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Steering Conservative Movement Amid Changing Affiliation Patterns

Steering Conservative Movement Amid Changing Affiliation Patterns

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, was last week elected president of the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative rabbis during its national convention in Atlanta.

Skolnik, 59, ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary, is a vice president of the Zamir Choral Foundation and a trustee of Solomon Schechter School of Queens. In addition, he is a board member of MERCAZ, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement, and a board member of the Masorti Foundation, the U.S.-based fundraising arm of the Conservative movement in Israel. He also writes a weekly online column for The Jewish Week and is a frequent contributor to the paper’s print edition. He and his wife Robin have four children and two grandchildren.

Q: The Rabbinical Assembly has just published a major book called, “The Observant Life,” a collection of articles designed to impart the wisdom of Conservative Judaism. What was the reason for such an undertaking?

A: The goal of the Rabbinical Assembly is to bring our Torah to the public domain whenever possible, and this book is a large attempt to make our Torah accessible on the widest variety of issues confronting today’s Jew. There are chapters about everything from intellectual property, to modesty of dress, to social equity, to more traditional subjects like prayer and Shabbat. Every generation has to bring its Torah out in a new and relevant way, and this is this generation’s attempt on the part of the RA to do just that.

Critics have said this book is coming out at a time when the Conservative movement appears to be floundering.

The perception of floundering is to my mind a bit unfair. It is fair to say we are confronting a number of issues simultaneously. One is that there is no avoiding the fact that we as a movement are experiencing a certain shrinkage of our numbers. That manifests itself in individual synagogues that may be losing members — not all are — and in the fact that some synagogues are merging.

But it is also important to see a broader picture. We are living through a time when many of the assumptions and the things we took for granted as guaranteeing the health of the movement are in a state of flux.

Such as?

For example, patterns of affiliation with synagogues in the non-Orthodox world are changing. It used to be a generation or two back that the first thing a young couple did when they moved to a new community was affiliate with a synagogue because they were looking for that structure. Today’s younger Jews — particularly those coming out of our movement who have more knowledge and are traditionally inclined — don’t necessarily look for established structures like synagogues to meet their prayer needs or social needs. The whole phenomenon of independent minyanim is largely populated by alumni of our movement. They are to a large degree a measure of our success.

But we are also finding ourselves needing to retool the synagogue and spiritual world that they are growing into in order to meet their needs as adults. So the patterns of affiliation and models of religious authority are changing.

In what way?

There is a move towards greater intimacy, less preaching, more teaching, more congregational singing and a warmer, more user-friendly atmosphere. We are living in an era of enormous dialectical tension between what was and what is coming. What happened for thousands of years in the Jewish world is being challenged by Western culture, for better and for worse. It is extremely unfair to characterize the Conservative movement as the only one that is engaged in this struggle.

To what would you attribute the growth of Orthodoxy in New York?

If you have large families over multiple generations, eventually you will discover you have enjoyed a serious demographic growth. Also it is safe to say that part of the appeal of Orthodoxy in recent years is reflective of a general move to the right on the part of religion. In an increasingly complex and difficult world, people look to religion to be an anchor and provide them with more black and white than gray. … They have done a remarkable job, but part of it has little to do with Orthodoxy and more to do with the culture.

Yet the Orthodox have succeeded in maintaining a strong daily minyan, something lacking in many Conservative synagogues.

Orthodoxy has historically been more successful in transmitting the idea of the observance of mitzvot as an obligatory act. [They] feel a greater sense of personal commandedness to pray with a minyan. That is one of the great challenges that confront Conservative Judaism — finding a way to transmit the idea of a personal sense of commandedness to the laity of our movement.


This is an edited transcript.

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