As a teenager, I was an active member of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and then went on to serve as a chapter adviser and youth director in the organization for several years. I also spent my first two years as an ordained Conservative rabbi working on the campus of the University of Michigan at its Hillel foundation. Thus, I have experience working with Jewish teens within the institution of USY as well as with alumni of that teen program once they became college students.
That experience allowed me to read Jesse Arm’s rant about Conservative Judaism through a different perspective than others. In his Times of Israel essay, “Why I’m now a former Conservative Jew,” Jesse explains that from his childhood until “24 hours ago” he classified himself as a Conservative Jew. What made him change his mind and then publish an essay just a short time after making this decision? He says that he became fed up with the entirety of Conservative Judaism because a group of high school students at a convention in Atlanta voted to change the language of a policy that is only in effect for a handful of leaders of that organization.
Some might chalk up this change in verbiage to semantics. For Jesse, it was enough to decide within 24 hours that he is no longer a Conservative Jew. Such a knee jerk reaction is not uncommon among college freshmen. As the campus rabbi at the University of Michigan a decade ago, I had a front row seat to watch eighteen-year-olds who had been raised in secular Jewish homes experiment with strict Orthodoxy. Conversely, I saw frum (religious) students who had grown up in Orthodox day schools try the Reform services on Friday night and begin to embrace that form of Jewish practice. I maintain that such experimentation with various manifestations of religious lifestyle is precisely one of the benefits of college life.
So, I’m not concerned that during semester break of his first year at the University of Michigan Jesse has decided that Conservative Judaism is no longer for him. I do however think that his decision to up and leave is based on a false pretext. USY is the youth arm of the Conservative movement. Its members voted last week to change the language of a policy that only applied to the organization’s board members. Interdating was a no-no for these teenage board members of USY over two decades ago when I served as a regional officer and it will continue to be after the policy’s language was changed. The only difference in the policy is that it went from a strict tone of forbiddance to a softer tone with positive language. I suppose we could say that the outcome is the same, but the tone is kinder and gentler.
What’s interesting is that Jesse felt comfortable in a Conservative movement in which many affiliated synagogues don’t forbid its adult board members from interdating let alone being intermarried. Is Jesse okay with the fact that USY had a policy enforcing kashrut observance on its officers, while the vast majority of Conservative synagogue do not have similar expectations on its adult officers?
As Jesse’s grandfather (a Conservative rabbi in Detroit whom I knew) could have told him, interdating is not as serious an offense as intermarriage. While there certainly have been marriages that began as teenage romances in USY, it remains uncommon. Furthermore, why is Jesse so concerned with this interdating policy for the leadership of his former youth group, but not for rank and file members?
Surely as a former leader of USY, Jesse understands that Conservative Judaism is built upon the philosophy that we can uphold the ancient tradition without having our feet stuck in cement. The Conservative Judaism that Jesse embraced as a high school student was not the same Conservative Judaism that his grandfather promoted. His grandfather was against women becoming rabbis in the Conservative movement or being counted in a minyan. Those major changes didn’t cause Jesse or his parents to run away from being Conservative Jews. In fact, USY still maintains the position that endogamy is best for the Jewish people. How do I know this? I asked the director of the organization.
The bottom line is that Jesse is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. He is confusing a change in the language of a policy that will never affect more than a small percentage of people within the Conservative movement. Lastly, I think it’s entirely possible that Jesse has conflated the Conservative movement (an institution with member congregations and affiliate groups) with Conservative Judaism. Even if he decides that he doesn’t like the language change in a policy for the leadership of the movement’s youth arm, that should not compel Jesse to no longer consider himself a Conservative Jew.