Middle Israel: How to save Conservative Judaism

The first thing Conservative Judaism must do is change its name to Traditionalist Judaism, and its followers’ adjective to Traditionalists.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews look towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews look towards the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem's Old City
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘The winter is past,” the voice of Judah Magnes thundered under Temple Emanu-El’s 45-feet-high ceiling, as he welcomed spring’s arrival at the adjacent Central Park.
“The rain is over and gone,” he went on, “the flowers appear on the Earth,” but in Fifth Avenue’s Jewish cathedral “it is the autumn season that I see.” It was the beginning of a diatribe that soon resulted in his loss of one of American Jewry’s most prestigious jobs.
Pointing at the sanctuary’s empty front rows, the 33-year-old rabbi elaborated: “We have no youth to take the places of the elders.” And after having lamented his movement’s failure to educate its children to be Jews, and to instill in them “Jewish symbols, ceremonies, observances, traditions,” he said it all explained why “Judaism should mean nothing to them” and why “our boys and girls do not look upon the world through Jewish eyes.”
It was 1910, and American Jewry’s moneyed elite, who were this congregation’s spine, couldn’t stand hearing what was bursting forth from the mouth of the shepherd they hired: “Reform Judaism’s ceremonies,” he admonished, “are determined upon the principle: Will a given form look well to the gentiles?” Such truth, told from the pulpit of Reform Judaism’s flagship shrine, was unspeakable enough, but Magnes’s suggestion that day, to revert to the traditional prayer book, because it was “hallowed by the sufferings, hopes, and religious yearnings of countless generations of our ancestors” – was blasphemy, as was his demand that membership fees be slashed “to so low a figure that any Jew might participate.”
More than a century on, a similar crisis of continuity and identity is plaguing another major American Jewish movement, only now it is not the European-born Reform, but the American-born and once dominant Conservative Movement, whose following has plunged since 1990 from nearly 1.5 million to less than a million.
As its spiritual wellspring, the Jewish Theological Seminary, turns 130 this year, and after having lost over the last seven years 95 of its 675 affiliated synagogues, the movement is so perplexed that it is thinking with public-relations experts of changing its name.
Well, though circumstances are very different, the Conservative Movement should seek its new road map in Magnes’s sermon on Passover 1910, and proceed from there to a strategic alliance with Middle Israel.
THE FIRST thing Conservative Judaism must do is change its name to Traditionalist Judaism, and its followers’ adjective to Traditionalists.
Besides being catchy and inclusive, this would well characterize those who feel uncomfortable with Orthodoxy’s rigidity and Reform’s fluidity, but more importantly, it would make millions of the Traditionalists’ cousins in Zion automatically relate to them.
Middle Israelis are by definition traditional.
They are the critical mass here who are not Orthodox, but still frequent synagogues, marry traditionally, circumcise their boys, fast on Yom Kippur, hold a Passover Seder, and in a variety of forms observe Shabbat and the dietary laws.
American Jewry’s Traditionalist Movement would also appeal to the growing number of modern Orthodox Israelis who are embracing feminism and egalitarianism.
They have effectively split Israel’s originally monolithic Orthodoxy, and often feel closer to Conservative Judaism than to Orthodoxy.
Back in the US, Traditionalist Judaism would have to make education its main priority.
The Conservative movement rightly takes pride in its summer camps and day schools. Yet the movement’s 45 Solomon Schechter day schools and their roughly 11,000 student body have shrunken in tandem with the movement’s synagogue membership. Camp Ramah brings together annually 8,000 children, teenagers, and staff in 11 locations from California to Massachusetts, but this experience, while inspiring, lasts only six weeks.
The embattled Conservative Movement is seeking a new dialogue with the young adults it is losing, but its future will be decided by the toddlers in these schools and camps. They must expand. This movement’s center of gravity will have to be shifted from the synagogue to the school.
Two engines can make that happen: spiritually, a new sense of purpose, and logistically, much lower tuitions.
Lower tuitions will have to be a major aim. If affordable, qualitative, and inclusive, Traditionalist education will generate new following.
The sense of purpose will be instilled in two ways: First, Traditionalist education would make its graduates see themselves as a disjointed American Jewry’s glue, feeling at home both at a Reform bat mitzva in Westchester and a Brooklyn rebbe’s Hassidic tish. And secondly, Traditionalist education would build American Jewry’s most bustling bridge to Israel.
Like Magnes, who scolded the American Jewish elite’s neglect of Jewish education and Hebrew culture, the Traditionalists would set out to spread the study of Hebrew, so that more and more American Jews own the key to their heritage.
At the same time, just as Magnes went to Jerusalem, where he built the Hebrew University, the Traditionalist Movement would make Israel an integral part of a Traditionalist American Jew’s biography.
While here, American Traditionalists will find among Middle Israelis attentiveness to the kind of pragmatism they seek on issues like conversion and intermarriage.
Like many of those the Conservatives have been losing, we too feel Jews are not only those born to Jewish mothers.
Lastly, Traditionalists would be unequivocal about Israel. This would be the main difference between them and Reform.
Religiously, the gaps between Reform and Conservative Judaism have narrowed.
Reform Jews have shed their founders’ anti-traditionalist hostility, and Conservatives now ordain women, update prayers, and accept gays.
When it comes to Zionism, however, Reform does pretty much what Orthodoxy does: it links politics and faith. Orthodoxy makes Greater Israel a tenet of faith, Reform does the same with Peace in our Time.
Middle Israelis reject both religious attitudes, feeling instead that dogma will not help solve the conflict, but it will contaminate faith.
The Traditionalists would deliver this message to a following where it will sound both compelling and urgent, thanks to the American Jews’ new intimacy with the Hebrew tongue, their forebears’ heritage, and the Jewish state.