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!