By Rabbi Marc D. Israel
Conservative Judaism has never been more relevant or more needed than it is today.
I realize this is the opposite of what many in the Jewish community proclaim. In fact, every demographic study shows that the Conservative movement is shrinking at a faster rate than other denominations. The number of day schools affiliated with the movement has shrunk almost to the point of irrelevance (replaced by community day schools).
Like Tikvat Israel, the Rockville congregation where I serve, many Conservative congregations have seen their religious schools shrink and the average age of their members rise. While it is not unique to us, our USY youth group and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) are currently grappling with past cover-ups of rabbinic and youth worker misbehavior that were ignored for decades. With the exception of Ramah camps, there are not a lot of data points to support my opening statement.
Amid all this doom and gloom, how can I make such a claim? Because the Conservative movement is uniquely situated ideologically and theologically to meet the needs of American Jews in a rapidly changing society.
• On March 4, 2020, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) issued its first set of guidelines for Conservative synagogues to adapt to the pending pandemic. It recommended hand washing and refraining from kissing the Torah and advised people at risk to stay at home. This initial ruling forbade constituting a minyan via Zoom and advised, “If a congregation is in quarantine and not able to bring together a minyan for services, the leadership should provide guidance for home davening and Torah study and/or provide a virtual link to another congregation [meeting in person] through livestreaming.”
• One week later (March 11), the committee maintained the same overall position vis-a-vis minyan, but recognized, “There is joy and comfort that comes from being together (hevrah) … For communities that cannot meet in person, we recommend that they gather virtually to daven on weekdays, even if they do not technically constitute a minyan.”
• The next week (March 17), they issued a new guideline: “In this crisis situation in an area in which civil and/or medical authorities decree that it is unsafe for people to gather in person and recommend or order the closure of houses of worship, it is permitted to constitute a minyan whose constitutive participants (10 adult Jews) are not located in one physical place.”
With its initial reluctance and later agreement to make changes, some might view this progression as playing loose with the rules and an indication of our movement’s weakness. I believe it is a sign of our strength and the unique and necessary position we play in American Jewish life. Over the course of the pandemic, the CJLS issued 18 rulings to guide our movement in responding to a constantly changing environment. These rulings have covered topics beyond synagogue practice to advise on vaccine mandates, the ethics of vaccine distribution and other issues. They often included a range of options, recognizing the diversity of our movement, but all of them have been well-grounded in the traditional halachic process of investigating precedents while considering the needs of the moment.
From its founding, Conservative Judaism has been defined by finding a proper balance between preserving tradition and adapting to current circumstances, as we have seen during the pandemic. I strongly believe this process is exactly what is needed for American Jewry to survive and thrive. While I might quibble with certain positions I believe are too lenient and others as too stringent, the last year and a half has proven exactly why Conservative Judaism and our halachic process is important.
At Tikvat Israel, guided by these CJLS rulings and local health regulations, we instituted several changes to our practices during the pandemic. Because of the ever-changing needs, many of these decisions have been made quickly and sometimes unilaterally and all have been regarded as temporary. As I stated in my March 19, 2020, letter announcing that we would start saying kaddish during our Zoom minyan, “This decision only applies during this time of social distancing and where the government has banned people gathering together in groups larger than 10.”
Over the course of the pandemic, we have experienced the benefits and shortfalls of Zoom minyanim. Many people have appreciated the streamlining of our service, while others prefer that we restore the liturgy that we have abbreviated. These are important conversations for us to have and now is an opportune time for us to carefully consider what our practices should be as we move forward.
Rabbi Marc D. Israel leads Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville. This piece originally appeared in November-December issue of the Tikvat Israel Bulletin.