In January of 1945, with World War II still raging and the future still muddy, there already was some hope in the air.
The Conservative movement felt that hope — which, to greatly oversimplify history, led to the burgeoning of American Judaism as it branched into the suburbs — put it into galleys and page proofs, and then published it. The first issue of the academic journal called Conservative Judaism came out that month, and it continued to be printed until 2014.
Now, the journal is being revived, renamed but not renumbered, putting the movement’s catchphrase, “tradition and change,” into action. (Or at least into pixels, and secondarily into hard copy as well.)
Masorti Judaism’s first volume — or perhaps its 69th, as it is numbered, because it’s following 2014’s Volume 68 — is coming out in February. The tradition’s in the numbering, the change is in the name — except that the name means tradition. Everything connects.
“Masorti is what Conservative Jews call themselves outside North America,” Rabbi Joseph Prouser said. Rabbi Prouser, who leads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, is the journal’s editor in chief, and one of the chief engineers of its return. “‘Conservative’ today is a misleading name,” he said; “it implies a political position now, as it did not in 1945.”
Masorti Judaism will be supported not only by the Rabbinical Assembly — the organization to which Conservative and Masorti rabbis belong — and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Manhattan institution considered to be the movement’s flagship school, but also by the movement’s four other seminaries, in California, Argentina, Germany, and Israel.
“One of the big differences between Masorti and its predecessor is that it’s much more international and movement-wide,” Rabbi Prouser said. “There are editorial board and academic advisory board members from eight countries. And they’re not all rabbis.”
He hopes that the journal will include one piece in Spanish and another in Hebrew in each issue, as the inaugural issue does, “because we are serving a global movement.” The Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, the movement’s school in Buenos Aires, has committed to translating all the journal’s English-language contents into Spanish; Rabbi Prouser hopes the translation will work in the reverse as well.
Although the members of the two boards come from all over, many of them are from north Jersey and Rockland County. They include Rabbi David Fine, who leads Temple Israel & Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood; Rabbi Debra Orenstein, who leads Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson; Rabbi Jill Hackell, a former pediatrician and vaccine researcher who now leads the West Clarkstown Jewish Center; and Dr. Alyssa Gray, who grew up in Westwood and graduated from the Frisch Academy before earning her doctorate at JTS and eventually becoming the chair of rabbinics and a professor of codes and responsa literature at HUC-JIR in Manhattan.
The subjects the journal will address are as wide-ranging as its board members; they will be challenging, Rabbi Prouser said, and some of them, while current, are not new.
“As will be discussed in this issue, many of the challenges facing American Jewry in general, and the Conservative movement in particular, were articulated in the first issue by Robert Gordis, and we’re still grappling with them today,” he said.
“Rabbi Gordis also talked about the challenges of soldiers and their families moving to the suburbs” — those were the returning veterans, who streamed out of the cities in vast numbers — “what it means to be living at a distance from traditional centers of Jewish life, being fully invested in the secular society, and what the claims of Jewish tradition on those suburban Jews were,” he continued. “He considered the place of Zionism in American Jewish life, and the pull of family history and tradition, which I think was stronger perhaps on individual Jews in 1945 than it is now, on individual Jews who may have been more immersed in Jewish life. We’re still dealing with some of these issues — not to mention issues of personal belief and theology.”
The third issue — the journal will come out twice a year, although in its early incarnation it was a quarterly — will include a piece by Robert Gordis’s grandson, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, who made aliyah to Israel in 1998 and defends it vehemently both inside and outside the Jewish world, no longer identifies as Conservative, but still is a member of the RA. “He was very open to publishing in our journal,” Rabbi Prouser said.
“The journal is not a mouthpiece for the movement,” he added. “We are publishing people to our right and people to our left and throughout the entire spectrum of our movement.
“My primary impetus was the dignity of the Conservative movement. Not to have an academic organ, an outlet for academic expression, is a tremendous disservice both to ourselves, to our own authenticity, and to the Jewish community. So I’ve been campaigning for years to restore publication.” He’s not alone in that push, he added, citing in particular Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Rosenbaum, president emeritus of Gratz College in Philadelphia, who is Masorti’s associate editor, and Rabbi Dr. David Golinkin, who lives in Israel and is the president of the Schechter Institutes there.
“My goal is to have an outlet for those who are formally or philosophically more or less aligned with the Conservative movement,” he continued. “I want them to have a place to publish serious academic work.
“Rabbis and academics published in the Journal of Conservative Judaism regularly when I was a young, up-and-coming rabbi, and it was very important to me. I was a regular contributor, and were it not for that journal, I don’t know if I would have found the proper outlet for my work.”
“It is so important to give so much credit to Joe Prouser,” Rabbi Orenstein said. “The Conservative movement remains an important and robust part of American Jewish life, and it is imperative that we have this meeting place, this marketplace of ideas.
“And it’s more than just a return to what was,” she continued. “The retitling is significant, and reflects a more global perspective.” As the board considered the change, “we had a thoughtful discussion about what united us as a movement, and about the power of the word Masorti versus the confusion around the word Conservative.
“Especially with today’s politics, the word Conservative means something very different than what was intended by Conservative Judaism. Masorti reflects the value of a liberal movement that is committed to being grounded in tradition.”
And because the word Masorti “also reflects that the boundaries between the movements are not necessarily what they were, and because a lot of Jews in Israel who identify as Masorti might not necessarily be connected to the Conservative movement, and because Masorti is a philosophy that a lot of Jews can get behind, this was a deliberate choice.
“We want the journal not to be narrowly for people who identify and affiliate with Conservative synagogues. We want it to be for anybody who is interested in Jewish tradition as it relates to the modern world.
“And that’s the meaning of Masorti.”
Rabbi Orenstein wrote an article for the first issue of the rebooted journal, called “Ancient Wisdom, Modern Science, and a New Theory of Hope.” “It brings together positive psychology about hope and ideas from the Bible and the rabbinic tradition,” she said. “I wrote it because at some point during the covid lockdown and the subsequent reemergence, I felt that people were in critical need of hope.
“I have come to the view that hope can be deliberately chosen. You don’t have to wait for it to glimmer. You can choose it.
“This is a case where the Jewish tradition has something important to contribute. This is where Jewish tradition could contribute mightily to the general culture.”
“We need this journal, because more than being a denomination or a movement, Conservative Judaism is an idea,” Rabbi Fine said. “We do have an organizational structure, but the idea of Conservative Judaism extends beyond the organizational framework. Today, there are many Jews who are unaffiliated, who have mixed-denomination families, who go to whatever synagogue makes most sense to them. But Conservative Judaism’s ideas are influential. They go far beyond the number of people who pay dues at Conservative synagogues.
“It represents an understanding of Judaism that values tradition, that values the rich history of the Jewish people, and then finds meaning through the appreciation of that experience.”
The old Conservative Judaism journal was important to him, Rabbi Fine reported. “When I was a teenager at Camp Ramah, I started thinking about what Conservative Judaism is about, so what did I do? I went to the library and flipped through the back issues.” Wild kid, right? “It was a very non-summer-appropriate activity,” he conceded, but he hopes that teenagers like him now will be able to do what he did.
Rabbi Rosenbaum can add his editorship at Masorti to a long list of credits. He doesn’t have to add anything to his resume. But he’s doing it, he said, because of how important the journal is.
For one thing, it will continue to be a rigorously academic project; submitted manuscripts will be evaluated using double-blind peer review, where the writers do not know who is reviewing their work, and the reviewers do not know whose work they are reviewing. “The intent is to create a journal where people can contribute articles that are in broad ways relevant to the movement, and to Conservative Judaism.” That’s not to say that the journal’s editors will consider work only about contemporary issues; they will be glad to review work on just about any subject that’s Jewish, well researched, and based on reputable sources. “Anything that contributes in general to the work of scholars in Jewish studies,” Rabbi Rosenbaum said.
He’s deeply moved by the hope Conservative Judaism’s creators displayed as they released their first issue. “The war was very much in progress then” — the Battle of the Bulge was on December 16, 1944; the journal’s first issue was well into the production process by then. The Battle of Okinawa didn’t end until July 22, 1945. But back at the journal’s office, “they were anticipating a future,” Rabbi Rosenbaum said. And that optimism, which assumed — correctly — that the war in Europe would end soon, also assumed that the battles in the Pacific would drag on for years, with a nearly unimaginable cost in lives.
But still, the first issue looked forward.
“Robert Gordis’s article was prescient,” Rabbi Rosenbaum said. “He wrote about both the opportunities and the challenges that he knew would exist after the war. From its inception, Conservative Judaism took the optimistic view that there was a need to contemplate the future, despite the catastrophe all around.
“A large number of young rabbis were in the military. The draft always excluded clergy, so if you were there as a chaplain, you were there because you volunteered. JTS and HUC and YU and some of the yeshivot encouraged young men to serve. That was both a very altruistic and obviously very risky decision.
“And yet they were looking to the future.”
Also, Rabbi Rosenbaum pointed out, “Jews served in the military in slightly greater numbers, percentage-wise, than the U.S. population as a whole. When they came back, like the African American community, they said, ‘We have earned the right to participate fully in American communal life. We want to take advantage of the privileges that a free society offers.’ And you see American Jewish life growing in ways that had not been anticipated before the war.”
That’s the world that gave birth to the first iteration of Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Rosenbaum’s goals for the new journal include submissions from rabbis and cantors and Jewish educators, yes, but also from the highly educated, intellectually curious laypeople whose academic skills and insights can come at texts and issues from slightly askew angles. “The elegance of this new journal is that it opens the door to people who want to do serious scholarly research,” and to have it published, Rabbi Rosenbaum said.
Masorti Judaism will be primarily an online publication, but there will be print-on-demand copies available as well. It should be out early next month. Learn more at masortijournal.org/