Where Have All the Good (Conservative) Men Gone?

My senior year of college I was spending time with five young men who had all been close friends of mine throughout our time in United Synagogue Youth. We were sipping beers and noshing on pretzels, a casual Saturday afternoon in the New York City winter, as they recalled how a few hours earlier they sat together in Shabbat morning services. “Look where we’ve ended up,” they laughed.

At first glance, it was a beautiful moment. These boys who I had known in high school as fellow superstars in our United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism regions were on the path to become leaders, lay or professional, in the Conservative movement. Several of them served on USY’s International Board and were current staff members at Ramah camps. Some, like myself, children of Conservative Rabbis. Quick- call up USCJ! Write an article in CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism! Look at us, still friends, raised as committed Conservative Jews, keeping Shabbat. A dream come true, right? Maybe not. Four years ago, I never would have predicted that their Shabbat morning experience of choice would entail praying on the men’s side of the mechitza in the Orthodox minyan at Columbia/Barnard Hillel.

So what had happened to them over the past four years? Let me, for the sake of argument, define “committed Conservative Jews” as those raised in ritually observant households, nurtured by the movement, and who find themselves isolated because the general laypeople of the movement are not as committed to halacha as the movement preaches.

There has been a recent influx of articles lamenting certain trends in the Conservative movement: that all committed Conservative Jews must be on the path to the Rabbinate, or alternatively, how difficult it is to find a Shabbat observant environment in our synagogues pushes us away. Given this picture, it is easy to understand the pull factor of the vibrant Orthodox communities in college where being a committed Jew doesn’t make you a rarity or simply the most educated or most observant, but places you among a sea of peers. I understand the weight of the expectation to always be a leader and the attraction of simply being a member of the group. Perhaps USCJ’s decision to stop its collegiate programming was just the last straw for many people like me.

But what seems to be left out of this conversation is that while it is relatively easy for men to fluidly move from one type of religious community to another, women are forced to face a literal physical barrier in this search for a “stronger community”. And a gender gap is beginning to emerge among the committed members of Conservative Judaism.

Let me be absolutely clear. I do not mean to suggest that my male friends who have chosen Orthodoxy over Conservative Judaism did so without serious thought. Nor do I mean to imply that my female friends who choose to pray in Orthodox synagogues do not feel empowered or deeply connected to the communities of which they are now a part. There are many compelling reasons, personal and not, for an individual to choose a different community, but that is for another time.

What I am saying is that deeply committed Conservative women cannot make this shift fluidly. And I find it extremely difficult to understand how being raised in an egalitarian community can be reconciled with a non-egalitarian community, and a non-egalitarian religious future for one’s family. I want to be counted in a minyan. I want to someday be able to say kadish for a loved one. Partnership minyanim do not do it for me. Sitting behind or next to a mechitza is not equal prayer for me. And being told apologetically that I do not have to fulfill the same mitzvot that are required of my male counterparts is not my Judaism. Four years ago you could find me praying next to those five friends. That winter Saturday, you absolutely could not.

My Judaism is giving back to the movement that raised me by becoming part of the holy and inclusive communities created by its deeply committed leaders. It is using the formative experiences given to me by Ramah and USY to shape the future of others. It is grappling with halacha in the modern day and allowing myself to be influenced by Solomon Schechter and Abraham Joshua Heschel not only because they were “great scholars” as Michah Gottlieb suggests but because their words, along with those of Chancellor Arnold Eisen, Dean Shuly Rubin Schwartz, and Professor Amy Kalmanofsky speak to me as the person I strive to be.

Friends, you want to talk about the future? Stop lamenting the past. Stop writing about how there is no longer a place for you and further widening that gap by leaving. Stop walking away from the table. Stop saying that you can reconcile an egalitarian upbringing with a non-egalitarian community, because some of you do not know what it means to be told that you are not a ritually equal member of a community. And stop thinking that when the current leadership, I’m looking at you Rabbi Wernick (CEO of USCJ), finally accepts that our voices need to be part of the conversation, your abandonment of the future leadership is not precisely what will shift this conversation from what it could have been to what I fear it will be.

Right now I must question those friends from that Shabbat afternoon: “Are you really a ‘committed Conservative’ Jew?” For the sake of your mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends who you once sat next to in shul, prove it.

About the Author
Sara Miriam Liben holds a B.A in Sociology from Columbia University and a B.A in Women and Gender Studies in Judaism from The Jewish Theological Seminary. She is interested in nonprofit consulting and creating a pluralistic Jewish future in Israel and the Diaspora. An avid coffee drinker, she welcomes you to continue the conversation over a cup of joe in Jerusalem where she currently resides.