On My Mind: Arnie Eisen

The Meaning of This Moment

I’m honored to be here today as JTS’s chancellor to celebrate the 100th anniversary of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s activism in building Jewish communities in North America, and I’m truly excited to join you at this moment, in the midst of dynamic organizational change at USCJ that is putting us in the position to build and strengthen Jewish communities for many decades to come.

Let me confess that I asked you all to stretch a moment ago not only to wake us all up a bit more before my address. Stretching is exactly what we have to do a lot of in coming years, you and I, each of us individually and all of us as a group—stretching of heart and soul and mind—if we’re going to make our kind of Judaism compelling to more and more Jews at a time of unprecedented challenge and change. We know that absolutely nothing can be taken as a given anymore when it comes to Jewish life on this continent. Individuals and families are making choices, opting in or out of Jewish life, almost on a daily basis. The members of United Synagogue Youth sitting in the room today will encounter opportunities and choices that we and they can barely imagine today. We need to stretch to meet them where they are and will be in a set of new ways. I’ll describe three of those ways, every one a stretch, in a moment.

But before I do, I want to declare without embarrassment and without the slightest fear that someone will look back on this moment 10 or 15 years from now and snicker at my optimism, that I believe this is a great moment of opportunity for Conservative/Masorti Judaism and for the vital religious center of which we are the core. Our way of teaching and living Torah is not about to disappear—quite the opposite. I read the same news reports you do, pore over the same demographic data, share the Jewish proclivity to worry about our people’s future, and of course am not pleased at shrinking numbers and shuttered institutions. I do not in the least minimize the obstacles we face. The very last thing I want to encourage is complacency.

But remember—looking utterly soberly at the matter—we are here today as Jews, three millennia and more after the Jewish project began, one hundred years after the formation of United Synagogue, doing much better than any rational prognosticator had any reason to believe we would. The meaning of this moment is that millions of Jews on this continent are searching for meaning, and many hundreds of thousands of them already find it in the communities and conversations—the profound joy in a life of mitzvah—that we at our best provide as well as, or better than, anyone else.

Whether they are boomers or millennials, women or men, gays or straights, Jews by birth or Jews by choice or non-Jews sharing their lives and children with Jews, they want to live seriously and well.

They want guidance in making ethical decisions and setting their kids on the right path.

They need help facing up to difficult moments with aging parents or gravely ill friends.

They crave the sort of deep satisfaction and happiness that observant Jews derive from life cycle events and the yearly cycle of holy days.

The word religion may resonate less with American Jews than it did years ago, but spirituality, pursuit of justice, the building of communities, and yes, the service of God matter just as much as they always have.

All these are precious landmarks on the path we call Torah, and they remain goods that contemporary Jews want desperately for themselves and their families. Our Movement has the institutions and the people to provide these goods.

That is why the young Jewish leaders and future leaders whom I’ve spoken to about the Pew study in the past 10 days at JTS and elsewhere are not discouraged by it but energized, believing themselves challenged to reach out in ways new and old to a generational cohort that they are part of and know well. I have not encountered either smugness or obtuseness in their ranks. Nor have I found despair about the future. Theirs is exactly the stance adopted by Solomon Schechter one hundred years ago when he stood at a similar podium and delivered the founding address of United Synagogue.

Schechter faced much tougher odds of success than we do. He had far fewer resources, human or financial, at his disposal. There was little reality on the ground to which he could point as the kind of Judaism he wanted to see. Talk about a Lekh Lekha moment! The Jewish reality that we treasure—camps and schools, culture and learning, shuls and Federations, and of course the State of Israel—had to be imagined before it could be built.

But as I reread Schechter’s address, I find many lessons and strategic choices that are directly applicable to us today. Schechter, being our founder and guide, would not have wanted us to copy them point for point, any more than he copied his predecessors. Our aim must be to emulate the boldness and daring of the strategies he chose, to adapt them for our day so as to carry Torah forward. In that spirit—the spirit that always drives Conservative/Masorti Judaism—I want to focus on three such strategic directions. All of them involve stretching that will not come easily.

First, we need to stretch our boundaries wider. Schechter spoke repeatedly in his talk about “Conservative or Orthodox,” aiming to build up what he proudly called “traditional Judaism.” He wanted United Synagogue to define itself positively, by what it was rather than what it was not, and he urged it to take “Klal Israel for its ultimate aim, but America as its immediate field of work.” We must unite despite our differences, he told his audience; you must not “sacrific[e] your children and the whole future of Judaism for the imaginary welfare of your own little soul.”

Yes! We need to work to strengthen Movement institutions, shore up membership rolls of synagogues and schools, pave the path in Torah that we believe is the right and true path. This will take internal effort and compromise. But we must also recognize that, if we serve and save only ourselves, we will not serve or save ourselves. The way to grow Conservative Judaism is to reach out beyond it to bring in more Jews, affiliated or not, denominational or post-denominational, from what we call the vital religious center.

We won’t do that by watering down what we stand for but by doing a better job at whatever we do: more serious learning at all levels, more passionate tefillah, more adults and kids having more experiences of community at camp or shul or school, more work to repair the world and impact individual lives; in short, more kehillot that touch people deeply at extraordinary moments and at routine moments, making a difference in their lives and in the world. The second part of the strategy is being as welcoming as we can, warmly inviting people in regardless of where they are coming from. We strengthen Conservative/Masorti Judaism by strengthening Judaism and enriching the experience of Jews.

My colleague Burt Visotzky reminded me the other day that, according to the midrash, Abraham made the angels welcome in his tent even as he was recovering from circumcision. Think about it. The sign of the Covenant on his flesh led directly to the enactment of the Covenant through hospitality at a moment when fulfillment of that mitzvah did not come easily. You and I love the Jewish lives we lead. That is why we are here. We want to share that love. We need to love more Jews. I understand the potential costs and risks of stretching ourselves too wide or too thin. But look at the mitzvah involved, the Jews we will touch, and how much we will grow by having the newcomers in our midst.

Second, stretch beyond the status quo of the synagogue. You know about Schechter’s famous ambition to train rabbis who could talk baseball or even play baseball. What is the equivalent of that today? Or of his plea to give up “dread of the English sermon?” How can we act on his conviction that “our work must not remain confined to the synagogue?” This is striking: the work of United Synagogue must not be confined to the synagogue! Schechter did not just teach Mordecai Kaplan, he learned from him.

I, a fellow student of Kaplan, am a scholar of North American Judaism who believes the synagogue remains the key institution of our communities. I treasure passionate tefillah. But I think that it does not help our cause in 2013 that Conservative Judaism is identified with the synagogue far more than with any other institution, and that the synagogue is judged far more by what happens in Saturday morning services than by any other facet of its activity. USCJ is absolutely right to change the discourse from synagogue to kehillah. Jews live the truth of Kaplan’s great book: Judaism is civilization—politics and arts, Israel and social services, the life of the mind, the care of the body, the sanctity of the home, the safeguarding of the planet, and the nurturing of the spirit.

It’s not a surprise that fewer and fewer Jews in our day, like fewer and fewer Americans, want to define themselves as “Jews by religion.” They think that religion means the opposite of involvement in the so-called secular world where all of us live and breathe. I want with all my heart to help synagogues offer lively, compelling, soulful services during which individuals and communities encounter God, their fellows, and what is deepest in themselves. JTS will always be full partner to those efforts. But I am 100 percent certain that this cannot happen unless a sense of community is strongly felt in the sanctuary and in every other room in the synagogue, seven days a week. We do not sense God only at services, as we do not serve God only or primarily in prayer. We do not fulfill our calling as Jewish human beings only by some narrow definition of religion. We need to stretch beyond that.

Third, stretch our capacity for sacrifice, and our notion of what sacrifice entails. Schechter sought, we seek, “to establish Conservative Judaism on a firm foundation for posterity.” Our task, he emphasized, is to make matters easier for the generations that follow us. It’s not only about us. Then he said, “Such a work, as I hardly need tell you, will require material sacrifice on the part of all those who inaugurate to-day this movement. We cannot do anything worth while without taxing ourselves to the utmost of our capacity.” He meant financial commitment, and not only that.

Let’s think about this for a moment.

Much of what ails us as a Movement, or prevents us from realizing our potential, stems from inadequate resources. While it is true that money follows quality, we all know that quality often goes unrewarded and money often flows elsewhere. It is also true that far more Conservative resources flow to kelal Yisra’el institutions than is the case for Orthodoxy or Reform. I am proud of the contribution we make to kelal Yisra’el, and I am certain that, as a Forward editorial put it last week, American Judaism as a whole will be damaged if Conservative Judaism atrophies instead of flourishes. We are all going to have to reach deep in coming years, beyond the normal Conservative comfort zone, when it comes to money, to time, to self-confidence, to public pride at being who we are, to letting go of habits that keep us from growing. We will need others from the larger community, both individuals and institutions, to join us in this effort.

There is a remarkable midrash on the Akeidah in Bereishit Rabbah that has a lot to say on this point of sacrifice. Abraham is protesting to God, after the angel has saved Isaac from the knife, that God has been incredibly inconsistent. First you tell me that my seed would come through Isaac. Then you order me to sacrifice him. Then you tell me not to touch him! What gives? God replies, “I never said to slaughter him. I said to take him up the mountain in order to participate in a sacrifice.” Not to be the sacrifice. Abraham heard it wrong! He was ready to sacrifice, but he moved in the wrong direction.

We often hear so-called commands wrong; especially when they concern the people and causes we love most and call on us to give a lot of ourselves. We always have to be sure that it is God and Torah we follow, rather than faddish trends on the one hand or sheer inertia on the other. Let’s listen hard to Schechter’s warning that we not sacrifice our children’s Judaism in order to preserve our current notion of how things have to be. The Rabbis justified a lot in the name of va-hai ba-hem, the command to live through Judaism and not die, and make sure that Judaism lives through us. The point of taking Isaac up the mountain is to take him up, to reach the place where God appears to him, and by doing so to take ourselves higher too.

What a blessing it is to have this moment, when so many Jews are ready for that journey, and to have one another, companions on the path of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, to help at every turn on the way. The next hundred years await us. “Let’s talk,” as the conference slogan urges. And let’s get moving.

Thank you.

5 Comments

  1. I want to emphasize Chancellor Eisen’s comments that we need more serious learning at all levels, more passionate tefillah, and more experiences of community. As the director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Initiative, these are exactly the goals we work toward. We also teach JECELI members how to increase the impact that they have on the lives of program staff members, children and parents. In my own research in Jewish early childhood programs, I hear from families about how much the warm welcome and the sense of caring affects engagement in the Jewish community. We are the first place, often, in which such a welcome is expressed. I very much appreciate the resonance of the core commitments of JECELI with those expressed by the Chancellor, and look forward to ongoing conversations and action.

  2. Dr. Eric L. Friedland says:

    Mighty fine!

  3. I’m so glad that you blogged your address, Arnie. I wasn’t in Baltimore, but I applaud it now. Your optimism inspires, particularly when you look back at a century of history — and recognize not what we’ve lost, but our progress, and what can still be gained.
    –howard e.

  4. As a Youth Commissioner of two synagogues with award winning programs, I would like to add to Chancellor Eisen’s excellent and moving address that we must start young to convey our movement’s mission and goals. I am a strong believer in quality Jewish education, but also know that something in kids’ brains require them to follow their peers. For this reason, we must have a strong emphasis on Kadima and USY, our synagogue youth groups, Kadima-USY-Ramah camps, and college Hillels. There are other good Jewish organizations that provide these peer options, but if we want our youth to grow up in the Conservative movement, we must provide them with OUR OWN options. I urge prioritizing our youth, as I see the ‘slide’ beginning early. This means leadership and funds from the top, as well as regionally and locally. Also, we must keep reaching out to all levels of stakeholders within the movement to find out what it is that people need and want, and be nimble and creative in offering it.

  5. Harry Sky says:

    Dear Dr. Eisen,
    I am a member of the graduating class of 1951. I have been in the rabbinate for many years. I recall my first day in January 1946. The students were returning from their winter break. The only class meeting that day was conducted by Professor Mordecai Kaplan. It was in a large class room. Prof. Kaplan was sitting at his desk. He welcomed us back from the winter break, and distributed a multiple choice exam. Upon completion, we were instructed to submit our answers. Prof. Kaplan scored the responses and announced “There is only one reconstructionist in the class. His name is Harry Sky.” I was amazed. I had never read Kaplan (it was taboo at Y.U.). it took me a few years to realize that my choice of this way was by chance rather than by fact. I feel most of what we do as Jews and human beings is beyond the realm of reason. Perhaps we should look for some inner answers, not necessarily Heschelian- Rabbi Harry Sky

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