no change in my practice of Judaism. If anything, today I do more mitzvot than I did then.
"We have more things in common with modern Orthodoxy than things that divide us," he continues. "For instance, the shmita issue: We both believe in the Israeli economy, we are both Zionists. Tzohar, like the Reform and Conservative movements, used the Supreme Court to effect a change in the rabbinate's decision."
The reference was to a Supreme Court petition brought by Tzohar, an organization of liberal modern Orthodox rabbis who protested the Chief Rabbinate's stringent stand on vegetables grown by Jewish farmers in the shmita (sabbatical) year. Tzohar, along with a coalition of Jewish farmers and produce wholesalers, ended up winning the Supreme Court case, forcing the rabbinate to back down.
However, Schlesinger admits that Tzohar and other Orthodox organizations distance themselves from non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. In fact, one of the sharpest criticisms leveled at Tzohar by the rabbinate was the claim that Tzohar rabbis were acting like their Reform and Conservative counterparts. Tzohar went to great lengths to prove that its position on shmita was strongly based on Orthodox sources, and it enlisted leading Orthodox rabbis to gain credibility.
Nevertheless, Schlesinger sees in modern Orthodoxy a natural ally and partner. "The two of us can change the face of religious observance. We can work it out with them as comrades."
Schlesinger says he has two main objectives for the future.
"First, we would like to reshape our image in Israel to show that we are a true synthesis of modernity with halachic observance. Second, we want to continue to produce outgoing, compassionate and smart rabbis who can at one and the same time present a clear message of what is expected of his or her congregants and still be sensitive to each congregant's postmodernist narrative."