As a rabbinical committee of the Conservative movement prepares to decide next month whether gays and lesbians should be admitted to the rabbinical school, the school’s incoming chancellor confessed to having some concerns.
"It’s a very important matter but I don’t want it to divide us," Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, told more than 400 people at Temple Beth Sholom in Roslyn, L.I., Tuesday night.
"There is so much that holds us together," he continued. "I don’t want this marked by a departure of people on either side. It’s an important issue, but we have a movement struggling to be united. The last thing I want to see is the movement ending up in tatters."
In what was billed as an introductory address to the Long Island community, Eisen repeated that the issue must be handled in a "way that keeps us together and does not split us apart. [We] should not go to pieces over this, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that does not happen."
The subject, which has become a hot-button issue for the Conservative movement in recent years, is scheduled to be voted upon next month by the movement’s central law making authority, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
The issue was raised again when Eisen asked members of the audience what was distressing them most about the movement.
"The issue before the Law Department troubles me greatly," replied one man, adding that he was afraid it would become divisive.
"To welcome a small number of people who are going to push away more" was wrong, he said.
Eisen’s one-hour presentation also raised some eyebrows for what he didn’t talk about: those who leave the movement because of the growing rate of intermarriage. Instead, Eisen said the Conservative movement should worry less about its declining membership than about the need to engage its current members.
"The point is not to count the numbers but to ratchet up your strength," he said. "We are in amazingly good shape, despite the fall in numbers. We have institutions that are strong, like the Solomon Schechter day schools, Camp Ramah, thriving synagogues like this one and other places where one can experience real davening and learning."
Eisen’s push for a greater emphasis on "inreach," rather than "outreach," comes at a time when the movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, is making a major push to reach out to intermarried couples, with the hope of not only converting the non-Jewish spouse but fully integrating them into congregational life.
Eisen, 54, a Jewish studies professor and chairman of Stanford University’s religious studies department who assumes his full-time position next July, insisted that he is "not afraid of numbers not walking through our doors. The problem is that those who are walking through the doors are not active. We have the possibility of improving the depth of our movement. If 25 percent of our members in some way became involved in our movement, it would make an impact."
Jacob Stein, a former president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, disagreed with that approach.
"To me the main problem we’re facing is the fact that we’re not dealing with the number of people we’re losing because of intermarriage: and they are taking their parents with them," he said in an interview after Eisen’s presentation. "We should find a way to welcome them," he added. "You can’t sell a customer unless you bring him into the store, and if you bring intermarried couples into the movement, you would be surprised at the way they develop and become involved."
Eisen, who was appointed to the chancellorship earlier this year to succeed Rabbi Ismar Schorsch who retired in June, said he plans to use this year to travel around the country speaking to Conservative Jews.
"I want to find out what is going well and not going well," he said, adding that he plans to use that information to formulate a series of proposals that he would release a year from now.
"I don’t have all the answers," he confessed, but added that he hopes to come up with a presentation that would spell out what "distinguishes us" from the other movements and that would provide a "clear statement" about the Conservative movement.
Eisen said he believed that would "improve morale, which has been falling because of the [declining] numbers."
In recent years, surveys have found that the Reform movement surpasses the Conservative movement in terms of membership.
Eisen said he learned one thing while at Stanford University that might be useful for the Conservative movement. He said that in 20 years, the university had several reorganizations. The Conservative movement, on the other hand, is still using the same "structures that are 50 and 100 years old."
"When we find arms of the movement that are not cooperating, we must improve the structure and organization," he said. "Numbers may fall, but if we commit ourselves, we have no fear."
Stephen Steinig of Dix Hills said after the program that he was impressed with Eisen’s presentation.
"I thought he showed signs of being a strong, capable leader," he said. "Reaching out to people to hear what was on people’s minds was about two-thirds of the evening."
Irwin Scharf, the incoming president of the United Synagogue’s METNY Region, said Eisen had touched on many of the current issues and that they are "not easily soluble."
"How do you find the correct solution in trying to get people involved?" he asked. "You have a generation that has dropped off their kids at synagogue. We have to get the younger generation involved. … He identified what’s going on."