‘Conversation of the Century’

Time to stretch: Rabbi Arnold Eisen, chancellor of Jewish Theological Seminary, addresses 1,200 Conservative Jews in Baltimore. (Photos by David Stuck)

At the age of 100, the Conservative movement feels it still has the juice to be “the vital center” of the Jewish religious world. And during its three-day Centennial conference this week, the movement’s rabbis and members, along with a large cast of idea people and performers, constructed an ideal Conservative Jewish community overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

Billed as “The Conversation of the Century,” the conference drew 1,200 people from North America, Israel and Britain. That conversation took place less than two weeks after the release of the Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews, whose statistics on dropping affiliation and high intermarriage rates caused shock initially. Scarcely a speech, workshop or discussion at the “Conversation of the Century” finished without the word “Pew” mentioned as a reference point.

“Together, we’ll take a close, honest look at the sobering findings of the new Pew study,” promised Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as he opened the conference on Sunday.

The Pew study found that only 18 percent of American Jews identify as Conservative, down from 43 percent in 1990. And Conservative Jews, on average, are older than Reform or Orthodox and more likely to leave their movement than Jews from either of the other two major denominations.


A few minutes after Wernick spoke, Rabbi Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, described how his students have been “energized” rather than discouraged by the Pew report. “They’re challenged to reach out to their cohort,” he said.

“I heard someone say, ‘poo on Pew,’ ” said Leslie Lloyd, president of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, during Sunday’s lunch break. “Look at these energized people,” she said of the crowd going by her. “Here’s where the quality is. Here’s where the engagement is.”

Eric Ellman of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac agreed about the high quality and motivation of his fellow participants. Like Lloyd, he attended the Shabbaton before the conference. With its five types of worship services, nonstop study and discussion sessions, and the enthusiastic participation of 100 members of the USY youth group, the Shabbaton and its “energy, passion and ruach [spirit]” were like a tonic for the deflating statistics, Ellman said.

But, he noted, “This is an echo chamber. The Pew report is doom and gloom. It’s just here that the future seems bright.”

The prophecy of Steve Jobs

Increasingly, the conversation over Conservative Judaism is about a product in search of consumers. A listener couldn’t help imagining a wholesale exodus from the synagogue and into the market square, where rabbis from the various Jewish movements stand at stalls and hawk their wares to passersby.

“We have the institutions and the people to provide these goods,” Eisen said at one point in his speech, while Wernick predicted that a “turnaround” will take place for Conservative Judaism “by building a big tent, a free market of ideas, inspiration and action.”

In his opening address, Wernick said the movement would reverse the “narrative of decline” suggested by the Pew study by “affirming three pillars of Conservative Jewish life: kehillah, tradition and renewal.”

United Synagogue was founded in 1913 by scholar Solomon Schechter to pursue a new idea at the time: a Judaism that preserved tradition and embraced modernity. Schechter’s vision was a big tent that included modern Orthodoxy.

From the tension at the core of Schechter’s idea, the Conservative movement was born as a liberal alternative to Orthodoxy, and a traditional alternative to Reform Judaism — “the vital epicenter of contemporary Jewish life,” as Wernick called it.

Now, with the movement losing to the left, right and indifferent, it is looking for ways to compete in the new Jewish marketplace.

The movement has been moving away from the emphasis on the synagogue — a physical structure — and embracing the idea of kehillah, a community of people. “Holiness is heightened in kehillah,” Wernick said. “In a spiritual, caring community.”

Tradition, the second pillar, is alive, he said. “Our tradition lives” because it is “renewed by us every day,” renewal being the third pillar.

Eisen of JTS said to thrive, Conservative Jews will need to stretch. In words that echoed the immigration debate and implied non-Jews, he called on the movement to “stretch our boundaries wider” by welcoming others “regardless of where they come from. They bring us gifts that we would not have without them.”

He said the movement must “stretch beyond the status quo of the synagogue,” to become a Judaism that is part of the everyday world.

“There’s no surprise that more Jews say they’re without religion. They think religion means rejection of the secular world — where all of them live.”

And Conservative Jews must “stretch our capacity of sacrifice, in “money, time, self-confidence and in public pride of who we are,” he said.

In her keynote address, writer and educator Erica Brown placed Conservative Judaism firmly in the marketplace when she summoned the ghost of Steve Jobs. She criticized the Jewish community for spending “a lot of time catching up and not a lot of time forecasting.”

In contrast, she quoted Jobs as saying: “Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they know it.”

“Our task is much the same,” Brown said.

Brown, who is scholar in residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, did not say how the Conservative movement might accomplish for itself what Jobs did for Apple, but suggested the movement needs some “destructive innovation. The slogan has been “tikkun olam” — repair of the world — she said. “I say go out and do a little damage.”

Proud of the product: The Conservative Centennial included the enthusiastic participation of 100 members of the USY youth group.
Proud of the product: The Conservative Centennial included the enthusiastic participation of 100 members of the USY youth group.

Relationships in the big tent

At some point it became an immutable Jewish tradition that on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, the synagogue will put a reminder notice in the mail with an envelope asking for a donation. One rabbi in Canada decided to try something different: He called his congregants on the yahrzeit instead of sending them a letter. And he didn’t ask for money.

Attendance at his synagogue went up.

Educator and author Ron Wolfson told this story during his keynote address Monday to illustrate the importance of personal relationships.

“It’s all about relationships,” he said, driving home a major theme of the conference. “It begins with people, not programming. We have to spend resources to build relationships with our people.”

In his book Relational Judaism, Wolfson argues that to survive, a Jewish institution must become a “face-to-face community of relationships.”

“The fastest growing religious groups in the U.S. understand the value of relationships,” he told his audience. One is Saddleback Church, the evangelical megachurch led by Rick Warren. The other is Chabad.

“Within five minutes of meeting a Chabad rabbi, you’re invited into a relationship with him and his family,” Wolfson said. “They flip our model — first they get to know you, then they ask for money.”

Rabbis Aaron Weininger and Jeremy Fine have taken these lessons to heart. They are assistant rabbis at two different Minneapolis-area synagogues, but they have largely the same job description: “engaging the hearts and the souls of Jews in their 20s and 30s,” as their packed workshop was called.

“Get out of the mentality of events and programming,” Weininger advised, echoing Wolfson. “What I’m focused on is the relationship.”

He said that young adults are often burdened by what they aren’t doing Jewishly. “We’re trying to take away the guilt and shame that keeps people from coming back to Jewish life.”

He warned that focusing on individuals and relationships is labor intensive. “It’s a huge investment in time — being attentive to what people care about,”Weininger said.

But Fine said that attention is necessary if people are to connect with the congregation more than once. “It can’t just be, ‘OK come to services and it will be meaningful for you.’ The product that you’re getting them to has to engage and catch them.”

Added Weininger, “If you look at the Pew study, 94 percent are proud of the brand [Judaism]. But they’re not buying the product [Conservative Judaism].”

Audience member Sarah Notis of Annandale was skeptical. “I don’t think we’re interested in being offered a product,” she told the rabbis. “People are moving toward pluralistic spaces and minyanim.”

Just as the movement is searching for approaches to attract young adults, it continues to seek ways to include the intermarried in the Conservative big tent.

In a session on Keruv, the movement’s outreach initiative to intermarried families, Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, said Jews have to stop getting stuck on mixed marriage and look at broader issues.

“It’s important to separate intermarriage from conversion,” he said. “They’re two different things.”

While intermarriage does not necessarily lead to conversion, it can lead to raising Jewish families. So the goal should not be to convert the non-Jewish spouse, but to raising Jewish families, however they are constituted, he said.

Steve Lachter, senior Keruv trainer for the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, tried to get listeners to recognize the slights suffered by non-Jewish spouses.

He recalled one Keruv event where a Catholic woman told a group of rabbis how she was raising her children as Jews, driving them to Hebrew school, celebrating holidays at home — fulfilling the role of a Jewish parent.

“I have given you my children. Why do you treat me like crap?” she said.

Jews must remember that there are non-Jews in their community and not assume everyone has a Jewish background, Lachter said.

“In Hebrew school, you can’t ask kids to ask their parents for a memorable Passover childhood experience, because they may not have any,” he said.

That was one example of the dizzying new life inside the big tent. There was a feeling at the Conservative Centennial that if the movement can manage to see and interpret the world in new ways, it can get the hang of the 21st century and remain at the “vital center” of religious Jewish life.

Rabbi Eisen, the JTS chancellor, was putting words to this feeling in yet another reference to the Pew study which, like other recent polls, found that a growing number of people say they are not religious.

“The word religion may resonate less and less,” he said to more than 1,000 true believers. “But spirituality and service of God mean just as much as they always have.”

 [email protected] Twitter: @davidholzel

WJW’s Editor-in-Chief Meredith Jacobs, and Editor-in-Chief Maayan Jaffe; senior reporters Melissa Gerr and Simone Ellin; and reporters Heather Norris and Marc Shapiro, staffers at the Baltimore Jewish Times, WJW’s sister publication, contributed to this article.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here