Sunday, September 16, 2007

There’s Little Left to Conserve

The closing of the Solomon Schechter high school in Bergen County a bit more than a year after the only such school in New York City closed down is a powerful illustration of the woeful and declining state of the Conservative movement. Coming shortly before Arnold Eisen is installed as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the development may be regarded as his baptism under fire, a term that perhaps should be avoided in view of the Conservative abandonment of tradition and ritual.

There isn’t much prospect that the movement can recover, although Mr. Eisen is being welcomed as a savior and a man of much vision and energy. He will doubtfully have success as a fundraiser and in getting attention. But Conservatism is hemorrhaging members, as well as confidence, and it is confused. Last week, the Forward published (in the newspaper and on-line) a group of uninspired and essentially meaningless responses to the question, “How should Conservative Jews steer their ship into the future?” No one answered, first fix the leaks.

There is, for sure, no quick fix or even a slow fix. This diagnosis is the implicit message conveyed by Jack Wertheimer, until recently JTS’s Provost and a leading scholar of American Jewry, in the September issue of Commentary. The article is a small masterpiece, a must read.

The Bergen County story is a compound of diverse elements, including the failure of local rabbinic and lay Conservative leaders, a failure that parallels what is found in too many communities as synagogue rabbis do too little to promote day school education, in part because they see it as competition to their congregational schools and fundraising efforts. They put contributions to day schools near the bottom of the list of causes worth supporting. Those who made the decision to close the high school days before the start of the school year acted irresponsibly and foolishly. I am certain that they are in pain and it is cruel to add to their suffering, so I will limit my comments to the observation that they contributed enormously to the hardship felt by students and their families and also faculty and staff.

Around the country, possibly about one-third of the remaining sixty or so Solomon Schechters are in serious trouble and some are barely hanging in there. There is scant evidence that Conservative leaders appreciate how vital these institutions are to the movement. One explanation for this bizarre attitude is that at its highest levels, Conservatism operates as a collection of separate baronies, a dysfunctional arrangement that Mr. Eisen needs to challenge early on when his leverage will be at a maximum. Later on, he is apt to be weighed down by what many Conservatives consider to be the most serious issue, namely not how to retain and strengthen the traditional wing but how to retain and thereby weaken itself Jewishly the droves who are heading out of the door toward Reform or non-affiliation.

Mr. Eisen will have plenty on his plate at JTS. I continue to believe that it would have been preferable to follow the Reform formula of dividing responsibility between the movement’s seminary head and its overall leader. Whatever one might think of the Yoffie-Ellinson arrangement, they make an effective team.

But rearranging the chairs on the deck of the movement’s Titanic will not be sufficient. Against all odds, Conservatives will have to decide that it is their obligation to conserve. Translated into policy, this means not yielding to political correctness or to the large majority of members who in practice and belief are little different from the Reform. For far too long, Conservative members – and I specifically include synagogue-goers – have understood that whatever rhetoric may be employed at the top or by congregational rabbis, in practice nearly all of our traditions and religious laws are negotiable.

After all that has been abandoned, prospects for a change of direction are negligible. We will now hear a message of renewal, of greater fidelity to mitzvos and a greater commitment to religious study. It is hard to see how any of this will be translated into the lives of most Conservative families. Certainly, the early signs are not encouraging. Probably because he wanted to dispose of the issue before he took office, Mr. Eisen rushed through a fundamental change in the movement’s stand on gay ordination. If what is popular is the way to go, patrilineality and a changed attitude toward conversion will be next. In this regard, the current student body at JTS provides strong indication that the movement is likely to move further away from halacha. Indeed, what still passes as the Conservative’s West Coast seminary is headed even more strongly in that direction, as is the movement’s rank and file.

When I have written in the past about the tzoros that have enveloped Conservatism and advocated a greater commitment to Solomon Schechter schools, some of my fellow Orthodox have questioned why I should care about the decline of a movement that purposely decided to abandon so much of what we are obligated to do as religious Jews. The attitude seems to be, nearly all Conservative Jews are lost or will be lost and that is the way it should be because the Conservatives have not been faithful to our heritage.

My answer is that we must care about what happens to these Jews because we do not want to lose them and that at least the traditional wing of the movement can be reached out to and should be reached out to. It is of note that to an important extent, the Orthodox tshuva movement depends on pockets of Conservative vitality. It is not accidental that as the Conservative movement has gone into a tailspin, there has been a parallel decline in the fortunes and outcomes of Orthodox outreach.