A Gaithersburg rabbi was appointed last week to a top job in the Conservative movement.
Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal’s surprise hiring as chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly leaves his synagogue, Shaare Torah, without a successor when Blumenthal leaves in a little more than two months.
“It was a surprise,” David Frieman, Shaare Torah’s first vice president, said of learning about Blumenthal’s impending departure. “The mood has turned to, ‘OK, what do we have to do now? How can I help?’ People who haven’t been involved that much are stepping forward to help with the transition.”
Freiman said the synagogue is beginning a search for an interim rabbi to lead the congregation for a year, during which time a permanent rabbi would be hired to begin in 2020.
Blumenthal, 52, will leave the synagogue that he helped to found in 1995. Located in the Lakelands neighborhood of Gaithersburg, Shaare Torah has 320 member families.
The Rabbinical Assembly is Conservative Judaism’s association of rabbis. As chief executive, Blumenthal will succeed Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to serve as chief executive of a major rabbinical organization.
In a phone interview, Blumenthal declined to give his opinions on one of the most controversial debates in the Conservative movement: intermarriage. A 2013 Pew survey found that 23 percent of Conservative Jews are married to non-Jews, but Rabbinical Assembly rabbis are not permitted to perform intermarriages.
Blumenthal said he wants Conservative rabbis to be more of a presence in the Jewish community outside of synagogue walls.
“Building a movement doesn’t just mean rabbis who work in congregations, but rabbis who work in all different parts of the rabbinate, at Hillels, as chaplains, in social justice organizations,”
Blumenthal said. “In the past we’ve often thought of the Conservative movement as a set of synagogues and congregations and one of the ways … we need to reframe our thinking is about all the different spaces in which rabbis create community.”
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 the three major streams.
Blumenthal didn’t address the decline directly, but cited his experience starting and growing a Conservative synagogue, which has a membership of 320 families, as evidence that he’s up to the task of doing the same for the movement.
He also said he’d like to see Conservative Judaism embrace a less binary perspective on identity, adding that Shaare Torah is exploring whether to grant membership to non-Jewish spouses of congregants.
“There are people of other backgrounds who are very committed to many aspects of Jewish life and Jewish community, and we have to think about how we engage all of those people in
creating a community that’s vibrant,” Blumenthal said. “We live in a world that’s not binary. What we need is a more nuanced understanding of how people understand their own identities.”
The executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly is responsible for assisting the organization’s 1,700 rabbis, leading the organization’s staff and steering the group’s marketing arms, according to Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, president of the Rabbinical Assembly.
Issues regarding Israel and intermarriage are largely left up to the umbrella organization of synagogues, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, she said.
Asked why Blumenthal had been hired over other applicants, Newman Kamin said, “He’s kind and he’s a great listener and we just felt that was a leader we want to project to our members, someone who’s really caring and respectful of different views.
“We think we have a lot of wisdom to bring to the Jewish community and of course we’d like to bring more people in who’d like to participate. And we feel like [Blumenthal] will be good in leading that,” she added.
Blumenthal said he hadn’t yet decided where he will live once he begins his new job. The Rabbinical Assembly offices are located in Manhattan.
“He was much more than a rabbi, he helped with the administration and making the budget and everything. He had a lot of ownership stakes in the synagogue,” Freiman said. “The
challenge for us will be to maintain our services to the community with leadership that looks a