Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of Conservative Judaism’s two rabbinical schools, recently gave a speech to a Long Island (NY) synagogue as described in the article “Eisen Fears Division Over Gay Issue” in the (New York) Jewish Week. Conservative Judaism is shrinking and there is a large divide between those who are involved in its major institutions—USY (United Synagogue Youth), Solomon Schechter Day Schools, and Ramah summer camps—and those on the periphery. Eisen said that he hoped the issue of gay ordination would not split the Conservative movement apart, and then went on talk about his feelings on outreach. “The point is not to count the numbers but to ratchet up your strength….We are in amazingly good shape, despite the fall in numbers.” While internal strength is also important, I am concerned by the lack of emphasis on outreach, particularly to the intermarried.
With nearly half of Jewishly-identified students on college campuses coming from families where one parent was not born Jewish, it seems highly unlikely that Conservative Judaism can have a dynamic future ahead of it if it only focuses on those already within its ranks. Most intermarried families that affiliate do so with the Reform movement, and with intermarried families the Coming Majority of the Jewish community, the Conservative movement will suffer considerably if it does not make itself more welcoming to these families and their children. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is now working to welcome intermarried families. This is a great sign and hopefully indicative of what the entire movement will do throughout its institutions. I wonder what would happen to the Conservative movement if its leaders announced that all intermarried families and people of all sexual orientations were going to be welcomed fully into their institutions and pulpits. Would it come crashing down? Or, as I suspect might happen, people might flood the movement and help to revitalize it.