Rabbi Elliot Dorff on the Joys & Challenges of Conservative Judaism

What do you hope people will learn about Conservative Judaism through this book?

Elliot Dorff Rector 2011

I have dedicated this book “with deep appreciation for the people and institutions of the Conservative movement, who have gifted me with a form of Judaism that is totally honest and intellectually challenging while also being vibrant, joyful, caring, morally sensitizing, and profoundly meaningful.” I hope that readers of this book will become learning and participating Conservative Jews so that they can discover and enrich their lives with the many gifts it has given me.

Which issues facing Conservative Judaism today are the most challenging, and why?

I would highlight four such issues. The first is the demographic crisis that we Jews are confronting, such that we are certainly not replacing the six million who died in the Holocaust and are not even replacing ourselves. That is due to the late ages at which people marry these days and consequently the small number of children that they have, often having to overcome major problems of infertility and their attendant frustrations along the way. Obviously, some people would love to marry earlier but have not found a mate, but Jews need to think seriously of looking for a mate in college and, if they find one, marry in their mid-twenties so that they can have three or four children, if possible. This is a problem for all movements in Judaism, except for the ultra-Orthodox.

Contributing to this demographic problem is the high rate of interfaith marriage these days. With statistics showing that only twenty or thirty percent of interfaith couples raise their children as Jews, that too bodes ill for the future of the Jewish people and religion. We need to learn how to welcome the non-Jewish partners of Jews into our midst as well as the techniques for convincing them to raise their children as Jews and maybe even converting to Judaism themselves.

Some of that problem, in turn, is a result of the low level of Jewish education that many of us are giving our children and ourselves as adults, together with its cost. Jewish synagogues, schools, camps, and youth groups are usually run quite efficiently and nevertheless are at most covering their costs, but the dues or tuition they charge to do that is often beyond the means of many family budgets, especially those with three or four children. So the Jewish community as a whole, and the Conservative Jewish community as part of that, needs to find the resources to make serious Jewish education, both formal and informal, financially possible for Jewish families, including adults and teens as well as children.

Finally, and very much a part of this, is the tendency of millennials and their younger contemporaries to avoid joining anything, including synagogues. This means, of course, that there are fewer members and therefore fewer resources for synagogues to make their schools and youth groups affordable and to grant scholarships to schools and Jewish youth groups and camps. I know that I sound like an old fuddy-duddy when I say this — and I am old! — but young Jews need to learn the basic Jewish lesson that we each have a fundamental duty to join and support the Jewish community, even at the times in our lives when we are not using many of its services. As Hillel taught in the first century, “Do not separate yourself from the community” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:8), a lesson we need to learn now more than ever before.

How has the movement changed in the last few decades?

The primary ways the movement has changed, as I describe in this book, include the much increased participation of women in all parts of Conservative Jewish life and the newer permission given to gay men and lesbians to marry and to become rabbis. In addition, over the last few decades, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has addressed many contemporary issues, including business ethics, sexual ethics, ritual innovations, and social issues. Also, the movement as a whole has devoted considerable thought and energy to developing Conservative/Masorti Judaism in Israel and around the world, including some important thought about why and how Jews should be committed to Israel, whether they live there or not. Another pervasive change, spurred by Camp Ramah and United Synagogue Youth, is the replacement of services led by rabbis and cantors, in which laypeople are passive participants, with widespread lay participation on all kinds of levels and at all ages in worship, Torah reading, and giving homilies about how the Torah and Jewish tradition may be interpreted and applied anew in our time.

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