When the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly was looking for a new chief executive, its search committee outlined the qualities it was looking for in its leader.
“We spoke a lot about someone who can honor and validate the different types of rabbis and fields that rabbis work in but who can also kind of be someone who can innovate and do things outside the box,” says Rabbi Aderet Drucker, co-director of the Den Collective in Washington and a member of the search committee. “You want to have colleagues who are well trained and good scholars and love Judaism, who live Torah in their practice not just preach it.”
That description sounded a lot like Jacob Blumenthal, founding rabbi of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg. And when Blumenthal was hired last April to head the association of the world’s 1,700 Conservative rabbis, it was a time of change for the movement. For Drucker, it was a chance to welcome an old colleague as Conservative rabbis were trying new ways to energize their congregations.
Blumenthal is an innovator, she says. “He’s sort of always been an entrepreneurial rabbi.”
Other rabbis note his warmth and commitment to the people he works with.
“He’s thoughtful, he’s original,” says Rabbi Aaron Alexander of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington. “He cares deeply about Torah and Israel, and he believes that the ideology that drives the movement is well situated to meet the needs of American Jewry.”
In his new role, which he assumed in July 2019, Blumenthal says his main purpose is to support and empower rabbis.
“It’s been, I would say, exciting, overwhelming, a tremendous learning experience and also very inspiring,” says Blumenthal, 53.
He wants to create more networking and learning opportunities for rabbis, and says the Rabbinical Assembly will soon pilot a mentorship program.
“One of the interesting things we discovered, as we were talking with rabbis, is that in the 21st century, mentorship works in two directions,” Blumenthal says.
Older, more experienced rabbis may have tips on working with communities and teaching Torah, but younger rabbis can help with adjusting to new technologies and the changing world.
The news of Blumenthal’s hiring was a surprise to Shaare Torah, which he helped found in 1995. He left the congregation without a successor. An interim rabbi is now in place as the synagogue searches for a permanent replacement.
Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, the Rabbinical Assembly’s lay president, says Blumenthal handled the transition into his position “beautifully and so skillfully.”
“It’s not only that he understood the organization historically, what we were all those years, but he also had a very intimate knowledge of where we wanted to go,” Newman Kamin says. “He’s also very wise and very patient and very kind, so things that would maybe agitate someone who was new in the position, he’s really able to step back and view it with a great deal of wisdom and kindness.”
Blumenthal says he wants find out what rabbis need on an individual level, because every community, whether halfway across the world or in Greater Washington, is unique.
That’s why he visits Jewish communities around the world. He recently returned from the Abayudaya community in Uganda, which is home to about 2,000 Conservative Jews in eight small villages. He’s visited Buenos Aires and Israel, and is planning a route through several United States cities and Toronto.
He asks rabbis, “What are you doing that gives you energy?” Responses vary from new melodies and new ways of prayer to expanding education and interfaith work.
“It’s great, we have a lot to learn from each other,” he says. “I always say, my job is to go where the rabbis are.”
Too fast or too slow?
Among the changes the movement is grappling with is how to be welcoming to interfaith families and what the role of a non-Jewish family member should be. Last year, Shaare Torah voted to allow non-Jewish family members to hold leadership positions. The vote was divisive, according to several synagogue members.
It’s a move many Conservative congregations are considering. Blumenthal notes that the Rabbinical Assembly is a global organization whose rabbis are free to make the best decisions for themselves and their congregations. Drucker adds that the Conservative movement continues to change.
“Our movement is evolving and some may say too fast and some may say too slow,” Drucker says, “but we are having those conversations.”
Blumenthal says conversion and interfaith work have been the most fulfilling aspects of his job as a rabbi.
“You’re talking with people who take nothing for granted. And everything they do that relates to Judaism is a conscious choice. “It’s inspiring to see the choices they make,” he says. “Those choices to engage in Judaism can be inspiring to our entire community.”
In North America, at least, people of many different backgrounds are often part of the same community, Blumenthal says. That means congregations need to be aware of how they involve diverse membership in traditions and life cycle events.
“They’re part of our families. They’re part of our communities. And we want to welcome them,” he says. “And I would even say more than welcome them, we want to embrace them.”
All of the rabbis interviewed for this story say this is a time of change for the Conservative movement, especially regarding inclusivity and diversity.
“I think we’re all learning and the Conservative movement is learning along with society about what it means to be a diverse community,” says Newman Kamin.
A necessary center
At the same time, Newman Kamin and Blumenthal agree that the Conservative movement provides a necessary center point, especially in North America, between the Reform and other movements on the left that do not adhere to Jewish law, and Orthodox communities on the right.
“We’re in a cultural moment that seems to push people toward the extremes rather than toward the center, but I have a lot of faith that ultimately, it’s the center that needs to hold,” Blumenthal says. “And that a healthy society builds strong centrist institutions, and that includes strong centrist religious institutions. Those are spaces that value diversity, that embrace people with lots of different backgrounds and with lots of different ways of accessing Judaism.”
Drucker says the conversations happening in the secular world on gender equality and bias training are seeping into the Jewish religious world. There have always been Conservative rabbis committed to social action, she says, but the movement as a whole is now “making much bigger strides.”
With rising anti-Semitism in the United States, Blumenthal says his outward presentation as a religious Jew hasn’t changed. “I still wear a kippah wherever I go,” he says.
At the same time, he understands that other Jews may feel differently. And the fact that Jews can put their kippah in their pocket means that they need to commit to the struggles of other minorities who don’t have the possibility of blending in.
“There are other communities, particularly people of color, who deal with hatred and bigotry as well. And don’t have the quote, unquote luxury of hiding their identity in ways that Ashkenazi-descended Jews might be able to,” Blumenthal says. “If nothing else, hopefully [being exposed to anti-Semitism] makes us very sensitive and committed to their struggle, too.”
By all indications, the Conservative movement is shrinking in the United States. The 2013 Pew survey found that 18 percent of American Jews identified as Conservative, down from 25 percent in a 2001 study. In 2017, a Public Religion Research Institute survey found that just 14 percent identify as Conservative, and the Pew study found the Conservative movement to have the highest attrition rate of thethree major streams.
But Alexander says there’s a growing trend of people needing to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.
“There is a large segment of American Jewry that is seeking a grounded, relevant, inclusive and deeply meaningful Judaism that extends far past each person’s personal story,” he says. “What we need is leadership, teachers, layleaders to facilitate those kinds of connections for people in ways that are serious and devoted to the tradition as we understand it and capable of transcending the past while holding firmly to its roots.”
In finding ways to engage those Jews, Blumenthal says he’s seeing “tremendous creativity” from rabbis within religious settings. He says their passion and love for Judaism inspires him.
Regarding that engagement, whether it be between congregants or rabbis, the other rabbis who spoke for this article say Blumenthal is a great man for the job.
“I think his ability to work in what we call in a conventional place for a clergy member but also think about what else we can do outside those walls … is a good way to understand the beautiful gift and talent he brings to the Rabbinical Assembly,” says Drucker.
And though he misses some aspects of being a pulpit rabbi, like the one-on-one connections with congregants, Blumenthal says he is now working with a congregation of rabbis.
“I loved every minute of my pulpit experience, so I definitely miss it. But I’m also inspired by what I do,” Blumenthal says. “I’m inspired by [rabbis] every day in my work … It’s inspiring to see people build those communities and to do it in creative and powerful ways.”