Conservatives weigh balance between choice, tradition

Conservative Rabbi Lavey Derby of Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon treasures an approach to Judaism that allows him to apply his intellect — at all times.

"Conservative Judaism is a tension-filled approach to Judaism," he says. "I have to take the Torah seriously, but not literally."

Derby joined about 50 Northern California Conservative Jews late last month in a San Leandro synagogue to hash out some of the central concerns of the national United Synagogue for Conservative Jews, from the nuts and bolts of increasing synagogue membership and social action to the larger question of why one chooses Conservative Judaism.

There are 800 Conservative synagogues in the United States and Canada, and 20 in the Northern California region. Many who choose to be Conservative say they find it stimulating to grapple with the tension between personal choice and the demands of Jewish law.

The opening panel of United Synagogue's biennial meeting at Temple Beth Sholom explored that balancing act.

Three speakers led the panel: Derby; Janis Sherman Popp, consultant to the national Women's League of Conservative Judaism; and Sarae Crane, United Synagogue's director of social action.

Growing up in the Orthodox environment of her grandparents' home and the non-observant home of her parents, Sherman Popp says she has found a place in the Conservative community. While maintaining the tradition and ritual she values, the Conservative movement allows her to participate fully as a woman, she says.

First, Sherman Popp sees Conservative Judaism as a step to taking on more traditional Jewish values.

"Conservative Judaism is a pathway…It's always, `Have you gotten there yet?' Or, `Have you done this yet?' There is always a `yet.'"

Sherman Popp believes that it is important for all Jews to understand halachah (Jewish law), and she feels Conservatism provides an environment for such learning. "You can't love something you don't understand or that you feel uncomfortable with," she says.

Yet she notes that within the movement there is both a constant commitment to halachah and support of personal choice.

For Sherman Popp, choice means being able to learn about Judaism as a woman. "Women of my generation who were essentially not encouraged to learn need to educate themselves through the myriad of courses being taught in our [Conservative] community" she says.

Conservative Congregation Kol Emeth of Palo Alto, she says, provided her with an atmosphere in which she could learn more about tradition and experiment with degrees of observance until she found what worked for her.

Judith Hillman, a participant in the one-day biennial, is a member of Conservative Temple Beth Ami and Reform Temple Shomrei Torah, both in Santa Rosa. Like Popp, she treasures how Conservative Judaism embraces understanding and tradition.

The daughter of a Reform rabbi, Hillman attended Hebrew school in a Conservative synagogue. Hillman became involved in Eastern religions in college, and it wasn't until about 10 years ago that she began to miss congregational worship.

She returned to synagogue and found herself immediately immersed in congregational life. Now, she attends Friday night services at Shomrei Torah, and Saturday morning services at Beth Ami.

Hillman feels both types of synagogues offer qualities she seeks. While she likes the Reform movement's approach to social action and intellectual inquiry, she looks to the Conservative community for its commitment to tradition and encouragement of Jewish education. "There is a feeling that people are trying to learn Jewishly," she says.