Wednesday, January 22, 2014

NJ Jewish Standard: "Conservative youth seek campus revival"

NJ Jewish Standard: "Conservative youth seek campus revival"

Cranford grad student leads push to restore college outreach effort

Douglas Kandl of Cranford, a founder of Masorti on Campus, said the Shabbaton in February will be + enlarge image

Douglas Kandl of Cranford, a founder of Masorti on Campus, said the Shabbaton in February will be "about how to bring Conservative Judaism to your campus."

+ more images

A February Shabbaton, whose aim is to reinvigorate Conservative outreach on campus, is modeled on the annual Koach Kallah, above, now on hiatus along with the organization.

If you go

 What: Masorti on Campus Shabbaton

Where: Jewish Theological Seminary, Manhattan

When: Friday-Sunday, Feb. 21-23

Fee: $90 (includes all meals and programs); students are urged to contact their campus Hillel and other sources for further support.



Visit the NJJN Community pages for the Events Calendar, Synagogue listings, Obituaries, LifeCycle events and more!

by Joanne Palmer
Jewish Standard

January 22, 2014

Last year, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the Conservative movement's affiliated congregations, discontinued Koach, the movement's main outreach program to college students.

The move disappointed many in the movement, who noted that according to USCJ's own strategic plan, adopted in 2011, "a continuing presence on campus for Conservative Judaism is vital to maintain the bridge between our high school students and the young adult post-college generation."

Some alumni of Koach are now trying to restore that bridge and are putting together a new organization, Masorti on Campus. The result of a meeting between students and representatives of various Conservative groups, the fledgling organization is offering a Shabbaton, based on the signature Koach Kallah — an annual gathering of students that featured workshops, community service, text study, networking, and Shabbat observance. They hope it will be the seed of a new Conservative movement on campus. (Masorti is the name the Conservative movement uses outside North America.)

The event, to be held Feb. 21-23 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, will include Arnold Eisen, the chancellor of the movement's flagship seminary, plus Torah study and practical advice on growing Conservative Judaism on campus.

Douglas Kandl of Cranford, who recently graduated from Pace University and is about to start a graduate program there, is a founder of Masorti on Campus.

The Shabbaton is the result of a meeting Kandl and other students had with representatives of Conservative movement groups, including JTS, the Los Angeles-based Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies, Women's League for Conservative Judaism, the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, the National Ramah Commission, the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Argentina, the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and two organizations representing the movement outside North America, Marom and Masorti Olami.

"Some of them" — particularly Women's League — "are giving us money, and some are giving us advertising," Kandl said.

The goal is to draw 80 students; after two weeks, 25 had registered, which puts it firmly on track, he said.

"I was really involved with Koach in its last year," Kandl said. "We tried to save it. We were out at the Salute to Israel Parade [in New York City] in 2012, getting signatures; we got about 1,000 altogether." Kandl also helped raise about $100,000, which, when matched by USCJ, renewed Koach for a year until the organization decided to put the program on "hiatus."

"What happened next was that a lot of students reached out to me, saying that they wanted to do a Shabbaton on campus, something like the Koach Kallah, so we decided that it would be our starting point," Kandl continued.

"We also hope to run an Onward Israel trip through the Jewish Agency, and we hope that we will have a program to Israel that will combine an internship and Jewish studies in the summer of 2015."

The Shabbaton will be modeled on the Koach Kallah, but there will be significant differences. "Thekallah was more about Jewish learning," Kandl said. "We will have Torah lishma sessions, but it will be more about how to bring Conservative Judaism to your campus." The Shabbaton will feature PresenTense, an organization that works with Jewish startups, and will be coordinated by Megan Goldman, a rabbinical student who led a Shabbaton with similar ideas last year, Kandl said.

Galvanizing students

Marc Gary, executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer at JTS, represented the seminary at the discussions that gave birth to the Shabbaton. He said that the seminary, like most of the rest of the movement, is working to keep college students connected.

"It is a mistake to infer from the decision of one organization to discontinue a particular college program that there is a lack of commitment among the leaders of Conservative Judaism to our college students," he wrote in an e-mail.

In a later phone conversation, Gary cited as examples of new initiatives the Nishma program, begun last summer, which provided 15 students with intensive Torah study at JTS. "We will have maybe 20 students this year, maybe more," he said.

He also talked about Reshet Ramah, a new program aimed at graduates of the highly successful network of summer sleep-away and day camps that span the country. "A significant number of Ramah staff already are on college campuses," he said. "And we have had some alumni events where we partner with Reshet Ramah here, and it attracts college and graduate students. It is a strong recognition on the part of Ramah and JTS that we already have thousands of present and former campers and staff on college campuses already."

And, of course, there is the Masorti on Campus Shabbaton.

"One of the great strengths is that it is a student-led organization, without a top-down structure," Gary said. The program's goal is to train leaders, who "will go back to their campuses and galvanize students there. It is a different concept, that students will be most effective in galvanizing their own communities."

Eric Leiderman of Englewood, a senior at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, is Masorti on Campus's director of institutional advancement.

"There are a significant number of students across North America who consider themselves to be committed Conservative Jews, or who identity with the movement as closest to the way they interact with Judaism," he said. Those students "find significance in following Halacha and have egalitarian values," he said.

"We are trying to fill the void that was left when Koach was shut down," he said.

"I think there needs to be more on campus for progressive Jews in general, not just for Conservative Jews," said Kandl, who grew up in USY, the Conservative movement's youth group, and was active in Jewish life on campus, including Hillel. "The URJ" — the Union for Reform Judaism — "doesn't have a college program right now. The market is only Chabad, Aish, and the Orthodox Union.

"We want to fill that gap."

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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Rabbi Gerald Zelizer in the New York Jewish Week: "Conservative Movement’s Impact On The Left And Right"

Conservative Movement's Impact On The Left And Right
Tue, 01/14/2014
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer

First the Pew survey, then the eulogies for Conservative Judaism. Compared with ten years ago, the absolute number of Conservative Jews has declined precipitously. It has the lowest retention rate among the three major denominations. Worst of all, only 11 percent of respondents under the ages of 30 define themselves as Conservative. But hold on. 

It is true that the Conservative Movement is not doing so well.

It is also true that Conservative Judaism is doing quite well.            

Conservative Judaism, as contrasted with the Conservative Movement, is a particular approach to Judaism. It stands for "tradition and change," or as someone called it "authenticity and relevancy." It also means analyzing Judaism's sacred texts, like the Hebrew Bible, historically and scientifically. Conservative Judaism understands those texts as shaped by both indigenous "Torah only" authors and themes, while also impacted by the forces of societies and religions that surrounded ancient Israel. Gauging by those two core definitions, Conservative Judaism is flourishing, even if some of its institutions are not. How so? Because the two lenses of tradition and change, and the historical study of Judaism's sources, increasingly shape the vision of movements both to the left and right of my own. Indeed, these two core principles of Conservative Judaism have permeated both Reform and Modern Orthodoxy.

The shift of Reform towards tradition has been widely observed. The new Reform Prayer Book is more traditional, Shabbat and kashrut are given a higher priority in terms of observance, and it is commonplace for worshippers wear a kippah and tallit. In addition, strong support of Israel and the Hebrew language are now central to the Reform movement.

All these late 20th century tilts to tradition followed the pattern of Conservative Judaism and Solomon Schechter, but a century later.

Modern Orthodoxy, however, has moved in the opposite direction. In significant ways, it too has liberalized towards Conservative's "change."

Prenuptial agreements, encouraged by the Rabbinical Council of America, have since the 1990s offset the unilateral power given to men to initiate or refuse a get, or religious divorce. "Prenups" provide that even when the couple ceases to share a residence, the husband's obligation under Jewish law to support the wife becomes legally enforceable as long as they are married. This is a strong incentive for the husband to acquiesce and initiate the get. The Orthodox prenup follows by decades the so-called Lieberman Clause of the Conservative ketubah, which already in the 1950s required a recalcitrant husband to have the Rabbinical Assembly bet din adjudicate his arranging a get after a civil divorce.

Bat Mitzvah is becoming a norm in many Modern Orthodox synagogues, emulating the Conservative ritual begun in the 1920s. To be sure, Orthodox synagogues do not allow the girl to have an aliyah and read the Torah as in many Conservative synagogues. But depending on the synagogue, girls celebrate this rite of passage in creative ways, like chanting a non-Torah text before the congregation; delivering a d'var Torah; and/or leading services in a separate women's only group.

And note the increase in women yeshivot and hakafot on Simchat Torah, even in Israel!

Regarding the scientific and historical approach to sacred texts, the Maggid imprint of the respected Koren Press offers "contemporary approaches to traditional texts." Its salesperson at a recent United Synagogue convention pitched the books as "incorporating modern Biblical scholarship" to the traditional texts.

My roots and allegiance to Conservative Judaism run deep and wide. My father, a graduate of JTS, served a Conservative Congregation in Columbus, Ohio for over 40 years. My own service here in Metuchen NJ is approaching 45 years. I attended Camp Ramah, served as president of USY in my youth, and later was president of the Rabbinical Assembly.

I am saddened by the struggles of our movement and am confident its leaders will find the means of revival. If not, though, I am sanguine that Conservative Judaism lives because much of its take on tradition and change has leaked into Reform and Orthodoxy. According to Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, "Solomon Schechter never wanted to create a separate movement." It was the Conservative ideology he hoped would embrace much of American Jewry. It increasingly has.

Rabbi Gerald Zelizer is spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, NJ.

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Sunday, January 12, 2014

Rabbi Reuven Hammer -- Tu Bishvat: "Responsibility for the Land"

Tu Bishvat: "Responsibility for the Land"

Rabbi Reuven Hammer


In the early days of pioneering Zionism,  secular settlers in Kibbutzim and elsewhere made attempts to recast religious holidays into new molds that emphasized the return of Jews to the soil. We were no longer an urban people, but a people that had returned to the land. Thus they emphasized the agricultural aspects of these days, singling out nature for praise and ignoring God and other religious aspects.


The most well known of these attempts was the plethora of Passover haggadot that spoke about Pesah solely as "the holiday of spring" and never mentioned the name of God or the idea of redemption. Shavuot, building on the idea of "first fruits," was especially important and was used to emphasize the harvests. Even children born during the year were paraded as "first fruits" and still are in some places. Obviously the aspect to the giving of the Torah was put aside. Few if any of these attempts have truly succeeded in remaking the holidays as far as the general Jewish public is concerned. The one exception is Tu Bishvat which is almost upon us. It was totally reinvented. From being the "new year of the trees," it became the holiday of tree planting, something never envisioned in the traditional sources. The success of this reinvention may be attributed to many forces, the most important being that it had the Jewish National Fund and all its resources behind it. In addition it filled a real need – the reforestation of a denuded land.


Originally Tu Bishvat was merely a date on the calendar used to calculate the new year of fruit trees. It is one of four dates mentioned in the Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 1:1 as new years: the first of Nisan, the new year for the reign of kings and the festivals, the first of Elul, the new year for counting tithes on animals, the first of Tishre, the new year for years, and the first of Shvat, the new year for the tithing of fruit trees. This was the ruling of the school of Shammai. The school of Hillel, however, said that it was the fifteenth of Shvat, and that became the law.


Since all the other dates are the first of the month, the time of the new moon, it is curious that Bet Hillel insisted that this one be on the 15th, the full moon. Prof. Louis Ginzberg, the great Talmudist who taught at the Jewish  Theological Seminary in New York, once gave a lecture at the Hebrew Univeristy in which he explained this anomaly. According to Ginzberg it has an economic and social reason, based upon the fact that the Shammaites represented the richest landowners and the Hillelites represented the poorer classes. The trees in the land owned by the rich were in the lower and more fertile areas of the country and blossomed early. The trees belonging to the poor in the higher, rockier, areas did not blossom until the middle of the month. Ginzberg also explained many other differences between the two schools on the basis of socio-economic differences between them. Therefore the anomaly of a "new year" which begins on the 15th of the month.


Concerning the remaking of Tu Bishvat, before the Zionists, Kabbalists in the 16th century had instituted many other customs for that day, including the eating of fruits and even a Seder for Tu Bishvat, emphasizing the texts in our tradition that speak about trees. Thus inserting the idea of planting trees was a relatively easy step to take.

Tu Bishvat now serves to call our attention not only to trees, but to nature in general. By celebrating the fruits of this land, it reminds us of the blessing we have in dwelling in a rich and fertile place, but it also calls upon us to do whatever has to be done to preserve the earth, the soil and the fragile environment in which we live.


The secular Zionists were right about the fact that having a land of our own, we should be more and more aware of the blessing of the land and of the need to preserve it. We may not all be farmers and tillers of the soil, but we are all benefactors of the good earth that is ours and therefore responsible to preserve it. Secularists may think that this has nothing to do with religion, but believers see the land as a gift from God the Creator and view themselves as partners with the Creator in the work of creation. God placed Adam in the garden "to till it and to preserve it" (Genesis 2:15). Similarly, God did not give us this world in order for us to destroy it, but so that we could preserve it and even improve it. That is what To Bishvat should mean to us today.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

fwd from Rabbi Gail Diamond at the Conservative Yeshiva - Support Taamu URu - our new Winter Break program!!

Last week the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem welcomed twenty college students from around North America for the first Taamu URu funded Winter Break program.  For every applicant who was accepted, there were five more who wanted to attend the program for whom we did not have funding.   We're beginning now to raise the funds for next year's program and we hope to bring more college students to the next cohort. 


These college students have grown up in USY, Camp Ramah and Conservative synagogues.  They are knowledgeable, bright, engaged and committed to the values of the Conservative movement – Halacha, Jewish learning and egalitarianism.   They entered the Beit Midrash full of energy for Jewish learning, and have travelled from the Kotel to the Supreme Court learning about contemporary Jerusalem as well.


The inauguration of this program is the fulfillment of a dream that has been too many years in the making.  For nearly a decade my colleagues and I have been aware of well-funded efforts by ultra- Orthodox organizations such as Aish and Maor to reach college students and to bring them to Israel on low cost trips to be exposed to Jewish learning in Orthodox contexts.


The vibrancy of Orthodox Jewish life on campuses is not an accident nor is it based on superior values in that community.  It is based on well-funded, strategic efforts to engage the younger generation, most often led by young leaders with absolute commitments to the value of kiruv. 


Let's ask ourselves today what each of us is doing to spread the Jewish values we believe in to the next generation.  Having met the Taamu URu participants, many of whom are leaders in the Masorti on Campus initiative, and all of whom are leaders and potential leaders on campuses, I know they are well worth our investment.


Gail Diamond


Rabbi Gail Diamond

Associate Director and

Director of Institutional Advancement

Conservative Yeshiva of United Synagogue

8 Agron Street, PO Box 7456

Jerusalem, 94265, Israel


US Number 781-325-4631

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Monday, January 6, 2014

Leah Bieler on Times of Israel: "tilting at Windmills" (on Women, Torah, and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel)

Tilting at windmills

Leah Bieler
Leah BielerLeah Bieler has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics. She teaches Talmud to students of all ages and backgrounds. Leah spends the school year in Connecticut and summers in Jerusalem with her husband and four children. Sometimes she writes to get a break from them. The children, that is.[Less]
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Sometimes Modern Orthodox people make me giggle. I've been watching as what some might call the "progressive" side of Orthodoxy seems to discover for the first time that there are legitimate halakhic positions supporting women as leaders, teachers of talmud, even, possibly Torah readers. Also Rabbi-ish things. Passing Torahs over to the women's side of the mehitza, discussing the possibility of women wearing tallitot, even tefillin. It's adorable.

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But I jest. I don't find these things "cute". Mostly, I find them inspiring. I identify with them. When I was growing up, I was part of the fight to recognize these exact same halakhic issues. I circulated a petition at my Conservative school to allow girls to participate in davening, left the leadership of a shul in my 20′s because they insisted on being what we called "Torah Egalitarian" – nearly identical to the partnership minyans of today. I studied Talmud in graduate school even when a professor told me he was concerned that my course load was too much, "for a girl. What if you got sick?"

I'm not looking for immeasurable gratitude from anyone. I did all these things because I believed they were right. That they represented not a compromise, or a concession, but truly what Hashem wanted of us in our unique time and place. The fact that there's rarely an acknowledgement of the work done by Conservative women for the last 30 years to achieve exactly these goals….I get it. I get that by referencing our struggles, Orthodox proponents of these kind of changes risk sounding like they'rebecoming us.

So mostly, I bite my tongue and keep my comments to myself. I make the (sound) historical argument that religious communities are by their nature slow to change. That the pace of change, especially with regard to issues of gender, has been nothing short of mind-blowing over the last century. That it is completely understandable that religious people and institutions would move more slowly in response to this breakneck speed. In short, I make apologies.

But recently, I'm having trouble keeping my mouth shut.

That's because recently, there has been an uproar in the Modern Orthodox community over the revelations that the Israeli Chief Rabbinate has been nullifying testimony from Rabbi Avi Weiss (and likely many other Modern Orthodox rabbis) about whether someone is Jewish and/or fit to be married. It seems that they are shocked, shocked I tell you, that the Chief Rabbinate would have the chutzpah to determine for us whom we chose as our spiritual leaders! Some are now advocating for the radical refiguring or even complete dissolution of the entire institution. But most are just asking for Rabbi Weiss to get back in.

Well, boys and girls, welcome to my world. How many times have I heard stories of friends who spent months and even longer attempting to prove to the Rabbanut that they were, in fact, Jewish. And how exactly does one do that when one's own rabbi's testimony is considered null and void? And when your parents were married by a Conservative rabbi with a Ketubah signed by other Conservative Jews? What about dear friends whose own fathers were Conservative rabbis and could not participate in the weddings of their own children? Or they could, but only with a (real) Orthodox rabbi presiding to assure that things were done properly. How infantilizing is that?

And where were you, my Modern Orthodox friends? Some of you admitted privately that all of this was wrong, but would never do so in a public forum, for fear that it would jeopardize your own position vis-a-vis the rabbinate. Others explained, a bit condescendingly, that we need to have one standard in Eretz Yisrael for determining who is qualified to bring this sort of testimony, and we always need to follow the strictest guidelines, l'chumrah. But what if the newest stricture dictates that to be recognized, rabbis must have long beards, give up their iPhones, or deny evolution? Only now that you find yourselves on the other side of the divide, you are suddenly clear about how corrupt an institution the Chief Rabbinate really is.

If you don't mind, I have a bit of advice. Don't spend your time, energy and political capital trying to get back in to an institution that doesn't wan't you as a member. The Chief Rabbinate isn't corrupt because it has dissed Rabbi Weiss. The Chief Rabbinate is corrupt because rabbis should not be instruments of the state. You won't fix it by granting specific rabbis (likely) tentative reprieves. And you won't stay insiders for long.

The chasm between who you are, and who the Charedi authorities represent is only growing by the day. To you, both you and they are expressions of Orthodox Judaism, albeit in different forms. To them, you are kofrim, pure and simple. You watch television, use the internet, go to movies, read novels, read philosophy, allow women positions of power in your communities, sometimes those women wear PANTS, your boys and girls study Talmud together, you participate in nearly all aspects of secular culture. And the difference between you and me, that I can sit by my husband while I daven, is so small it is hardly worth mentioning.

As I see it, there are really only two possibilities here. First, Modern Orthodoxy can continue tilting at windmills and crying and begging every time another rabbi's legitimacy is questioned. Or, all of us who are not satisfied with the status quo can continue to advocate for a different kind of religious authority, one that is expansive rather than exclusive, one that recognizes that there are many different paths that lead to holiness, when the power is in the hands of the divine and not the guy with the biggest, blackest hat.

Those of us in the Conservative world fell into this same trap for years. We would warn people who were about to marry that they should consider whether they might at some point be making aliyah. If that was a possibility, we would often counsel that they contemplate being married by an Orthodox rabbi. That way, if they went to Israel, issues of their status would be easy. No matter that in some cases that meant they would miss the opportunity to be married by a trusted friend or even a relative. How naïve that seems now. I look back and can see the folly in the fight. They're just not that into us. And we look silly for the trying. Those in the Modern Orthodox world who choose the Don Quixote role, well, you can see how that would make me giggle.

Read more: Tilting at windmills | Leah Bieler | Ops & Blogs | The Times of Israel 
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Thursday, January 2, 2014

NY Jewish Week: "Masorti Movement Growing in Europe"

Masorti Movement Growing In Europe
Stewart Ain
Gillian Caplin: Conservative
Gillian Caplin: Conservative "is the kind of Judaism people all over the world are looking for."

Gillian Caplin, the newly elected president of the worldwide Conservative or Masorti movement, lives in North West London. She is a former chairperson of the Assembly of Masorti Synagogues, during which she was instrumental in the creation and development of Masorti Europe, the regional body that fosters the development of Masorti communities across Europe. A former television producer, she is married and the mother of two. The Jewish Week caught up with her late last month when she was in New York. This is an edited transcript.

Q: The Conservative movement overseas is called the Masorti movement. Why?

A:  Because the word conservative means something totally different in Europe. There is a Conservative political party that it could be confused with, and the word conservative means people who are not open-minded and who favor the status quo. Also, in Israel the Conservative movement is called theMasorti movement, and we all wanted to identify as one movement.  

How many congregations do you have?

We have 40 in Europe, and it is the dominant movement in Latin America — particularly in Argentina.    

According to the recent Pew Research Center poll of American Jews, the Conservative movement here is the choice of only 18 percent of American Jews. Yet it is growing in Israel. How is it doing in the rest of the world?

In the last 10 years, it has become the fastest-growing movement in Europe. … The Masorti movement is certainly stronger than it has ever been. I hear what Pew says about the Conservative movement in the U.S., but I do know that people's commitment to the movement is strong across Europe — which I know best. 

To what would you attribute that growth?

Because people are looking for traditional Judaism. Practices of Judaism vary from country to country. Modern Orthodox is the most dominant across Europe. The Reform movement is also strong across Europe, but there is now a reaching out for more a traditional form of Judaism, which is what the Masorti movement fills. …

Maybe I'm an optimist, but I don't think the Conservative movement is dying. I believe that it is the sort of Judaism people all over the world are looking for.

I understand there are big developments in Berlin.

That is where the Masorti movement will be opening in the fall its first rabbinical seminary in Europe. It will be a five-year course at the University of Potsdam. We expect half-a-dozen graduates a year.

The German government will pay the tuition, as well as a stipend towards living expenses. And the courses will be taught in English by Masorti rabbis from across Europe.

Do you expect students at the two Conservative rabbinical schools in the United States to transfer there?

Some might but they will have to take general courses at the university that will be in German.

Will a rabbinical seminary in Berlin be an attraction or a hindrance because of Germany's Nazi past?

I think people still have reservations about Germany — the younger generation probably less. Berlin is an exciting city and Germany completely acknowledges its responsibility for what happened during the war.

What impact do events in Israel have on Jewish communities overseas?

Quite an impact. Most Mastori communities are Zionist and pro-Israel. They respond if there is a need and they celebrate Israel's achievements. There is a perceived rise in anti-Semitism worldwide. It is stronger in countries where the government is not supportive of the Jewish community.

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