Not your zayde's Conservative Judaism?

Forgiving the poor attempt at humor in the lede, the Los Angeles Times had a good, informative story about the existential crisis facing the Conservative movement of American Judaism. The news hook was a meeting in Las Vegas of the Rabbinical Assembly, at which Conservative Judaism's spiritual leaders discussed rebranding the movement.

In case you're not familiar, Conservative Judaism is not exactly what it sounds like. It started in Germany in the mid-1800s as a response to Reform Judaism, and is actually older that image. Conservative Judaism is seen as a hedge between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, but that isn't really accurate either. Generally speaking, the Conservative movement places value both on the modernity and meaningfulness emphasized by the Reform and on the Jewish tradition and law emphasized by the Orthodox.

My Jewish law professor at UCLA is a Conservative rabbi, and there is a lot more detail I could go into here. But the important thing to know is that Conservative in the Jewish theological sense is not the same as being conservative politically. It's about following Jewish tradition while adjusting to changes in society.

Which brings me back to Mitchell Landsberg's story for the LAT.

Landsberg does a good job capturing the concern among leading Conservative rabbis. And he has some good details form the frontlines; he also puts Conservative Judaism's decline in the context of slipping numbers for other Jewish denominations and mainline Christian denominations.

But then I got to this section toward the end, and when Rabbi David Wolpe mentioned "ideology," I realized that I was more than halfway through the story about rebranding Conservative Judaism but had only my own knowledge of Conservative doctrine to rely on:

The Conservative rabbis won't become car salesmen, but they batted around some fairly radical ideas and predictably stirred up some opposition.

There was talk of eliminating membership dues for synagogues or switching to a la carte "fee-for-service" plans -- so that a parent who wants only to send his or her child to religious school won't also be paying to support the congregation's other programs. But some said dues give congregants a vital sense of ownership.

Wolpe, the Sinai Temple rabbi, said the movement needs a slogan, one that's short enough to fit on a bumper sticker. He suggested "A Judaism of Relationships."

"We don't have a coherent ideology," he told his fellow rabbis. "If you ask everybody in this room 'What does Conservative Judaism stand for?' my guess is that you'd get 100 different answers. . . . That may be religiously a beautiful thing, but if you want a movement, that's not such a hot result."

Fortunately, Landsberg sprinkles some of Conservative Judaism's theological foundation in the final paragraphs. And I guess it's better late than never.

But one question not answered was how this effort at rebranding will be any different or more successful than anything that's been done in the past. As Landsberg noted, Conservative Judaism has been sliding for a good while now. This is neither a new phenomenon nor a first attempt at turning things around.

Landsberg also mentions the Conservative movement in Israel, known as Masorti, but doesn't ask or answer the question of whether there is anything the Conservative Jews in the United States can learn from their younger brother in Israel.

Getting into those details may not be as compelling as quotes warning that the end may be nigh. But it would make a good story a better one.

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