Jewish, Jewish, Everywhere, & not a drop to drink
Thursday, March 04, 2004
Reform and Conservative Judaism Fight it out as their flocks disappear...
"Reform Leader Predicts Demise Of Conservatives
CCAR head gives ailing ‘bridge’ movement two decades.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen - Staff Writer
In a rare public attack on a competing denomination, the head of the Reform movement’s rabbinical group has predicted the demise of the Conservative movement within two decades.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, wrote in the February issue of his organization’s newsletter that the only denominations soon left on the American Jewish scene will be Reform and Orthodox.

The Conservative and, for that matter, Reconstructionist movements’ congregational bodies will merge with the Union for Reform Judaism, he wrote, “or disappear,” as will the rabbinical organizations of those movements.

Conservative and even other Reform leaders are taking issue with both the style and the substance of Rabbi Menitoff’s critique. Conservative sources say it smacks of triumphalism and is simply incorrect, even though their movement is shrinking and the Reform movement is expanding.

“The future will make it clear that he’s off base,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

“At the beginning of the 20th century, all the Jewish pundits predicted the demise of Orthodoxy, and they all proved dead wrong,” said Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. “So Rabbi Menitoff has good company in bad predictions.

“The weaknesses of Reform are glaring. But I’ll leave predictions for the future of Reform to the pundits,” he said.

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Menitoff said the Conservative movement is being rendered obsolete because “the role they played was integrating East European Jews into the American scene, and now they’re totally integrated.”

In his essay and an interview, Rabbi Menitoff pointed to several Conservative movement policies as being out of step with the reality embraced by its young adult members. They include the ban on rabbinic ordination of gays and lesbians, and stands against intermarriage and accepting as Jewish children whose father is Jewish but the mother is not. (The policy is known as patrilineal descent, which was adopted by the Reform movement in 1983 in a step that broke with Jewish law and tradition.)

Rabbi Menitoff said he felt moved to write the piece, which he also delivered as a speech in January to Reform rabbis on the West Coast, after talking to young Conservative Jews at a family lifecycle event.

“We had a poignant conversation that reinforced conversations I’ve had in other settings about this. They were saying it would be very hard for them not to look for another home, long term, if there weren’t a change in the [Conservative] movement because it just runs so much against the grain of their modernity,” said Rabbi Menitoff, whose group has some 1,700 members.

Conservative movement leaders say his analysis is faulty.

Rabbi Menitoff “is writing at a particular time of triumphalism in the Reform movement,” said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“It’s something the Conservative movement is very familiar with because its leaders wrote in the 1950s and ’60s in the same vein, convinced that the future belonged to the Conservative movement. That turned out not to be the case, and there is reason to believe that the predictions he makes will also not be the case, even though today the Reform movement is riding high.”

“As a Conservative Jew, I am used to people in the Orthodox and Reform worlds saying the middle is going to collapse because they’ve been saying it for decades,” said Wertheimer. “It hasn’t happened yet.”

Yet data from recent National Jewish Population Studies, conducted in 1990 and 2000-01, and a study of New York Jews in 2002 show the Conservative movement has been shrinking.

In the 1971 National Jewish Population Study, 42 percent of American Jews identified as Conservative. In 1990, that number was down to 36 percent; in 2000-01 it dropped further, to 26 percent.

In 1971 the Reform movement had 33 percent of American Jews claiming affiliation, and in 1990 it was up to 42 percent. In 2000-01, it was 35 percent.

A recent study of New York Jews showed that 26 percent identified as Conservative, down from 34 percent a decade earlier. But the Reform movement also became smaller in New York, in 2002 claiming 29 percent of Jews compared with 36 percent a decade before.

What grew in New York were the populations of Jews identifying as Orthodox, as “just Jewish” or as secular.

“We have a challenge in front of us, and I don’t deny the challenge,” Rabbi Epstein said of the fact that the Reform movement has inherited the position of being American Jewry’s “default” identification, long a Conservative movement role.

“There’s a likelihood that we will be a smaller movement for a period of time. If we’re going to be serious about our mission and vision, there may be people who have joined us for other reasons and are now more comfortable in Reform congregations.

“But we fulfill a very important need in the Jewish world,” he said, bridging tradition and modernity.

Wertheimer said that “on a positive note, this prognostication may serve as a goad to the Conservative leadership, which needs to address the challenges inherent in all of this.”

One national Reform leader, who spoke with The Jewish Week on the condition that he not be identified, said he spoke with other Reform leaders who “privately expressed concern that these sentiments were articulated in such a public way.”

“Any suggestion that the Conservative movement is going to disappear from the Jewish scene is mistaken,” he said. “And even if we believe it, what in heaven’s name is to be gained by a statement that can only alienate people with whom we want to work?”

One Reform leader was willing to speak on the record about the statement.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said his movement “wants a strong Conservative movement because there’s more that we share with them than what divides us. The American Jewish community is stronger by virtue of having a vibrant Conservative movement with congregations who will cooperate with us on a whole range of issues.”

And the denominations influence each other, he said.

“On some issues we have followed their lead, and I suspect on others they have followed ours,” said Rabbi Yoffie. “As we have moved towards more ritual, for example, Conservative congregations in some instances have been a factor, just as Conservative Jews joining Reform temples bring certain concerns in terms of ritual, and we listen to those concerns.

“With our emphasis on vigorous outreach, they’ve been influenced by us and are stronger as a result as well,” he said.

Rabbi Menitoff’s peer in the Conservative movement, Rabbi Joel Meyers, head of the 1,550-member Rabbinical Assembly, said he is “offended that my counterpart would have a view I find to be at rock bottom immature.”

“As a Conservative Jew I find it rather insulting to think that because there are individuals who may be more liberal or more observant, that it somehow means difficulty for the movement,” he said. “That’s normative for our movement. What I expected from Rabbi Menitoff is a greater appreciation of what it means to be a centrist movement.”

“The center is easy picking precisely because it represents a broad constituency and an ideology itself that is a broad base. I’m sorry that he fell into that trap.”

Rabbi Epstein said there is a clear need for Conservative Judaism that will far outlast any of Rabbi Menitoff’s predictions.

“The Reform congregation basically accepts people where they are and tries to make them comfortable with that,” said Rabbi Epstein. “The Orthodox congregation basically has people who are already committed.

“It’s the Conservative congregation that bridges the two because it accepts people where they are, with the goal to help guide them along the path to greater commitment. That’s the unique position of the Conservative congregation that neither the Reform nor the Orthodox can meet.”
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