I continue to share my more favorite or IMHO more important It’s Wednesday columns as the retirement looms. The year 2013 – 2014 began with Jefferson, continued with many columns on the Pew Survey of American Jews, dabbled in the life and thinking of Albert Einstein, and included the announcement of that very retirement. The theme of the year was Conservative Judaism. Let me now share my favorite – because it is the most personal – of the columns on the theme.
I am continuing with Conservative Judaism, our theme for the year and our It’s Wednesday thread for the month. Last time we dealt with the question, if Conservative Judaism has institutions – synagogues like Beth El, USY and Ramah Camps – that are doing so well, does it really matter if the Conservative movement of which we are a longtime partner seems to be floundering? I am not going to repeat all that brilliance; just go to our website and look for my blog if you missed it.
As promised, today I will talk about why I have chosen to be a Conservative Jew. Half of the answer is about accidents of history, and the other half is about conviction. This is not a short story, so that even the short answer will still take more space than my usual. Just read the parts you like. I grew up in the Reform movement because of the first accident of history. We went where my father did his Jewish education work. He was a public school principal who directed Religious Schools in his spare time. In my earliest years, it was at a Conservative shul in North Philadelphia, but for most of my days it was a large Reform congregation in central Philadelphia. I loved that shul, loved the services with their Gentile choir and booming organ, and thought what my rabbis did was an interesting and productive career path. I decided to be a rabbi, of the Reform variety because that is all I really knew. I followed that path, through undergrad school with a Psych major, through the Reform seminary in Cincinnati, and through my ABD years in Ann Arbor. When I didn’t get the faculty position at Haverford College, I began to work as a campus Hillel Director and began to hang around with more traditional Jews. I took a liking to how they lived and how they thought, davvened in an Orthodox minyan for seven years, began keeping kosher. By the time my family moved to Washington ca. 1980, where I took an executive position with International Hillel, I was no longer to be found in the Reform world. I dropped my membership in the Reform Rabbi union, hung out in Conservative shuls in the area, started working part-time at Beth El, joined the Conservative rabbi union, and never looked back. Reform was a great way for me to start my Jewish journey, but I personally needed more. It is hard to jump two denominations in one lifetime, so I happily landed where I am now. Again, without some accidents of history, it would have been different.
In the 25 years that I have been officially a Conservative Jew/Rabbi, I have had ample time to live the lifestyle and ponder the ideology of the Conservative movement. I have done so from the perspective of someone who grew up as a very committed Reform Jew and also spent seven years in the Orthodox orbit. I was, and am, taken by all that Conservative Judaism has contributed to Jewish life in America. Its focus on Hebrew and traditional rituals has been picked up by Reform and other liberal movements. Its halachic egalitarianism is being emulated by modern Orthodoxy today – just look at the recent decision to have males/females singing together in Hebrew Academy plays. It continues the support of Israel that has been a hallmark since the movement’s founding; Reform and Orthodoxy now emulate that position. Its focus on academic excellence and intellectual honesty has been picked up by hundreds of Judaic studies departments around the country. Some of the greatest synagogues in America are those of our movement, or those spawned by our movement including Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Kehillat/Mechon Hadar and IKAR.
So much for past accomplishments. What makes sense for the Pew Survey framed future? I resonate with what Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen wrote recently. “If I had to chart a future for Jewish life in North America, and guess what path is most likely to secure that future, I would put my money on a model of Judaism that sees the world through an egalitarian lens; accepts the best that modernity has to offer; appreciates science and the arts; respects other faith communities and other Jews; and understands that, while good fences make for good neighbors, Jewish life relies for its survival upon low walls and high regard for others. I would bet upon Jews to learn by study and practice — albeit in ways that are new or evolving — what is distinctive in their heritage so that they always have something Jewishly serious to offer the world, resources with which to resist the many temptations of modern life, something to root them and infuse them with ultimate meaning in the face of fashion and ephemera.”
Like Eisen, I am drawn to Conservative Judaism because I believe I have a mission to serve the Lord my God, and so serve God’s creation with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul, all my might. Mind without heart, heart without soul, study without practice, ritual without ethics, Judaism without Jews, or Jews without Judaism —none of these will do. We need to turn to one another, celebrate what we Conservative Jews have accomplished in the past, and get to work on applying those insights and values to the future.
This is hardly the last word. Write to me at the address below with your thoughts. And have a good Wednesday. Bill Rudolph
Back to now and best wishes for a good day. Bill
P.S. This weekend will include some events and tributes related to my retirement. Please note that if there are any big accomplishments to be noted, know that they are only because I had good partners (= you.) So, thank you.