Conservative Judaism Thrives In Baltimore, But Troubled Nationwide
Being a flag-waver for Conservative Judaism nationwide these days breathes new life into the old expression, “If things are so good, how come I feel so bad?”
Except in Baltimore, which is experiencing a reverse of the country’s trend of Reform Judaism passing Conservative Judaism in adherents. Membership units for Conservative shuls here are about 4,800 while the four Reform temples come in at about 3,000.
As Rabbi Avram Reisner of Congregation Chevrei Tzedek noted, “You don’t sense crisis in the Conservative congregations here.”
But the panoramic view of the U.S.-based Conservative movement and projections for its future have been perceived as so troubled that even Jack Wertheimer, a noted professor at the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, wrote a much-circulated 2007 essay for Commentary magazine that bluntly asked, “Has the Conservative movement fulfilled its historical role, and should it call it quits?”
As Conservative partisans are quick to point out, that gives short shrift to some 700 synagogues that are the spiritual home of about 1.5 million American Jews and hundreds of religious schools, not to mention the 76 private schools — including Krieger Schechter Day School, 10 Ramah summer sleepaway camps and various youth and adult Israel trips.
Yet there is no denying the nationwide drop in Conservative affiliation these past few decades; the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study found that Reform for the first time had surpassed Conservative as the denomination of choice among American Jews.
Compounding the picture, the lower numbers combined with the nation’s economic crisis have brought serious fund-raising shortfalls. Just ask the folks at Dr. Wertheimer’s JTS, which now competes for movement-wide intellectual hegemony and dollars with the Los Angeles-based Ziegler School for Rabbinic Studies.
Then there are the lamentations that JTS, the flagship academic institution, no longer carries the clout it did when faculty included the spiritual guru/social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel and the colorful/intellectual Mordecai Kaplan, or when it boasted of graduates who were best-selling novelists shaping the national conversation — think of Harold Kushner (“When Bad Things Happen To Good People”) and the late Chaim Potok (“The Chosen”).
Beyond that, there is talk of rebellion in the ranks at the congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Large synagogues are balking at the longtime perceived weakness of the national umbrella group and some smaller ones cannot pay dues.
Still, those headlines of controversy leave Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills wondering if he and some others sit in an alternative Conservative universe. Three years ago, he went to New York to meet with then-JTS Chancellor Dr. Ismar Schorsch. The titular head of the movement periodically met with rabbis from successful congregations of various sizes for text study and candid conversation.
“When we were presented with the national statistics, it didn’t jive with what was happening in our congregations,” he said. “We were rabbis who had created programs and ideas that were considered successful.”
That led him to add, “The Conservative movement, without question when you look at the national statistics, is doing better in Baltimore and there’s a complex of reasons.”
That’s not to say that the heavens are smiling incessantly on the immediate area’s seven Conservative operations — Adat Chaim, Beth Am, Beth El, Beth Israel, Beth Shalom of Carroll County, Chizuk Amuno and Chevrei Tzedek. (Beth Shalom of Columbia, like that area itself, is not formally part of the Baltimore community, even though some of its members gravitate toward Jewish schools and institutions here.)
There are challenges, to be sure. More than one operation is concerned about lower Hebrew school affiliations and increased budget woes. (A few years ago, Adat Chaim dropped out of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in part because fewer members meant less money to pay national dues.) Still, when played out against the national scene, things are good here indeed.
Why is that? Is there something different at a Conservative shul’s Shabbat morning Kiddush that keeps the faithful coming back for more? Is it persuasive rabbinic power? Is it creative educational offerings? Is it a combination of all that and plain old luck? Or is it that Baltimore, for all its Jewish and other quirkiness, simply stamps a different imprint on the mold of American Jewish living?
When put to the question, area rabbis and congregants come up with a panoply of responses that defy simple categorization, yet capture the strands that weave the fabric of a traditional, multi-generational community that bucks — or at least delays — national trends of assimilation among the masses, which in turn enables them to nurture the vibrancy of a slower growing core.
The differences start with the physical proximity, noted Jo-Anne Tucker Zemlak, an Owings Mills resident and assistant executive director of the UCJS Seaboard Region, which includes Maryland.
“I’ll be talking to people in other communities about how we have two shuls across the street from one another that have 1,500 [Chizuk Amuno] and 1,700 families [Beth El],” she said. “People say to me, ‘That’s Baltimore. That doesn’t happen anywhere else.’”
Making the case even further is that the 900-unit Beth Israel is less than eight miles from Beth El.
“Baltimore,” Mrs. Tucker Zemlak said, “has learned to live together. Not that they are not all looking for the unaffiliated Jews. But they know that he or she might not be for them, but for the other shul down the street and that’s OK. You can’t take the flavor of Baltimore Conservative Judaism and put that anyplace else. It just doesn’t work.”
Rabbi Jan Kaufman agreed. After a 1960s childhood filled with B’nai B’rith Youth Organization activities, Beth Tfiloh school and then Baltimore Hebrew College, today she is director of special projects for the movement’s New York-based Rabbinical Assembly. Her efforts have included helping to publish the Siddur Sim Shalom prayer book.
“Baltimore is a sui generi community,” she explained. “Because people live close together, it adds for greater continuity and a stronger community … People in Baltimore listen to the rabbi. People read the synagogue bulletins. You see it in people’s houses and that’s not necessarily the case in other communities.
“People don’t leave Baltimore,” she added, “or they come back and, because of those strong connections, they really are invested and willing to pay for it in services.”
Another factor, said Rabbi Steve Schwartz of Beth El Congregation, is the broad spectrum of Conservative congregations here. His congregation is not Chevrei Tzedek, which is not Chizuk Amuno, which is not Adat Chaim and so on.
“They are strong and there’s good energy. Membership is stable or growing. Why is that?” Rabbi Schwartz asked rhetorically, throwing open his arms while leaning back on his office chair. “I don’t know.”
But he goes on to talk about leadership development, those multi-generational families and the courage to innovate. Take, for example, his congregation’s annual “steel drums Shabbat.” Then there was the “sushi in the Sukkah” Friday night a few years ago that saw about 500 people turn up on an evening marked by pouring rain.
Further, Baltimore’s legendary parochial nature, which can feature people buying houses on streets where they rode bicycles as kids, might be a paradoxical strength.
“We’re one synagogue affiliation generation behind [national trends],” Rabbi Goldstein observed. “Our affiliation is high. We had the time to correct the mistakes [made elsewhere] and come up with our own programmatic and directional response.”
Take his congregation’s Shleimut program, which brings to the building a social worker and a nurse to counsel and educate congregants on mental and physical health needs.
“It’s a holistic triage bringing together the disciplines of religion and spirituality and social and health aspects,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “It’s what people need on all levels. It’s a wholeness. It’s become a whole new part of my rabbinate.”
That fits what Rabbi Dana Saroken, Beth El’s assistant spiritual leader, has to say about the way Conservative rabbis are being trained these days.
“In rabbinical school today there’s a greater focus on pastoral care,” she said. “Much of the shift has been generated by the students who are eager to learn how to be there for people and how to provide comfort, support and strength to people in their most difficult moments. Everyone is in agreement: The better we train our rabbis in human relationships, and the better we are at helping people connect with God and one another in their times of need, the healthier our Jewish community will be.
“While Talmud study and the study of Jewish law is important,” she added, “most of what we are called upon to do, as rabbis, falls into the realm of pastoral work.”
As such, for many it’s not the heady philosophical questions that resonate, but issues of personal behavior. Recent movement-wide debates have focused on homosexuality, intermarriage and keeping kosher. In each, Baltimore rabbis and congregations have played a role.
Interfaith Marriages: Beth Israel was a pioneer in the Kiruv project, spearheaded by the movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. It strives to make congregations more welcoming for interfaith families. It has organized several training sessions for rabbis and volunteer leaders, one of which was hosted by the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center.
With that topic, just as with the national movement, local congregations struggle to adhere to Halachah (Jewish law) while being as open as possible.
“If you are intermarried, you can still live an integrated life and your family can still have a family membership, and the truth is there are many b’nai mitzvah meetings with families where I know the non-Jewish spouse better than the Jewish one,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
At Beth Israel, the non-Jewish spouse is allowed on the bimah during the ceremony and to give a child’s prayer, but cannot gain ritual honors.
There also is an unexpected positive impact of intermarriage, which can lead to conversion, Rabbi Goldstein said.
“One of the effects is that non-Jewish spouses are more comfortable with and receptive to the language of spirituality,” he said. “So if 13 years ago I would have announced an initiative of reinvigorating a sense of spirituality and tefillah in the service, I would have been met with the concern of ‘Can’t we just have our davening?’ I don’t think I would have had the receptivity a generation ago that I have now.”
At Adat Chaim in Reisterstown, while a non-Jewish mother is not required to convert to become a member, a non-Jewish spouse cannot formally participate in the Torah service. Yet, he or she can come up to the bimah and bless the children.
“Some of those non-Jewish parents are the most supportive in having their kids educated here and shlepping them to lessons,” said Cantor Sharon Wallach, the congregation’s spiritual leader since the retirement of Rabbi Michael Meyerstein last year.
It’s not enough, added Rabbi Schwartz. The movement needs a more in-depth discussion about intermarriage. “Do we need to revisit patrilineal descent?” he asked. “What direction it will go I don’t know, but these conversations have to take place.”
Pushing Kashrut: Rabbi Reisner of Chevrei Tzedek is a leader in the Hekhsher Tzedek kashrut initiative. It seeks to ensure that kosher foods are prepared ethically, which includes the treatment of workers. Scandals such as last year’s at Agriprocessors — a massive Orthodox-sanctioned kosher operation that faced 900 counts of employment and other workplace violations — thrust Hekhsher Tzedek into the national spotlight.
“It’s one of those things that was not on the radar 10 years ago,” said Rabbi Reisner, a member of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which develops Conservative Judaism’s response to halachic matters. “It’s catching a moment in American awareness that is hopefully going to push it forward.”
Rabbi Reisner is hoping that Hekhsher Tzedek morphs into broader conversations about Jewish ethics — “the kind of thing that’s happening with [disgraced investor Bernie Madoff] regarding personal ethics with your own involvement in the world.”
Meanwhile, his wife and fellow Conservative Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin is a national pioneer in promoting Jewish communal awareness in environmentalism.
Over at Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Hekhsher Tzedek is striking a chord, said Rabbi Ron Shulman.
“It’s the best thing that’s re-energized people,” he said. “All of the sudden you have a movement headed by people talking about how to keep kosher and what’s sacred about it and how it relates us to Jewish tradition and the market.”
One way his congregation sought to capitalize on that focus was last year’s “cow project,” which featured educational projects around kashrut, including the sale of organic kosher beef and lamb — which quickly sold out.
Same Sex Unions: A few years ago, the R.A. voted to allow members to perform same sex commitment ceremonies. Some of its members, including Beth El’s Rabbi Schwartz and now-Rabbi Emeritus Mark G. Loeb, had already conducted such events; the R.A. had no formal prohibition against them.
Beth Am was one of six congregations to write to the R.A. as it debated the issue, saying that the time had come to fully recognize gays and lesbians in leadership, according to its spiritual leader, Rabbi Jon Konheim.
Meanwhile, despite the Torah’s unambiguous prohibition against male homosexuality, and the Talmud’s similar decision regarding women, many Conservative rabbis report a generational divide in the pews. When discussing the matter with teens a few years ago, Rabbi Goldstein found quizzical looks. “They looked at me and said, ‘Are you teaching this to us, Rabbi? This is a no-brainer here,’” regarding the need to welcome gay Jews.
Other changes being discussed are the need to increase social action — long a hallmark of Reform Judaism and something that surveys repeatedly show energizes younger Jews. There’s even talk of more music in the form of non-electric instruments and popular singing, the latter irking traditionalists weaned on the reverberations of chazzanut. More than one congregation has had fights over what role their choirs should or should not play in Shabbat services.
Adult education, too, has been substantially upgraded in the past decades. Sitting one afternoon in the shul’s combined social hall/sanctuary, Cantor Wallach explained that Adat Chaim’s members are “all along the spectrum” of Jewish belief and practice. Yet many active members are united in their desire for more education. “There continues to be a hunger for learning, maybe more so,” she said. “We certainly have tried to keep up with that.”
That’s part of the new push to delve into the meaning of liturgy. After all, most prayers have seen little change in recent decades other than the push toward egalitarianism by adding references to the matriarchs in the Amidah, or silent devotion.
Beth Am, for example, has reshaped its religious school curriculum to gear everything toward understanding the siddur. “That is the one book we know that Jews will encounter as adults,” Rabbi Konheim said. “It can and must have meaning on ethical, philosophical and social levels. It is all there, but it must be brought out.”
Beth El is re-evaluating its Hebrew school curriculum to ensure that children gain the “bare bones tools” to make them competent in basic prayers.
“In going out to the minyan or at graveside, I’m seeing that when it comes time for Kaddish some of them can’t say it,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “I know that I learned things in Hebrew school. If you learn something in fourth grade or fifth grade — even by rote — you remember it.”
Such efforts at creating meaningful Jewish prayer have been a major theme of Rabbi Shulman’s rabbinate. He wants more changes, particularly the development of liturgy reflecting the modern Jewish experience when it comes to the State of Israel, the Holocaust and life in America.
He knows there is interest. Last year he was stunned that about 60 people showed up for his R.A. workshop on the matter in Washington, D.C. He had prepared 12 handouts. “It’s not because I was teaching,” he said. “It’s because worship is not engaging most synagogues. In my experience, if you can’t have an emotionally engaging prayer experience, then ultimately everything else wanes.”
Such local focus does not push aside the importance of being part of a movement — although identifying with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism often is not an overriding factor for members, congregational leaders here agree. In part, that’s because Conservative Judaism, with its “big tent” philosophy, has an easier time at defining what it’s not than what it is.
“The movement is trying to figure out what to do. What does it mean?” Rabbi Schwartz said. “Some of the old answers are not compelling enough for today and the movement needs to make some shifts to re-evaluate and reorient.”
For him, that might include a shorter service. Beth El’s Saturday morning one starts at 10 and ends around noon. The standard at Conservative shuls is at least an hour longer. “That’s three hours and all in Hebrew,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “That was fine two or three generations ago.”
For some congregants, such as Don Akchin, a longtime member of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill, identifying as a Conservative Jew is not that important. Rather, it’s the characteristics of the congregation that matter. He recalled the congregational debate nine years ago over what national organization with which to affiliate.
“We had been independent for 30 years or so and we were having difficulty getting rabbis and cantors because we were not part of a movement,” he said. So the choice of affiliating Conservative was as practical as anything else for him, he said.
So does he consider himself a Conservative Jew?
“I grew up in a Reform temple in Shreveport, La.,” he answered. “But my wife and I said when we got married that Reform is very, very difficult if you are a child … It’s too intellectual until you’re much older. So we migrated to Conservative because it was more traditional and it gives you something to touch and feel. Reform has since become more traditional, so they sensed it, too.”
His congregation, he said, sits on the far left of what he called a “stodgy” movement. He proudly noted Beth Am was ahead of most in openness to homosexuals.
With such focus on welcoming interfaith families and homosexuals — long a hallmark of Reform Judaism — is the barrier between the two camps weakening?
Not necessarily, Rabbi Schwartz quickly responded, because some differences are not about to change. “We keep a certain service structure that’s traditional. We keep kashrut and observe Shabbat” until sundown, he said.
For him, the movement’s Etz Chaim Chumash (Five Books of Moses) is an excellent window into the world of Conservative Judaism.
“On a given page,” he said, “you can find Talmud and Midrash cited, something from one of the Chasidic masters and also the newest archaeological scholarship — in a way that is quintessentially the Conservative movement. … The movement tries to maintain a traditional sense of practice, ritual, observance, while at the same time fully and completely interacting with the modern world.”
Meanwhile, Rabbi Shulman is candid about the struggle he and his colleagues face in helping Conservative Jews to embrace the “tradition” part of the movement’s amorphous slogan of “tradition and change.”
“Our challenge has always been, and remains, the levels of religious commitment of those who participate in our synagogues and schools, and the poor quality of our national synagogue umbrella organization,” he said. “Religious practice is not the choice of most Jews in our community, whether affiliated with Conservative synagogues or not, which leads to our educational and inspirational challenge.”
And then there’s this: “If the Conservative movement were to disappear tomorrow,” he said, “many, many of us would want to build this movement from scratch because this way of living and teaching Torah is precious to us and we want to pass it on to the next generation.
“I would argue as well,” he added, “in response to the demographics and challenges the entire American Jewish community faces, that the intellectual and spiritual approach of Conservative Judaism has the potential to reach a large number of Jews who seek to honor anew the traditions of our people’s covenant with God. The Conservative movement is important as a means to that holy end.”
Wholesale Change At Conservative Jewish Groups
Many insiders in Conservative Judaism are hoping that a rare wholesale change at the top in the past few years will bring new emphasis and energy to the faltering national movement arms.
“What’s not healthy, and I say this politely and respectfully, are the national organizations that are charged with caring for and tending to the movement. That’s what belies the bad publicity [regarding the movement being moribund],” said Rabbi Ron Shulman, spiritual leader at Chizuk Amuno.
Yet, change is not just on the horizon — it has arrived.
• Dr. Arnold “Arnie” Eisen became head of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America two years ago. His deep background in Jewish academia and philosophy has centered on contemporary Jewish practice. As such, Dr. Eisen hopes to effectively be able to speak both to professionals as well as laypeople.
• Rabbi Julie Schonfeld came on board in July as head of the Rabbinical Assembly. She is the first woman to hold the top professional position in the three movements that ordain women — Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform.
• Also this year, Rabbi Steven Wernick became the new head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The challenge is clear, Rabbi Shulman said. “The United Synagogue is, with due respect to my friends there, completely broken,” he said. “It does not earn the respect of the congregations it serves and it is figuring out what it wants to become next. They’re going through the process of figuring out what’s next. It will emerge either healthy and changed or morph into something else.”
For his part, Rabbi Avram Reisner of Congregation Chevrei Tzedek would like to see the movement develop a long-discussed presence in Washington, D.C., enabling it to have a voice on national matters the way the Reform movement does through its Religious Action Center and modern Orthodoxy does through its Institute for Public Affairs.
The movement has taken steps in the past year to beef up its Israel and social action advocacy in Washington, appointing two popular and experienced congregation rabbis in the area, Baltimore native Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt and Rabbi Jack Moline, respectively, to focus such efforts.
Rabbi Reisner also would like to see a deeper effort to publish Jewish books, mirroring the success of the Orthodox ArtScroll series.
For his part, Beth Am Rabbi Jon Konheim sees a need to further develop educational curriculum and resources, similar to the way the Reform movement has done for its congregations.
Should Conservative Judaism Change Name?
There’s talk of changing the name Conservative Judaism. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, a well-known author and speaker in Conservative circles, has suggested Covenantal Judaism.
The late Daniel J. Elazar and former Baltimore Hebrew University President Rela Mintz Geffen suggested Masorti Judaism (Hebrew for “traditional Judaism”), in their 2000 book “The Conservative Movement in Judaism: Dilemmas and Opportunities.”
After all, say those who want a different label, the monikers of other streams — Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist — instantly transmit a desired message. But Conservative?
“Conservative Judaism just doesn’t really describe what the movement is all about, especially given the nuance of that word conservative in our society today,” noted Rabbi Steve Schwartz of Beth El Congregation.
He pointed out that his congregation has basically already given itself a new definition. Synagogue newsletters now declare that Beth El is “a progressive synagogue affiliated with United Synagogue.”
Indeed, one wonders if the label Conservative Jew even matters to some people. A few years ago, Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel tried an experiment. He started talking to b’nai mitzvah students about being a Conservative Jew instead of just a “Jew.”
“The average response was, ‘Why do you have to use the word Conservative and not just Jewish?’” he said. “I doubt that feedback comes in a Reform or Orthodox shul.”
August 21, 2009
Editor Baltimore Jewish Times