Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bringing People Closer to God

Mention the Conservative Movement in certain Orthodox circles and you will get howls of derision and condemnation. There is of course good reason for that. The Conservative Movement as it stands today is a shadow of its former self and has descended into a movement with no direction that has in large part abandoned Halacha and promotes modern scholarship - a literary analysis of the Torah that undermines some of our fundamental theological beliefs.

But it wasn’t always like that. I have always found the Conservative Movement to be one of the most fascinating developments in Jewish history. Its founders were all Orthodox Jews with the best of intentions. It was founded at a time when Reform Judaism was taking root in America and threatened to destroy Judaism as we know it by completely abandoning Mitzvah observance.

It was in part a reaction to this that observant Jews started the movement. They chose the name Conservative because they wanted to conserve and preserve its traditions. They started a school -The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)- in order to produce American trained rabbis who could better relate to the American raised Jew. They insisted that Halacha be followed and used principles of Psak and Hora’as Shah to come up with some of their early ‘Kulos’. One of the founding fathers, HaGaon R’ Levi (Louis) Ginsburg (referred to as such by Telshe Rosh HaYeshiva Rav Eliya Meyer Bloch) was a Talmid Chacham par excellence and Paskined many Shailos for them.

But among the founding fathers was Mordechai Kaplan who, although observant of Mitzvos, redefined God in heretical terms. Ginsburg and Kaplan were ideological opponents who tried to influence the direction of the school. Among the founding fathers were others who were not particularly observant. Louis Finklestein, JTS chancellor at the time favored Rabbi Ginsburg’s approach and kept the movement Halachic (by Conservative standards).

While it is commonly believed in Orthodox circles that they erred grievously in eliminating the Mechitza and eventually in allowing people who were already driving on Shabbos - to drive to shul – their intent was to keep these people in the fold somehow by at least getting them into a Shul, once a week. They at first succeeded and grew exponentially to become Judaism largest movement.

But members were rarely observant and their children were less so – becoming completely assimilated and immersed in the culture to the exclusion of anything Jewish. Ultimately they have failed and are now groping for ideas on how to stop the hemorrhaging and stay viable. Their numbers are now dwindling despite efforts like creating a parochial school system very late in the game.

Arnold Eisen - current chancellor of JTS - is a realist and a pragmatist. In a recent article in the Jewish Week he has acknowledged that his movement is in trouble as is his seminary. He has even acknowledged that his movement has made some historical mistakes not the least of which is permitting driving to Shul on Shabbos. But in one of the more fascinating moments of truth, Arnold Eisen had some very candid observation about the dangers his movement faces. But one thing stuck out. This was not the first time I heard it nor was he the only one in his camp to say so. In reference to one the movement’s greatest success stories, Camp Ramah, he said the following:

“it is not a failure if Ramah alumni become Orthodox, because it means we help make live, committed Jews. That’s a success.”

Camp Ramah is indeed a success story. I personally know four people from Conservative backgrounds who became Orthodox through it. They are among the most sincere and committed Jews I have ever known. They saw the inconsistencies in their own movement and the dearth of any viable observant Conservative communities and gravitated to Orthodoxy where they now make their home.

Although he had nothing to do with them -Rabbi Avi Shafran’s plea in Moment Magazine of a few years ago for Conservative Jewry to ‘come home’ to Orthodoxy was not lost on these people. They saw the wisdom of that thought many years before he wrote those words and indeed came home.

This is why Conservative Judaism is so fascinating to me. As most people know the religious pendulum has swung strongly to the right in recent years. For Orthodoxy this is a problem. But for Conservative Judaism it is a blessing. There are more people in that movement ready to ‘come home’ now than ever before.

I now offer testimonials from two formerly Conservative Jews who are now Orthodox.

About three years Neil Harris was involved as an event coordinator for the Kof-K at caterer who fed the Conservative Movement’s ‘Federation of Jewish Men's Club officers and their most die-hard members’. Here in part are his observations:

Many Men's club members I met told me that for all the work they do in getting people to commit to minyan (even once a week) and Teffilin (they have a worldwide campaign) they lose some of their best to the local Orthodox shuls, whose educational classes "blow their members away". In addition, many of their lay leadership are friendly with local Chabad rabbis.

Most of the topics of their educational sessions (based on my schmoozing with participants) lacked any discussion one’s relationship with Hashem. I, myself, grew up in a 'traditional' shul in Wichita, KS, but it was pretty much a hard line conservative cong. My education (until exposure to NCSY) pretty much also had no mention of God.

The weekend took place during the Three Weeks and one participant walked out of services on Shabbos night, not because there was someone playing a guitar and singing Carlebach, but because of “the prohibition of not listening to music and being joyful during the Three Weeks” (his words to me).

There were at least 6 times that someone brought me over to their friends and said "this is what my son or son-in-law looks like" (I have a trimmed beard and was wearing my Shabbos hat).

As a general statement, I will say that even the most educated of the people I met were "in the dark" in terms of the basic day to day life of an orthodox Jew. I got many questions from topic ranging from tearing toilet paper on Shabbos to what kind of coffee to drink while driving cross-country. There was a general thirst for information and reason why we do what we do.

They are (the Men’s Club, that is) very interested in Orthodox outreach techniques, why Discovery Seminars work, NJOP events, and the word 'kiruv' came up in several conversations I had.

It was an eye opening weekend for me. I got a view of the conservative movement that even some of the most experienced 'kiruv professionals' could only dream of.

Daniel Bukingolts who comes from a Conservative Jewish background he speaks about his trek towards Orthodoxy.

I grew up in the Schechter/Ramah system and today my few closest friends, all very Frum, are the ones that I went to elementary school and camp with.

My grade in Chicago, typical of most grades at least back then (8-10 yrs ago) had about 15/60 kids who came from moderate MO homes who just wanted a good secular education for their children. When we went on to high school (Ida Crown Jewish Academy) some kids judged how smart they were by how many of us Schechter kids they had in their classes. One if not THE MOST important things we received from Schechter compared to the Orthodox school is a deep understanding of the spoken/written Hebrew language. It is a shame that most Orthodox kids grow up not knowing Hebrew or at best just knowing what I call Siddur Hebrew.

(Of late Solomon Schechter is victim to the pull of its left wing.) Camp Ramah in Wisconsin however, still supports a strong non egalitarian Minyan of which my friends and I were proud members.

The bottom line, my life would not be the same without Schechter/Ramah. My friends and I have major Hakaras Hatov to these institutions.