- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

The branch of American Judaism that occupies the middle ground between those who buck tradition and those who fully embrace it confronted the dwindling appeal of the movement in a meeting this week in Houston.

Members of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, at their annual convention, said their seminaries and day schools have been educating more and more Jews, only to see them flee to other Jewish movements.

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the leading Conservative school, said the exodus of young Conservative Jews with strong religious educations is a key reason the movement is floundering.

“I deem that to be the most critical loss,” he said, in a phone interview from the meeting, titled “Reinventing Conservative Judaism.”

Mr. Schorsch partly blames the trend on the poor quality of worship in Conservative synagogues, which he says are so geared toward “entry-level Jews” that those with more religious knowledge leave for the stricter Orthodox congregations. Mr. Schorsch said he often worships at an Orthodox synagogue on Friday nights, the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath, because of the beauty of the service.

“There is really a fatal disconnect,” he said. “There is not enough attention being paid to advanced Jews.”

The Conservative movement teaches a traditional Judaism that is moderately flexible. For example, Conservatives allow members to drive on the Jewish Sabbath if necessary and let men and women sit together during services. However, unlike clergy in the more liberal Reform stream, most Conservative rabbis will not officiate at interfaith weddings. The Orthodox movement has the strictest adherence to Jewish law and tradition.

Conservatives have resisted pressure to liberalize core teachings to prevent less-observant Jews from leaving for Reform synagogues, which generally give a greater role to homosexuals and to Gentile spouses of congregants.

Although exact numbers are hard to calculate, Jewish leaders now agree that the Reform movement has overtaken Conservative Judaism as the largest North American branch — in members and in number of synagogues. The total number of Jews in the United States is estimated at 5 million to 6 million.

However, these are not the losses that preoccupy most Conservative thinkers. Instead, many want to retain the more observant congregants — a strategy they believe will revitalize synagogues.

“If a person decides that they are really not interested in observance, then the Conservative movement is really not the place for them,” said Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a Conservative leader from Israel who attended the Texas meeting. “But sometimes we lose people who become very observant. If we don’t have enough observant people in our congregations, then they will look for a place they will feel more comfortable.”

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