- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 13, 2002

A top leader in Conservative Judaism yesterday proposed a "compact" for members to live a minimum of religious observance so their tradition survives for the next generation of Jews.
"Large numbers of Conservative Jews are not yet living Conservative Judaism," said Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein, for 15 years executive director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "We can no longer look the other way."
To reverse the trend, he urged a "compact of Jewish commitment" six practices that are "a limited number of positive commandments" that may create "a bandwagon effect" of enthusiasm in synagogues.
The "concrete actions" include a 10-word prayer at meals; observing Sabbath and holy day suppers; lighting candles; a daily practice of one good deed and a short reading from the Hebrew Bible; giving to charity; and visiting Israel or helping fund others' trips.
"We must begin our religious renaissance somewhere," Mr. Epstein said.
Without this minimum, he said, Jewish youth get a secular signal from synagogues. "When the youth who take what we teach seriously mature, they often enter congregations void of the Jewish values or practices," he said.
The biennial assembly marks the 100th anniversary of the "Conservative movement" in Judaism, and for the first time held a joint meeting of the associations for synagogues, rabbis, teachers, cantors and congregation executives. It ends tomorrow at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Northwest.
In an interview, Mr. Epstein said the speech was a departure from other recent assembly messages because it focused on a minimum standard, not on broadening Jewish identity.
"The problem has been that so many people, in any religion, do little, do nothing," he said. "What I want to do is raise the floor. It is not enough to do nothing."
He said the compact does not require any new rulings in the Conservative tradition, which is often called a "middle way" in Judaism. With 760 synagogues and 1,500 rabbis, it is the second-largest in membership of four branches of Judaism.
The Reform branch is largest and dedicated to liberalizing norms for Jewish religious life, dietary laws, use of English in worship and intermarriage.
In his speech to the 1,500 religious leaders, Mr. Epstein said Conservative synagogues must find better "strategies" to welcome marriages that include a non-Jewish spouse so that the children receive some Jewish upbringing.
The goal is to "motivate those who intermarry to create a rich Jewish home life," he said. "But, at the same time, we must never become 'neutral' or 'accepting' of intermarriage as the norm." About half of American Jews now marry non-Jews, according to studies.
In a report Monday, sociologist Steven Cohen of Hebrew University in Jerusalem told the five associations that younger Jews, like their peers, are less loyal to denominations and take a "consumerist" approach to religion.
"They will support and buy into communities, agencies and people where they find purpose and meaning," he said. "If not, they are prepared to walk away."
He cited the high-demand model that helps conservative churches grow in the United States. "At times of high anxiety about Jewish stability and continuity, our tendency is to demand less," he said. "In fact, [that] strategy is counterproductive."
The "compact" comes at a time in America when just 14 percent of American Jews say religious observance is "most important" in Jewish identity, accoording to the American Jewish Committee's annual survey.


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