Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Symposium: Why People Become Orthodox IV

(continued from here: I, II, III)

Conservative Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove recently began his term as Senior Rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue on July 1, 2008. He grew up at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, and most recently served as Rabbi of Anshe Emet Synagogue in downtown Chicago. His Ph.D. was recently awarded by the University of Chicago on June 13, 2008, his dissertation being about the life and thought of Louis Jacobs.

Why do the finest products of the Conservative Movement trend towards Modern Orthodoxy?

In a word: Community.

Click here to read moreAs Conservative Jews, our deserved pride in Schechter Schools, Ramah Camps and USY programs should not blind us from recognizing our inability to translate those energetic experiences into urban and suburban Jewish life and learning. It is not at all surprising that observant Jews seeking a Shabbat community opt out of their denominational label when it comes to establishing their own homes. As is the right of any consumer, they are simply choosing to express their observance in a context more suitable to their tastes, and are taking their business elsewhere.

This choice, however, is sociological, not ideological in nature. I would venture that Conservative Jews davening in Modern Orthodox communities are no closer to accepting a literalist understanding of torah m’sinai or any other theological litmus test of Orthodoxy, than when they identified as Conservative Jews. Indeed, more often than not, they readily admit the concessions they have made to egalitarianism, the full application of critical scholarship to sacred study and any other "Conservative Movement" values they may have previously held dear. The allure of a close knit and interconnected community far outweighs any brand loyalty. In an increasingly post-denominational world, heimishness wins over institutional history, cholent above theology, shabbos zemirot before wissenschaft.

Indeed, when non-denominational alternatives present themselves, these independent initiatives equally find themselves to be the beneficiaries of the Conservative Movement. The proliferation of grassroots minyanim, batei midrash and innovative social justice programming further serves to demonstrate that it is not Modern Orthodoxy per se, but rather passion, relevance and sophistication that attracts Conservative Jews. So too in the opposite direction, these efforts are increasingly able to draw from Modern Orthodoxy itself. There will inevitably be Jews who do not cross ideological lines. But for those of us in the committed center, I suspect future affiliation patterns will be less and less bound to the structures of the past.

Every movement needs to come to terms with the non-ideological nature of North American Jewry’s decision making. None of us have a lock on chesed, ruchaniyut and talmud torah. It is precisely at this moment that the playing field is shifting, that we all need to reconsider our modes of outreach and mechanisms for retention. All of us should summon up a spirit of entrepreneurship that recognizes that the traditional assumptions and arguments for affiliation are no longer determinative. Ideology still has a critical function, but first and foremost Jews want caring, vibrant and learning communities. Most importantly, in spite of our denominational differences, we would all do well to recognize and prioritize the common storehouse of values shared by all of klal yisrael.

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