JTS head highlights movement’s challenges

JTS head highlights movement’s challenges

Chancellor Arnold Eisen

When former Stanford University Prof. Arnold Eisen took over as seventh chancellor of the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in July 2007, he faced a daunting task. With the movement facing both declining membership and a virtual identity crisis, the new chancellor – a non-rabbi – was charged with guiding Conservative Judaism into the 21st century.

Eisen – who will serve as scholar-in-residence at Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck the weekend of March 6 and 7 – will tell the community how the movement is changing, and still needs to change, to address its many challenges.

But above all, said the chancellor, as a life-long Conservative Jew and a “proud practitioner of Conservative Judaism,” he’ll be relaying the message that “this is the most vibrant way of being Jewish.”

Indeed, he said, he finds the movement “intellectually, emotionally, and in every way the most satisfying path of Jewish life I can think of.”

In addressing the issue of declining numbers at his presentation, Eisen said he will point out that “everyone is losing to assimilation.” The rate of disaffiliation is growing even among Christian churches, he said, citing the new mantra of the religious community: “The fastest growing religion is ‘none.'”

Noting that, historically, Conservative Judaism has depended for its growth on strong ethnic bonds and members’ commitment to the Jewish people, Eisen said that “ethnic ties are fraying” and that the number of Jews who now claim to feel a special obligation to other Jews has declined to some 50 percent.

In addition, he said, declining populations in small towns and in regions of the country where Conservative Judaism once held sway, such as the Midwest, have resulted in a loss of membership for the movement.

The Conservative movement has also lost members to the Reform movement, due in large part, Eisen believes, to the Reform movement ruling on patrilineal descent, which holds that a child born of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother may be considered Jewish. The Conservative movement does not accept that ruling.

The chancellor expessed the need for a better method of keruv, or outreach.

“We can’t do an intermarriage, but we can make room for intermarried couples,” he said.

Eisen added that some people are also drawn to Reform religious services because they use less Hebrew.

Still, he noted, while some Conservative Jews have moved left, others have chosen to affiliate with the Orthodox movement, which, he said, offers “a strong sense of community.”

Orthodox synagogues more commonly offer “a powerful davening experience,” opportunities to engage in adult learning at a high level, and a cohesive Shabbat community, he said. The lack of these ingredients in many Conservative communities provides “a stumbling block to [attracting] young families.”

Structure is another issue that must be addressed by the Conservative movement, said Eisen.

“We’re not organized as a movement,” he said. Unlike the Reform movement, “we have too many arms. We’re not agile.”

He pointed out, however, that efforts are under way to address this issue. A movement-wide magazine has now been launched, and groups such as the movement’s social justice commission unify the efforts of the constituent arms.

Noting that “American Jews can choose to opt in or opt out” of synagogue life, Eisen explained that individuals who attend synagogue one week won’t necessarily attend the next.

“As consumers of services, they demand excellence,” he said, adding that he recently told a Rabbinical Assembly convention in Jerusalem that the Conservative movement is judged by its synagogues and that synagogues, in turn, are judged by their Saturday morning services.

“We need to improve that,” he said, noting that the quality to be found among constituent synagogues is “uneven.”

“Most of the message” he will deliver next week “will be about message,” he said – the need for a clear, easily intelligible message about the movement itself.

“I will talk about what Conservative Judaism means,” he said, explaining that he will move from general philosophical principles to individual issues.

“We need a new language for the 21st century,” he said, noting that the movement offers many things that are both “beautiful and compelling.”

Speaking about “polarities,” he cited, for example, the movement’s embrace of both halacha and flexibility, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s dual commitment to spirituality and social justice.

The chancellor said the movement’s new chumash, Etz Hayim, presents a prime example of applying “the best results of modern scholarship to strengthen commitment.” Similarly, he said, one can be a faithful Jew but remain respectful, not merely tolerant, of other religious traditions.

Eisen – co-author with sociologist Steven M. Cohen of “The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America” and a respected scholar of American Judaism – acknowledged that he hears much talk about post-denominationalism and has visited some successful, non-affiliated synagogues.

“I think that movements are indispensable,” he said, but noted that there’s room for those congregations that are “beyond” movements as well as for cooperative ventures among the different institutions.

For further information on Eisen’s presentation at Cong. Beth Sholom, call (201) 833-2620.

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