Conservative leader says gap in observance is getting smaller

NEWTON, Mass. — Change is afoot in the Conservative movement, according to Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

"I think that the endemic flaw in the Conservative movement has been in the gap between religious leadership and laity, and I believe that we are on the way to closing that gap," he said in a recent interview with the Advocate.

Schorsch was referring to the members' lapse in ritual observance despite the movement's "high degree of respect for traditional rabbinic Judaism." Although halachic observance is expected of Conservative Jews, "We've had difficulties in observance," acknowledged Schorsch.

The 61-year-old Conservative leader pointed to progress "on the problem because of the mass effort on serious Jewish education."

Noting three areas of education "which are increasingly producing an observant and literate laity," Schorsch cited the Ramah camp system, which engages 7,000 children every summer in eight overnight camps and a slew of day camps, as particularly effective.

In addition, "a tremendous spurt in the Schechter system" has drawn 20,000 students across the country and has initiated a new high school in Manhattan. He said that Conservative driven, community-based high schools are becoming more common, with similar programs already existing or on the way in Atlanta, Chicago and Detroit.

Identifying United Synagogue Youth as the third educational area undergoing change, Schorsch said it is the largest Jewish youth movement in the country and that it is playing a critical role in "creating the core of observant laity."

The chancellor of JTS since 1986, Schorsch said the greatest challenge facing the Conservative movement is "the issue that faces us in all of American Judaism — survival in a land of unbelievable prosperity.

"Our situation in America is unprecedented in Jewish history."

The professor of Jewish history has himself made history since he joined the JTS faculty in 1964.

Much of his recent high-profile publicity has centered around the religious pluralism debate in Israel. In a February 1997 forceful letter to the JTS faculty, Schorsch made a controversial appeal to the American Jewish federations to earmark their Israel allocations to specifically Conservative and Reform movements there. Several weeks later, at the movement's annual Rabbinical Assembly conference in Boston, he likened the "ultra-Orthodox" groups who denounce the non-Orthodox to those who rationalize Yitzhak Rabin's assassination with "medieval" Jewish law.

Also at the 1997 conference, Schorsch called for the disintegration of Israel's chief rabbinate and its network of courts. He now explains: "The religious councils are largely unaccountable to anyone, and that's an invitation to corruption of a large scale."

Gearing up for a victory, he predicted that "sooner rather than later" religious issues will fall under local rather than national authority.

JTS is doing its part to develop public support for such a shift, he said. The seminary "is attempting to mainstream Conservative Judaism in Israel through the creation of an academic and rabbinic school for Israelis."