There are “well-documented challenges” facing the Conservative movement, Rabbi Gerald Skolnik said.
Some congregations, dealing with declining affiliation, have been forced into mergers, he noted, while some Solomon Schechter schools have become community schools.
“These are not the easiest of times for us,” he said.
But Skolnik, the newly installed president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the Conservative rabbinate around the world, remains optimistic his movement will weather the changes and emerge even stronger.
“I believe the mantra of Conservative Judaism, which is tradition and change, is as powerful today as it was a century ago,” Skolnik said in an interview with the
Chronicle. “We are a movement that straddles the middle, and we are living in a time when a large swath of the religious community, both within and without Israel, has moved to the right. We’re really the only movement that struggles to synthesize what is old with what is new … that is the essence of what it means to be a Conservative Jew.”
One of the greatest challenges facing Conservative Judaism, indeed all streams of Judaism, Skolnik said, is the growth in nondenominational observance.
“Sociologists of the Jewish community, and communities in general, will tell you we’re living in a post-denominational world where the labels of one’s Judaism are less significant than they ever have been,” Skolnik said. While the Conservative movement carries a proud tradition, “it is encountering a general societal move away from the definitions along denominational lines. The great challenge is in rebranding the Conservative movement into an approach to Judaism that resonates more powerfully with today’s Jews.”
“All the walls that have separated us are falling,” he added, “so synthesizing tradition and change in the Diaspora community … is an enormous challenge.”
No matter the challenges facing the streams of Judaism, one thing that won’t happen, Skolnik said, is a merger between the Reform and Conservative movements.
The two movements already make “common cause” on a variety of issues, he said. Yet they are “fundamentally different in terms of rabbinic law” and its importance in religious life.
“We’re not the same,” Skolnik said, “so I personally don’t think a merger is coming just because of the numbers issue. We may emerge from this part of our history smaller and leaner, but there will still be places where we find common cause and where we differ.”
Turning to synagogue life, Skolnik said the Conservative movement must adapt to the evolving role it plays in the Jewish world, yet it remains a vital component of Judaism.
“I think the synagogue has been changing for a long time,” Skolnik said. “We can’t always see it because we’re in it … but if you go back to the late ’60s, and the chavura movement, that was a frontal challenge to the urban synagogues to become less stodgy, less forbidding and more participatory places. This is not a new issue.
“The debate today over what sacred space means is just the next go-round from what happened in the late ’60s,” he continued. “I don’t think the synagogue is going away, but it is true that many young Jews don’t gravitate to the traditional synagogue structure the way their parents did. They go to independent minyanim.”
Despite the growth of those independent minyanim, he said the rabbinate won’t diminish in importance, but it must adapt.
“I don’t think rabbis will ever become obsolete, but their job definition is morphing into a teacher and guide and not as an authority figure,” Skolnik said.
“Jews still want and need rabbis in their lives. They may not want you preaching to them on Shabbat, but when their loved one dies, and you know what to do and they don’t, and they need help, the rabbi becomes essential.
“The rabbis of the last 50 years will not be the rabbis of the next 50 years. When your market changes you or your product has to change, so it’s a question of retooling the product a little bit.”
Ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1981, Skolnik, 59, spent three years as assistant rabbi at the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens, N.Y., until 1984 when he became senior rabbi. He has been there ever since. He is also a board member of MERCAZ, the Zionist arm of the Conservative movement.
Skolnik hopes to strengthen the relationship between the “arms” of the Conservative Judaism during his time as R.A. president. He also pledged to work “aggressively” to secure funding for Masorti Judaism in Israel, “which is constantly shortchanged — literally and figuratively.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, Skolnik said he would support his colleagues in the rabbinate in tough economic times.
“I would like to be a voice and advocate for the [rabbinate] variety of issues,” he said, “not the least of which has been making sure our younger colleagues who work in smaller venues are able to procure health insurance, which is difficult because of the ongoing nature of health care in this country.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)