I Just Want to Be an Observant Jew – Updated


Added/edited later the same day: I reread this post and realized how negative in tone it was so I thought I should try to undo some of the crankiness. I didn’t really intend to come down so hard on the conservative movement, it’s just frustration surfacing.

The bottom line is that I am indeed grateful to the movement and it’s ideology for providing me with the opportunity to connect to Judaism and Observance, in a way that just wasn’t available in the reform movement. I am also grateful that I live in a city where the problem isn’t finding a shul to attend, its trying to pick which one I want to go to because there are so many to choose from. I also live in a town where Jewish (academic) learning is going on everywhere, I mean the American Jewish University , not to mention the HUC. It’s a great place to do all sorts of Jewish and I need to remember NOT  to take that for granted.

I guess the problem is that I connected to the Conservative Movement while I was back in Canada in pretty much a purely academic way, with next to no direct contact with actual community members. So I just assumed that Ideology and practice where the same and that’s just not the case. I shouldn’t be all that surprised because it seldom is the case with things like this.

Before Tamara and I got engaged she belonged to a Chabad community and we both liked loved the commitment to tradition, mitzvot and halacha that we found there. We also loved how the community related to, supported and cared for one another. However we didn’t feel so compatible with other aspect of the community which I’m sure you can figure out without my going in to the details. More important was the fact I am not an Orthodox convert and therefore persona non grata, at least as a legitimate Jew. Add to this that I’m not at this stage in the game prepared to accept several of the theological assertions required for an orthodox conversion and that Tamara has some reservations about fulfilling some the obligations that would be expected of her if I was to pursue such a conversion and you can see why Chabad is not the best fit for either of us. Thus we began looking for an alternative where we could get the tradition but with a theology that was more palatable to us. Oh and not to mention was a place where I would count as part of a Minyan.

Obviously as we learnt about the Conservative movement we began to feel like it was going to be the perfect fit (or I did). You know “Progressively Traditional”, an environment that would support serious observance without putting our intellects on hold.

But in some important ways it’s cold and impersonal and its like pulling teeth to get support, when comes to traditional observance. We have yet to find many people (outside of our orthodox friends and acquaintances) who want to participate in an observant community, at least not on a regular basis that is. Ok, I can’t really fault (who Am I to judge) them for it but it just doesn’t make sense to me. I guess this me just discovering the reality is not the ideal, it is unfortunately far from it.

I think both of us feel as though our level of observance in many ways makes us stick out and a little odd. It shouldn’t be that way because were not anymore observant than Conservative Ideology says we should be. In fact there is still lots that we don’t do. 

So what follow’s is something of a frustrated tantrum and I admit up front that it isn’t 100% (maybe not even 50% who knows?) fair but there is definitely some truth to it.  Maybe someone reading this has some suggestions on how to move forward in finding a way to get our (perceived) needs met?

I am definitely open to suggestions, so don’t be shy and please remember that what follows was originally written in a moment of frustration.


Although I originally converted via a Reform community, I’ve moved quite far from that place and I can honestly say that , both ideologically and theologically I fit quite comfortably within the boundaries of the Conservative/Masorti Movement. I suppose on the surface this means that I’ve moved to a position that, sees being a committed Jew (at least religiously speaking) as accepting the Mitzvot as being both binding and quintessential to the Jewish experience.

Now I’m far from being Shomer Mitzvot (follows all the commandments)  or even Shomer Shabbos(observes all of the commandments regarding the Sabbath), but agree or disagree, I do (in most ways) see them as being the Jewish ideal. I’m not trying to convince anyone to accept or abide by my definitions, especially those who identify as being Reform, Reconstructionist or Humanist/Secular. If you don’t buy the binding nature of Halacha that’s fine, and although I do have some thoughts on the subject, they are not relevant to this post ,so I will save them for another time.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts I’m confident that Tamara and myself at this point in time, are much more observant than the average Conservative Jew here in Los Angeles. But I’m also certain that there are indeed Conservadox Jews who surpass our own observance. The problem as I see it (and I might add a large source of my current frustration) is that the vast majority of the laity seem to be absolutely indifferent to observance if not illiterate on the subject. In fact in practice I don’t think there’s really much difference between the average Reform Jew and his Conservative counterpart. I find this hard to accept because even applying low standards, Conservative Jews should at least in theory be working their way in to observance.

I left the Reform movement because I wanted to be an “Observant Jew” and I didn’t feel that there was any real support their for doing this. Not necessarily the most observant Jew (because I really don’t know what that means) but certainly a seriously observant one.

So I of course moved in that direction, at first theologically and then as a active an  participant. The services are longer and more traditional, Kiddush is always kosher and there are opportunities for study. All of which is great if you like to express your Judaism primarily in a synagogue environment.

However, what I’ve come to realize is that I am  becoming something of an “ out of the shul Jew”. What I mean by that is that my sense of Judaism isn’t just grounded in official synagogue study and activities. Rather I increasingly experience my Judaism outside of the shul. For example first thing in the morning when I get up and wash my hands, recite morn
ing blessings , put on one of my Tallit Katan and force (yes sometimes those first few minutes are excruciatingly difficult) my way into the living room to daven Shacharit. I can feel my Jewishness bubbling up through my keeping kosher even when it’s difficult. I certainly feel it when Shabbos is made sacred and I’m not talking about going to shul because that’s the easy part. It’s in the preparing of a lovely table and putting on nice clothing before Shabbos starts, then sharing a Sabbath Seder with friends. I can feel my Jewishness in the struggle to stay out of the car, off the computer and television and in not spending money for 25 hours. I feel my Judaism deeply when walking down the street sporting a Kippah and someone gives me a smart ass remark. I feel like a Jew every time I manage to make even the smallest sacrifice, out of a sense of commitment to observance. Especially during those times when no one is watching and I could get away with cheating ,if I wanted to. I feel my Judaism every time I act from a place of loving kindness and I feel it when I miss the boat by falling into Loshon Hara but am able to catch myself even if it’s after-the-fact and do Teshuvah.

Am I being a little self-important and self obsessed, maybe so, but I’m not sure if that’s such a bad thing. I don’t want synagogue affiliation or even denominational affiliation to be my primary source of Jewish identity. I want it to be observance and more importantly, I want to be in an environment that supports that kind of lifestyle. Basically I want a community that’s a little more on the page as we are.

During the last six months in Los Angeles Tamara and I have spent a lot of time “doing Jewish” at a variety of conservative style shul’s be they of officially affiliated or independent, and I’ve come to realize that for the most part Conservative, in this town seems to really only mean “ traditional” services that are longer and use only Hebrew. But apart from this the vast majority of the time there’s little to no to expectation in terms of community standards, there doesn’t even seem to be any local discussion of what the ” Ideal Conservative Jew” might be like.

I’ve actually approached several rabbis looking for feedback and guidance à la Mara Datra (basically a local halachick authority or person who makes decisions regarding observance for a given community) and it’s like pulling teeth. In fact one rabbi who is Orthodox trained and runs, what I would call an independent Conservadox synagogue, about community observance expectations at his shul, to which he replied, “what expectations of there aren’t any?” I followed up by asking him if there was an ideal level of observance that he encouraged within the community, to which he replied “NO”! He went on to say that he leaves it up to the members if they WANT to learn about things they can ask but that they didn’t. I just don’t get that! I mean OK to not pressuring but what about making the ideal known and encouraging reflection and opportunities for discussion.

There seems to be so much effort theologically speaking from the Conservative leadership that goes into distinguishing this movement from Reform, yet it just doesn’t appear to trickle down to the synagogue level at all.

Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places and maybe I’m being unfairly judged mental but that’s been our experience here in Los Angeles. There are certainly pockets of more observant Jews floating around but it seems to be the exception and not the rule. I did have a conversation recently with a retired “ Conservadox” Cantor who used to teach at the U. J. that sheds a little bit of light on the subject. I asked him why observance seemed to be so laid-back here within the conservative community and he said “ well you see it is a West Coast East Coast thing”. He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t ask anything else but I got the sense that New York conservative Jews might be more committed to being observant.

I suppose I’m just becoming rather frustrated that serious commitments to “observance” don’t seem to be valued as much as paying membership dues. Not that I don’t think hang membership dues is important, I just get the sense that once they have your money they don’t want to ask for anything more because there are a dozen Reform shul’s down the street, that you can go to for some no pressure pick and choose Judaism. Assuming that I’m right this bugs me a) because I don’t have a lot of money but I do have tons of commitment and I’m willing to work hard at meeting the ideal and b) the leadership seems less interested in supporting serious observance than they are in programming that brings in the bucks. Even if doing this is counterproductive to the movement’s “ claimed” theological program.

It’s actually gotten to the point where my (actually Tamara and my) level of observance is closer to that of Orthodox Jews (who by the way don’t even consider me Jewish) then it is to those of my own community. What’s even crazier is that Tamara and I have not hit halachick/observance ceiling of the conservative movement. Our observance is just inflated to look artificially higher than it is because the vast majority of conservative Jews around us have such a low level.

Like I said at the beginning theologically and ideologically I fit very well into the center right side of the conservative movement. At least on paper that is but the unfortunate truth is that the conservative movements theology just isn’t translating into practice, at least not around us. Wait, I take that back, it certainly does translate into practice, if you are in rabbinical school or hang out with rabbinical students but it’s hard to get in to that club.

I have a friend who is an Orthodox rabbinical student and although he won’t count me as part of a minyan, he sees me as being committed to Judaism and as someone who’s trying to work it. In a recent telephone conversation he said to me “ you’ve got converts zeal, so to be honest I’m not sure if you did 10 Orthodox conversions that would ever be satisfying to you, because theology is neat and humans are messy ”. He could well be right but regardless I’m not at a place where I’m prepared to commit to an Orthodox conversion. What I want is to be a “Observant Jew” not the “Most Observant Jew” just a normal “Observant Jew” as its laid out in the Ideology of the Conservative Movement. I want to hang out with other people who are committed to observance, they don’t need to be as observant as me or observant in the same way but at least seriously be committed to working on it. And unfortunately I really haven’t come across that the whole bunch.

Anyhow, my rant has gone on way too long so I think I’ll wrap it up. Let me conclude by clearly saying that I’m not damning the Conservative Movement and I haven’t given up on it either. I’m simply frustrated by the lack of infrastructure and opportunity within the movement for helping people like me be/become serious observant Jews.

Also, I’m fully aware of the fact I live in Los Angeles and therefore don’t have it nearly as hard as other people who live in small towns in parts of the country where they don’t even have access to a conservative community and therefore have to do their “ Conservative style observance” in even more isolation than I do.

And on that note be well!

 About Avi M
Avi converted to Judaism in the spring of 2006 in his home country of Canada and is a founding member of JewsByChoice.org. He currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife Tamara and is an active member of the local Jewish community.


 Yaakova says:

Hello all! First time over there.

Wow! Great post/s. I have the same issue, although I’m not as observant. It’s really weird to have my 20-30something friends go gah, you Shomer Shabbos or something? when I’m not answering their calls on Friday nights. (I’m not Shomer Shabbos.) I converted via…well…started at a Reform shul and ended up at a Conservative.

I live in Denver/Boulder area. EVERY shul here that isn’t reform will ASK YOU if you or your mother or maternal grandmother converted and if so, the name and address of that rabbi if you want to be a member. No joke. I’m glad my certificate says “Conservative” on it. That being said, I do not “belong” to the shul I attend sometimes for that reason. It’s my best-kept secret. They are C and snarky enough as is. (Oh my! Single mum!)

Still. My son will now be rejected by the day schools here unless I lie.

Which I will.

Because he deserves a Jewish education.

(one that I can’t afford now…but that’s another post.)

If I were Orthodox, or even “born” Jewish, I could not only have some help finding a job in this economy (sigh) but my son would have a Jewish education, struggling or not. I’m not asking for freebies, but Jews don’t take care of coverted-Jews (in the larger communities) that often.

Try converting and being single and dating only Jews. It’s awful.

Very lonely here. But it’s been 5 years and I’m still pluggin’.

 Yaakova says:

Avi, before we have a holler, hold on a second.

It says that you were never a true convert to the Torah.

Well, he’s right. You -and I- were not converts to the Torah.

We were converts to the Jewish people.

And while this gentleman would be welcomed at our minyan, we may not want him marrying (if he weren’t already married) our daughters, either. (Or maybe not. I donno.)

Much like how you grew to become more and more traditional, this person also had the same journey (it sounds like) and he decided that Hasidic Jews had the answer. And his answer is that no, you are not halachachly Jewish. But if you keep thinking and keep seeking, you may find yourself on the Big Orthodox side.

I dated an Israeli MoDox Jew and he told me, “Look. You’re Jewish. It’s just f-n politics.”

He broke up with me later, though, because he couldn’t stomach the idea of telling his six siblings that he was dating treif.

People ask us, “Why do you want to become Jewish? People want to kill you,” etc, when we convert. Remember that?

And the rabbis will tell us that the Israeli Rabbinate will not accept us, the Reform and Conservative Rabbis will tell you that the orthodox will not accept us, etc, but what they don’t tell us is that once you walk out of your rabbi’s office that very synagogue may not accept you. The JCC, American Jewish University, Birthright, etc.

It isn’t the anti-semitism of non-Jews that I have to deal with. I can stand to lose (non) friends over this. I have. No big deal. Even family members.

It’s the Jews that hurt.

Because THOSE people? Those are the people that belong to the Tribe you joined.

So, no. Maybe we’re not converts to Torah, being not Orthodox and all.

We’re converts to the people of Judaism – this is how we love our Chabad lessons and our Hasidic tales and our Reform study sessions at mega synagogues that go til midnight on Tish b’Av.

We are not converts to the whole of Torah, but we fell in love with the whole of Torah, and that itself is worthy of respect.

 Debbie B. says:

Avi, after reading your post, I feel very blessed to be a part of not just one but two wonderful lay-led minyanim in which you would probably feel very much at home. However, they are in Chicago and Skokie, so that won’t help you right now except perhaps that it is good for you to know that such groups do exist. Quite seriously, I think you should consider moving to a place where you can find the right kind of Jewish community. In essence one family we know did just that—they moved to Cincinnati with their four kids for better jobs, but returned to Chicago a couple years later because they missed our minyan too much.

For the purposes of simplicity, let me refer to these two minyanim as EM and SEM. In reality both have excessively long official names due to a shul mergers. You can check out the website of the EM at: http://www.egalitarianminyan.org

I consider EM to be my family’s primary congregation. It was founded 30 years ago by a group whose core members had been members of a modern Orthodox shul and were frustrated by the inability of women to fully participate. When my family joined about 14 years ago, the EM was not officially affiliated with any movement even though many of its members are Jewish professionals who work for Conservative institutions and a majority of the children attend the Schechter Day School. When we “merged” with the small number of members of an aging population (average age probably not less than 70) of our former host synagogue, the minyan joined the USCJ even though some of our members had opposed that. The EM is probably best described as “Conservadox”: a majority of members keep strictly kosher homes, about half are shomer shabbat (and others still walk to shul, even though they might say drive to my house for lunch after Shabbat services), and although there is no way to know without asking, I’d be surprised if at there aren’t at least a few married women who go to mikvah for “family purity” observance. So I’d say that the most observant 1/4 of the minyan have about the same level of observance as our modern Orthodox friends.

The E in the names of both minyanim is for “Egalitarian”. In the EM, women even duchen (do the priestly blessings) on High Holidays (we have a bat cohen in our minyan who likes to do this—others chose not to) and hagbah! (We have a strong hockey-playing woman who has the upper body strength for lifting the Torah.) Neither minyan has a mechitza, although the EM has a new young frum couple whom I notice always sit on opposite sides of the room from each other. Both minyanim use the Sim Shalom siddur and Etz Chayim chumash (although we used the Hertz chumash when we first joined, and my husband and a few others continue to use the Hertz). The services are all in Hebrew. The only parts of the service in English are the D’var Torah and the “Prayer for our country” (prayer for Israel and for Peace are in Hebrew). When I have visited a local modern Orthodox shul for bar mitzvahs, I have found that the service is nearly identical except I suppose for the very few minor word changes of the Conservative siddur (which I don’t notice since I don’t know every word by heart anyway).

The EM has had members who consider themselves to be Orthodox. For instance, an Orthodox lesbian couple were members for a few years until they found that an Orthodox shul very close to their house was welcoming to them. An Orthodox man and his second Conservative wife are members (and he had continued as a member by himself after his first wife died), although these days they more often attend the liberal modern Orthodox services held in the same building that the EM has services.

Although the EM has no paid clergy, currently at least 4 members have rabbinic ordination from JTS (and we’ve had even more in the past). One is a former congregation rabbi. Two are chaplains and two are directors of Conservative youth organizations. Interestingly enough though, I don’t think that these rabbinically trained people are our minyan’s best leyners or daveners. A majority of the members are able and willing to do one or more of: read Torah, read Haftarah, lead P’sukei D’Zimra, Shacharit or Musaf, or give a D’var Torah. Members are encouraged to learn new skills and a number of members have learned to leyn from being taught by other members. The skill level ranges from beginners and one man who must be tone deaf (he’s painful to listen to) to another man who was privately trained as a cantor and has worked as a professional cantor before.

I believe the current EM membership is 90 “family units” and over half of them are at shul on a typical Shabbat. Members rotate responsibility for coordinating services (including lining up all 7 Torah readers for full readings—NOT triennial cycle), helping in the gan babysitting the younger children, and bringing in kiddush (usually enough fruit, crackers, hummus, chips, etc so that my kids skip lunch if we aren’t hosting or going to someone’s house for Shabbat lunch).

It is a wonderful and supportive community. We had been members for only three years when I ended up in the hospital for a week due to a ruptured appendix. The EM members came to our aid by babysitting our 4 and 1 year old children, cooking us meals, and even doing our laundry because we had just moved to a new house and did not have a working washing machine. We’ve been invited to member’s homes for Shabbat and holiday meals. One thing that is awkward for us is that we can only reciprocate with non-Shabbat/non-chag meals because we do not live within walking distance.

One downside of the EM for my family is that since most of the kids go to Schechter there is no Hebrew school. A few kids go to an Orthodox day school, and a few kids (like mine) go to public school. About half the high schoolers go to public school, with most of the rest going to the Conservative Jewish high school, and a few going to a modern Orthodox high school. We also currently do not live within reasonable walking distance of the shul, although we plan to move once our children are out of high school (our younger child is in 6th grade).

So we sent our kids to the Hebrew school of a Conservative synagogue (which we joined) about .7 mile from our house. We discovered that it had a small lay-led minyan that met in the basement (which I’ll call the SEM) which we visited occasionally. Then the shul merged with a larger one in the next town to the north. But the minyan could not move because most of its members did not drive on Shabbat, however it was given a 5 year lease by the new owners of the shul building (which is an Assyrian Center now) and allowed to exist as a “satellite” minyan of the larger Conservative synagogue (minyan members still paid full synagogue dues). That meant that our children then attended the Hebrew school of the larger shul. However, in addition to the 6.5 hrs of Hebrew school, we also used a private tutor for 1.5 years for my daughter for the leyning and davening skills that weren’t really taught in the classes, and now we are only using private tutors for my son.

We have become more active members in this minyan in the past couple of years. We now go there about once a month and for High Holidays when we really prefer not to drive, even though we really miss our “primary” minyan when we do so. But in addition to being within walking distance, they are tiny and struggling and really appreciate our presence. Also occasionally my daughter or husband reads Torah or my husband will give a D’var Torah. Since they reluctantly went to triennial cycle a few years ago because it was just too few Torah readers, it has become a way that we can get our teenaged daughter to leyn at least a two or three times a year because the readings are so short.

The SEM minyan has an even higher percentage of “professional Jews”: with only about 14 core member families (and some other less committed families and individuals), there are two rabbis (a married couple who work at different Jewish day schools), a Hebrew school director, 2-3 Ramah camp staff members, plus some other people who work for Jewish institutions. This group identifies strongly with the Conservative movement. Most of the SEM kids also go to Schechter. They also try to maintain a supportive community. When a member recently had surgery, SEM members brought over meals for her family every day for the first week post-op.

Both of our minyanim would be thrilled to welcome you and your wife as members. The EM would be particularly happy that you are younger than the group of founding members who are in their 50′s. My husband and I are in our mid 40′s. There are only a few members in their 20′s and 30′s, and there is the group of elderly members from the former host shul. Most members are married, a few members are divorced and not re-married, and there are only a few never-married singles. The SEM has several younger families as well as a few older members who come to services although are not active in doing things like coordinating. The EM has several JBC, all of whom converted before they met their JBB spouse or a number of years after they were married (one couple converted together). I think that when my conversion is complete, I will be the only JBC in the SEM. (I’ve been going to shul for 24 years and married to a Jew for 21 years. But although I have always expected to convert eventually, for various reasons I only started working for the purpose of conversion with a Conservative rabbi about 5 months ago.)

Anyway, a fairly frum Orthodox friend (who has lived in Israel for about 20 years now) once commented wistfully after visiting the Napa Valley wine country: “The goyim can live anywhere!” The truth is that the more observant a Jew you are, the more constrained you are in where you can live. But living in a Jewish community that is just right for you will immeasurably enhance your life. So be aware that the kind of community that you seek certainly does exist if you broaden your search to other areas. For starters check out:
The list is outdated (it lists the EM by its old name from two years back), and not all of these groups are likely to be what you are looking for, but I’m betting that more of the groups on this list would be to your taste than the typical Conservative synagogue.

If you ever happen to be passing through Chicago (say a connecting plane flight through O’Hare airport), stay over for Shabbat and visit the EM (contact me because there are no decent hotels within walking distance of the EM, but I can set you up with an EM member who will put you up for Shabbat).

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