Assuming a New Responsibility

For the past six years, I have served as an officer of the Rabbinical Assembly, the 1600-member-strong international organization of Conservative rabbis. When I write for The Jewish Week, I generally don’t put that organizational position in my byline. The positions that I take in my articles are mine, and not intended to represent my colleagues, per se, nor the Rabbinical Assembly as a whole. I write about a rabbi’s world… refracted, of course, through my own particular view, but not consciously movement-partisan.

For this piece, however, I have decided to include the Rabbinical Assembly in the byline, and the reason is obvious. This coming Monday, all things being equal, I shall assume the presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly at its convention in Atlanta. For the next two years, in addition to my ongoing responsibilities as the rabbi of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, where I have served for thirty-one years, I will also be a voice for the Conservative rabbinate (that’s Conservative with a capital “C”), and have the opportunity to help shape the policies and future directions of the Assembly, and the Conservative movement as a whole.

As you might imagine, I’ve been spending a lot of time these past few weeks reflecting on the significance of this new responsibility, and what it represents for me both personally and professionally.

On a purely personal level, assuming the presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly is a great honor. Thirty-one years ago, when I was first ordained, I remember well looking at my senior colleagues and thinking to myself how much more “adult” and “grown up” they looked than I thought I did. When I first came to the Forest Hills Jewish Center as a twenty-eight year old man, my senior colleague, the late, great Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, of blessed memory, was seventy-three. I was clearly the young rabbi. In fact, I can clearly recall that the standard line of introduction for me was “our dynamic young Assistant Rabbi.” I never much liked that. It felt more than a little infantilizing at the time.

And then when Rabbi Bokser died in 1984 and I assumed the leadership of the congregation at the age of thirty-one– still quite young for the job– I found myself thinking of the famous Talmudic text about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, who assumed the leadership of the rabbinic community in ancient Israel at a very young age. He famously said Harei ani k’ven shiv’im shanah… Behold, I am as if seventy years of age. According to the Talmud, his hair turned grey and he grew a proper beard overnight, to enhance his credibility with this rabbinic colleagues.

Well… many years have passed since I succeeded Rabbi Bokser, and for better or for worse, I am not in need of divine intervention to prove my age. My hair is gray, as is my beard, and my knees remind me of my age each and every day. But physical considerations aside, the upside of being thirty-one years older than I was when I first began my rabbinate is that I am thirty-one years more tested and more seasoned. In that sense- on a purely personal level- I am not only honored, but ready.

On a professional level, I am keenly aware that these are challenging times for my movement. The religious landscape of American Jewry is in radical flux, and most of the assumptions about “what worked” that sustained and grew the Conservative movement in decades past are no longer operative. The synagogue as an institution is changing, styles of prayer are changing, lines of religious authority are changing, tastes in liturgical music are changing… factor in demographic issues, and you get a pretty accurate picture of what the world of Conservative Judaism is experiencing right now. To say, as I did, that these are “challenging times” is to understate the case.

You might well ask, in words the Talmud utilizes in a different context, mah lanu ul’tzarah hazot? Who needs this headache?

My answer is a simple one: we all do. American Judaism needs a strong and vibrant Conservative Judaism to reclaim the sane religious ground that lies between the extremes of religious expression. Judaism is not unique in this regard. As the world’s other major religions have pulled rather dramatically to the right, so has Judaism.

To that I would say, the forms of Jewish religious expression may be changing, along with the delivery systems, but the fundamental truths remain. The mantra of Conservative Judaism has always been “tradition and change,” and the dialectical tension between the two remains the central condition of modern Jewish life. Crises and challenges notwithstanding, that is the work of the Conservative rabbinate- to mediate that tension– and I have great faith in my colleagues that they are equal to the task.

I don’t anticipate being able to write a column next week; too much going on. But I look forward to returning the following week, with an even broader perspective of what exactly makes “A Rabbi’s World” such an interesting place.

Shabbat Shalom, and have a great week!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.