Aaron Starr
Rabbi, Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Instiitute

Who’s the boss? Conservative Judaism and its crisis of leadership

The international bodies of this authentic movement must to do all they can to operate efficiently and effectively

Among my favorite television shows from childhood is Who’s the Boss? Each week viewers were treated to the personal and professional tension that occupied the home of Angela Bower and her son, Jonathan; their live-in housekeeper, Tony, and his daughter Samantha; and Angela’s feisty mother, Mona. Authority shifted in any given moment between the adults and children, the man and woman, the homeowner and the housekeeper, and the mother and her adult daughter. Beginning its run in the mid-1980s, Who’s the Boss? made us laugh, made us cringe, and made us think.

For better and for worse, Conservative Judaism has put forward its own Who’s the Boss? series, as the movement has confronted the issues of assimilation in America, including and especially intermarriage as well as the disaffiliation of Jews from Conservative synagogues; experienced the success of the Ramah camping movement and USY (United Synagogue Youth) in adding to the ranks of the Modern Orthodox rather than its own kehillot; as well as faced the challenges of maintaining a strong commitment to Zionism while confronting Israel’s turbulence in matters of Jewish pluralism. The recent announcements of the pending departures of Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, CEO of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), call into question the delicately balanced (and sometimes unbalanced) lay-academic-professional coalition tenuously guiding the Conservative movement that also includes among its leadership Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) as well as the volunteer board structures of the USCJ and the RA.

I am reminded of the challenges the Israelites faced in trying to conquer the Promised Land as the clear succession of leadership crumbled after the deaths of Moses and Joshua: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Or, as those of us looking for a vision to unite Conservative Judaism and to inspire growth among Conservative synagogues are asking … who’s the boss, and where do we go from here?

In 2014, the USCJ concluded a strategic planning process that resulted, most recently, in an overhaul of its branding and messaging. The heart of the USCJ’s mission — the raison d’etre of the umbrella organization of Conservative congregations — is, shockingly, to “strengthen kehillot” (Conservative communities). Interestingly, the USCJ’s corollary in the Reform movement, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) seeks a similar goal: “The URJ builds community at every level — from the way we collaborate with congregations, organizations, and individuals to how we make connections across North America to advance contemporary and inclusive Jewish life … we help congregations stay adept and agile, motivate more young Jews to embrace Jewish living, agitate for a more progressive society, and foster meaningful connections to Israel.” I would venture to argue that the USCJ wants to do that too.

With the announcement of Rabbi Wernick’s transition, the Conservative movement is presented with an opportunity: if it shares the same goals as the URJ, should the two movements’ synagogue umbrellas merge? Arguably, given the staff reductions and financial challenges facing the USCJ along with a quick comparison of websites that present the resources each organization offers, Conservative kehillot might be better served by receiving the URJ tools for congregational development. Of course, the values driving each organization differ significantly. If the URJ were to create Conservative overlays to its Reform values-driven organizational resources — similar to Rabbi Moshe Isserles’s Ashkenazi commentary to Rabbi Josef Karo’s Sefardic Shulchan Aruch — then both movements would benefit from the additional revenue, combined assets, and collective wisdom that a synergized partnership would offer.

Naturally there will be some who balk at the notion of partnering with the Reform movement and there will be others, less knowledgeable, who will wag an accusing finger as if to suggest Reform and Conservative Judaism are and have been “the same” all along. But a merger between the USCJ and the URJ would be organizational — not theological or philosophical. In fact, as the URJ and USCJ strive, all synagogues ought to be more welcoming; more fiscally responsible; more engaging; more operationally sound; and more innovative programmatically. In this way, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism share a vision — a vision from which all synagogues, no matter the movement, could benefit. Better to succeed together than to struggle separately.

At the same time, there are moments when the Rabbinical Assembly – the professional organization for Conservative rabbis — seems to be collapsing under the weight the intermarriage debate. While seeking to bring into the 21st century the conversation of how the Conservative movement addresses intermarriage, the RA’s “blue ribbon commission” has done more to embarrass the movement and its rabbis than to advance a new agenda. Compare the organizational impotence of the RA with the variety of training and learning opportunities for rabbis outside the Conservative movement, and the RA is left to be little more than a labor union for rabbis (which, by the way, has value in and of itself).

With Rabbi Schonfeld stepping down, the RA would be better served as a professional organization by placing its organization, lay leadership and professional staff under the stewardship of JTS — a training ground for clergy already better positioned to provide continuing education and to guide rabbis in matters of evolving halakahah (Jewish Law).

Then, with the merger of the USCJ and the URJ along with the absorption of the RA by JTS, one individual, rather than three or more, would be clearly positioned to articulate the vision for Conservative Judaism. That is to say, the movement would accept upon itself the wisdom and call-to-action of a respected academic, thought-leader and researcher to represent us to fellow Jews and to non-Jews alike, and also to set the path forward for Conservative kehillot, for Conservative clergy, and for the Conservative laity.

Were we to recognize Chancellor Arnold Eisen as leader of Conservative Judaism, the question of Who’s the Boss? would indeed be answered. Chancellor Eisen could then more clearly empower the RA’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards to act as his chief resource and guide in seeking to find balance and synergy between Jewish tradition and 21st century modernity, furthering the movement as one that places the halakhic process at the fore. The JTS Chancellor might also do well to hear more directly from rabbis serving our movement throughout the world and especially in Israel, placing a greater emphasis on a more vociferous defense of Israel’s right to exist in peace all the while increasing awareness of how the lack of Jewish pluralism in Israel is actually undermining Israel’s identity as a Jewish state for all Jews.

Three and a half years ago, I articulated for Congregation Shaarey Zedek a vision of empowering our members to utilize traditional and innovative Jewish tools to lead lives of meaning and purpose. More specifically, I believe that the mitzvot bein adam l’makom (commandments governing our relationship with God) and mitzvot bein adam la-chaveiro (commandments regulating how we treat others) as interpreted by an halakhic process rooted in modern Jewish values challenge us to lead lives of gratitude, of obligation, and of joy. Therein we are offered a path to meaningfulness. Or, as the USCJ now puts it, our goal is to “seek meaning together.”

I believe that Conservative Judaism offers an authentic and significant interpretation of Jewish living for the 21st century Jew. Just as Congregation Shaarey Zedek has made difficult decisions in recent years to strengthen itself organizationally in an effort to better develop and carry out a vision of inspired Jewish living for its members, the time has come for the international bodies of the Conservative movement to seek partnerships and synergies to operate more efficiently and more effectively. In so doing, the Conservative movement – like Congregation Shaarey Zedek — will be better positioned to serve its members and to set us all on a path to meaningfulness; on a road to gratitude, obligation, and joy; and on the way to seeking meaning together.

About the Author
Aaron Starr is a rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan and a senior rabbinic fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. A member of the Conservative Movement's Rabbinical Assembly and the Michigan Board of Rabbis, Rabbi Starr is author of the books, "Don't Forget to Call Home: Lessons from God and Grandpa on a Life of Meaning," "Taste of Hebrew," and "Because I'm Jewish I Get to ...".
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