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Rabbi Jerome Epstein's op-ed regarding bringing back the Conservative Movement's most committed young people to Conservative synagogues (March 17) reminds me of the farmer who closed the barn door after the horses left.
His statement that "many of the more committed people who were inspired by our movement have chosen to identify with Orthodox congregations, not because of the ideology but because they seek others who share their commitment to the very ideals that we say we hold dear. They bought into what we said we stand for - but they do not find it in our synagogues. So they seek elsewhere" describes exactly my situation as well as that of so many of my friends and associates who grew up in the Conservative Movement in the US and who now live traditional life styles within the framework of Orthodox synagogues, albeit for the most part in what is know as "modern" Orthodox.
I am a product of the movement. I was president of one of its Chicago area synagogues, Midwest regional president, chairman of the United Synagogue's Council of Regional Presidents, national vice president and, upon making aliya in 1984, founder and officer of Kehilat Ya'ar Ramot, the Conservative congregation in that Jerusalem neighborhood. Yet today, I am the head of the board of the Ohel Nehama synagogue in Katamon and very much involved in the life of that community. What happened?
Rabbi Epstein, whom I have known for the more than 35 years that he has been a professional with the United Synagogue, hits the nail on the head when he says: "They perceive that there is no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue." It was not as if those of us who were in the ranks of the traditionalists of the movement left the movement, rather the movement left us by failing to support, in practice, what the movement purported to support in theory.
In an effort to encourage synagogue attendance but recognizing that in suburban America many people lived too far from the synagogue to walk, the movement approved the practice of driving to the synagogue on Shabbat for the express purpose of attending services. That approval was very narrow in scope and permitted neither driving anywhere else nor going to a nephew's bar mitzva in another city and driving to the host synagogue or driving one's children to the non-kosher party after the synagogue services. But, over the years, it was commonly accepted practice that in the Conservative Movement one was permitted to drive on Shabbat and rarely did the rabbinic or lay leadership point out that this was, indeed, not the intent of the limited permission.
The movement theorized that it was committed to traditional practice but took every opportunity to develop shortcuts which, in the long run, showed the young people that there was no real commitment to tradition. For example, a short version of the Birkat Hamazon (grace after meals) was developed for use in Conservative synagogues. While it was not as short as the (jokingly) Reform version which went "rub a dub dub, thank God for the grub," the young people returning from their Ramah summer camp experience, where the full traditional version was used, could not really understand the need for the shorter version if it was used at all.
On issues of kashrut there were diversions as well. The movement decided that, even though there was a dispute among traditionalists about whether Jews were permitted to eat swordfish, that as far as the Conservative rabbinate was concerned, it was permitted. But it was not enough to say it was permitted, the leadership needed to drive the point home. So at a meeting of the Council of Regional Presidents in San Francisco in 1982, the group was taken to dinner at a non-kosher restaurant where the menu was predetermined and, you guessed it, the main course was swordfish.
THE CONCERN voiced in the op-ed reflects something that was predicted 30 years ago in a survey that my colleague, then Metro New York regional president Saul Shapiro, and I conducted for the United Synagogue of America. At that time, we surveyed 10 percent of the membership of the organization to determine trends in religious practice and where we thought the movement would be 25 years later. Rabbi Jonathan Porath who at the time was the rabbi of a congregation in Clark, New Jersey, was also on that committee. The results were devastating. We showed, with strong statistical accuracy, that the movement could not sustain itself into the future. Even at that time we saw clear evidence of deterioration in observance, synagogue attendance and community commitment by the core population of the Conservative Movement.
The results of the survey were later presented at an annual convention of the United Synagogue of America but were never officially published. But those of us involved in that exercise saw the writing on the wall, and just a few years later Rabbi Porath and his family made aliya as did our family. Rabbi Porath is now a member of an orthodox minyan in Ramot, and today, while he does not live in Israel full time, Saul Shapiro also has a home here and, when he is in Israel, joins our minyan at Ohel Nehama.
What is probably most disappointing to Rabbi Epstein is that his children, as well, will probably end up practicing their Judaism in an Orthodox environment as mine have, as it is most likely too late to close the "barn door." What he can take solace in is that while the Conservative movement may prove to have been a three-generation phenomenon, we did, in fact, "conserve" American Judaism during the '40s, '50s and '60s so that when Orthodoxy began to take popular root once again, there were American Jews available in large enough numbers to populate that resurgence. I do not expect Orthodoxy to ever thank us for that, but I remain proud that we did our job, as Rabbi Epstein should be as well.
The writer is president of Atid EDI Ltd., a Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm, and a 25-year citizen of Israel.