To Reform and Conservative Leaders: Please Stop Bashing the Orthodox

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wilshiremain

I do not like using a blog as a platform or a soap box for posting self serving opinion pieces. Everything that I have posted until now has fallen under the category of “features” rather than editorials. But sometimes someone says or does something so outrageous that I feel compelled to comment on it. This is one of those times.

Statistics show that more American Jews are losing a sense of connection to Israel and to the Jewish community in general. The reform and Conservative in America have been bleeding membership while the Orthodox community has grown. The percentage of American Jews who identify themselves as non-affiliated with any group has also grown. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union of Reform Judaism, recently discovered the reason for the Reform and Conservative losing membership and Jews in America losing a connection to Israel: It’s because they are being alienated from Israel by the Orthodox establishment here and its policies.

What?

So let’s get this straight. None of the above is the result of the failures of the Conservative and Reform.

It isn’t the result of a lack of proper Jewish education in those communities.

It has nothing to do with their having been forced to implement policies such as requiring Hebrew School education through the age of thirteen for any child whose family wishes him or her to have a Bar/Bat Mitzvah in a synagogue. The very existence of such a policy acknowledges that Reform and Conservative parents are not concerned enough to provide their children with a Jewish education without such coercion.

It has nothing to do with the Orthodox world bringing more secular Jews back into the community than the Reform and Conservative combined.

It has nothing to do with their ant-Orthodox propaganda in which their leaders have been engaging for years. And yes I do mean propaganda.

If non-Orthodox American Jews have a negative view of the Orthodox establishment in Israel it may be because they are misled by their Rabbis as to the nature of the Orthodox control over every day life here in Israel. Here are a few examples.

No too long ago I was at a weekend seminar held for young olim and Israelis. It was a mixed group that included religious and secular participants. One participant was an American Reform rabbinical student in Israel for a year of study.

On Shabbat afternoon we had a group discussion with all of the participants outside on the grass at the kibbutz where the seminar was held. The discussion was about religion in Israel. At one point the Reform rabbinical student said, “Israel needs to start having alternative views of the Bible taught in the public schools and not just the Orthodox view.” (He said the word “orthodox” with disdain.)

What?

I immediately corrected him and explained that there is no orthodox coercion or influence over Israel’s secular public schools. Israel has both religious and secular public schools. It also has them in the Arab community. The Orthodox public schools are Orthodox. The secular schools are secular and have no Orthodox teachings “forced” upon them. The Bible is taught as history and literature in these schools with no rabbis sent in against the wishes of the students’ families.

I’ve lost track of how many times I have met American Jews who believed this myth. Non-Orthodox American Jews seem to think that the Orthodox establishment here forces religious studies on the secular community.

I wonder where they got that idea.

Then there is the whole “who is a Jew” thing. I won’t bore you with the whole history of the issue. In short, from time to time here in Israel the Orthodox try to change the Law of Return – a law passed after Israel’s establishment which gives all Jews in the world the right to come and live in Israel – to exclude people who were converted to Judaism by non-Orthodox Rabbis.

Back in the 90s when the issue was raised once again my mother, who is a member of a Conservative synagogue, called me frantically from America. “I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew and I can prove it,” she said. Apparently she was under the impression that to not recognize Conservative conversions under the Law of Return was tantamount to declaring that a Conservative Jew is not really a Jew. Someone forgot to tell that to all of the Orthodox people in Israel who open their homes for Shabbat meals every week to non-Orthodox Jews and to the heads of the Yeshivot which accept Conservative and Reform Jews as students.

I wonder where my mother got that idea.

I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York twenty years ago. It’s the center of learning for the Conservative Movement. When I was there the Chancellor gave a talk every week about that week’s reading from the Torah, the Parshat Hashavua. For some reason he spent more time engaging in Orthodox bashing than actually talking about the Torah portion of the week.

The Seminary had a nice custom there where the senior rabbinical students were assigned one Shabbat in the year to give a sermon about that week’s Torah reading. Again these students seemed to engage more in Orthodox bashing than actually teaching anyone Torah. Both the students and the Chancellor would bring up an obscure story that they had heard regarding something that the Orthodox in Israel had done and of which they disapproved. They always seemed to end their talks by saying how this proved why the Conservative were right and the Orthodox wrong.

I could go on, but, if you are like me you probably have little patience for reading long articles on line and have already started skimming.

When will the Conservative and the Reform stop using the Orthodox as a scapegoat for all of their problems? When will they realize that you cannot build on a negative? You will not succeed if you always tell people, “the other guy is wrong so we must be right.”

I hate cliches, but one really fits here: People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.

My father taught Hebrew school for thirty years. His biggest complaint over the years – after students believing that everything they saw in movies such as “The Ten Commandments” was actually written in the Bible” – was about the lack of support from the parents. As educators will tell you, parents must reinforce their children’s classroom education with encouragement, supervision and support in the home. I remember vividly all the times at the dinner table when my father fumed over the students who were absent with their parents’ permission so that they could participate in their public school’s extra curricular activities or go to social events. The worst was when Halloween fell on a weekday and students were picked up early by their parents so that they could go trick or treating.

The Conservative Movement has made an effort recently at change. It has opened new Conservative Solomon Schecter high schools in addition to its Solomon Schecter grade schools. My sister in law has a PhD in religion from Northwestern University. She recently went back to school at JTS to be trained in a new tuition free program that trains new Jewish educators. These efforts will hopefully succeed at reversing the recent demographic trends in the American Jewish community. If they are to work then the current generation of parents needs to be given positive reasons to improve their children’s Jewish identities and not just criticisms of the Orthodox.

It was not my intention here to criticize or condemn the Reform and Conservative for what they are. I am also not denying that the Ultra-Orthodox community here in Israel is guilty of engaging in practices that do alienate some secular Israelis from religion, but the secular would still choose to be secular even without such activities.

Whether you are Orthodox or not, whether you approve of the religious practices of the Conservative and Reform or not, there is one undeniable fact: a large share of the world Jewish community rejects Orthodoxy and finds meaning in the Reform and Conservative practices of Judaism. They remain committed to the Jewish people because of their affiliation with the Reform and Conservative institutions. Most if not all of these Jews would simply disappear if there were no alternative to the orthodox world.

That being said I hope that I have made my point. The Conservative and Reform should stop demonizing the Orthodox here in Israel and stop constantly looking over their shoulders to see what the orthodox are supposedly doing to delegitimize them. I promise you that the Orthodox are not half as obsessed with you as you are with them.

Gil

Gil Tanenbaum made aliyah from New York after he completed college.He Has lived in Israel for over 20 years.He Has an MBA from Bar Ilan University..

6 Comments

  1. Toni Kamins

    8/27/2013 at 10:24 am

    You make some valid points, but I want to push back on a couple of things. I write as a secular American Jew with an Orthodox background.

    While Reform and Conservative certainly have a lot to answer for, you can’t dismiss a key factor: young Jews in the US have many more options for community than ever before, and that is to some extent the reason for the move away from those traditional community structures. All Jewish communities have a lot to compete with. I don’t say that it’s a good thing, but it’s a fact nonetheless.

    We are exposed daily to a litany of stories about all sorts of Orthodox and Haredi mishegas in the US and Israel, not only in the Jewish and Israeli media, but in the non-Jewish as well – allegations of sexual abuse and cover up, theft, fraud, corruption, political shenanigans, outrageous statements made by Orthodox and Haredi leaders. I don’t need to belabor this, you surely know to what I refer. It’s a turn off, and as I said above, there are other community options.

    If we believe that Judaism and the Jewish community are worth saving and perpetuating, all of us in the Jewish community, regardless of what we practice need to do a much better job of concentrating on what unites us rather than on our differences.

  2. Gil

    8/27/2013 at 11:01 am

    I believe that I did point out that the Conservative and Reform provide an alternative for Jews not interested in orthodoxy

    I also stated that the Ultra Orthodox community in Israel is guilty of many sins.

    My point is simply that the American Jews who feel no connection are mostly those who have also rejected even the Reform and Conservative alternatives. Most American Jews today are non-affiliated. Whose fault is that?

  3. Toni Kamins

    8/27/2013 at 11:10 am

    I believe the statistics show that most American Jews are indeed unaffiliated, but I don’t think it’s useful to assign blame – it doesn’t get us anywhere. It’s up to the entire Jewish community to take responsibility for where we go in the future.

    The history, sociology, and demography of American Jewry is complex and there are many reasons for the way things have unfolded they way they have. I don’t think you can point to any single set of institutions or events and say that’s what did it..

  4. Micheal Gutman

    8/30/2013 at 4:03 pm

    I would of been happier if you would have at least mentioned the reconstructionist denomination. It seems like we always get thrown in with reform and I don’t think that is very fair.

  5. Esser Agaroth

    9/8/2013 at 12:45 pm

    Eh. Who cares what “they” say?

    It’s just typical communal low self-esteem due to its lack of anything remotely connected to Judaism.

    Let’s not waste our time. Instead let’s put our efforts into reaching out to (those who are really) Jews, before “they” get their hands on them.

    Yes, I can understand that may have been part of your kewannah.

  6. Changey

    9/12/2013 at 11:38 pm

    A Jew wants something authentic and to not be judged. You fail to point out the bright star in all this. Chabad, the fastest growing Jewish group in the USA. Why? because their Rabbis are 24/7 not 9-5 like most other Rabbis.

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