Observance requirements are on the table as Conservative youth movement leaders gather in Atlanta for their annual international convention.
On Monday, Dec. 22, members of the international executive board of United Synagogue Youth as well as regional presidents are scheduled to vote on an amendment that would relax requirements requiring the teen organization’s board members to be Shabbat observant and date only fellow Jews.
Instead, the amendment requires an “enhanced commitment to growth in study and observance.” Instead of prohibiting interfaith dating, the amendment requires board members to “model healthy Jewish dating choices.”
The changes were proposed by members of the current international executive board over the summer, and with input from councils of USYers, Rabbi Steven Wernick — CEO of USY’s parent organization, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — (as mara d’atra, or legal authority) and rabbis he consulted, as well as regional leaders and staff.
According to the current constitution, USY officers “shall observe the Sabbath and Jewish holidays” according to the standards of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, which means, for example, refraining from travel and taking part in school examinations and public functions on Shabbat. The constitution also states that “it is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.”
The proposal to alter or eliminate these clauses raised eyebrows among former USY leaders and alumni, who circulated an on-line petition in the week leading up to the vote.
The petition opposes the amendment, saying the current standards involving interdating and Shabbat observance have had a “positive impact…in developing our own Jewish identities and creating positive dugmaot [role models] for so many USYers.”
Signers do not object to a debate over the existing rules, but are urging that more extensive discussion be held in order to come up with amendments that provide “clear direction” on the issues.
The petition asks that the vote be delayed so that alumni might offer their input and experience. (The petition does not take issue at all with new language regarding bullying.)
Most of the signatories are board members from the last three-four years, but also included are a handful of leaders from previous decades, including Rabbi Esther Reed. She served as vice president of Hagalil — the New Jersey USY region — in 1990-91 and is now senior associate director of Rutgers Hillel.
Reed said the amendment raises “serious concerns” for her.
“For many people in the Conservative movement, keeping Shabbat and dating only Jews is not necessarily a priority. But once they take on a leadership role, it’s different,” she said. “I personally did not observe Shabbat until taking on a leadership role in USY, and here I am as a rabbi. The impact is tremendous, and not just for future rabbis but also for future lay leaders. So many people have had this experience because they were leaders in USY.”
Added Reed: “For a high school student who is not used to observing Shabbat or dating only Jews, taking on a leadership role is significant, and more demands should be made by the leadership. When you’re in a leadership role, everyone looks at your personal choices. It’s therefore reasonable to make special requirements of leaders.”
Among those who declined to sign is Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, who was USY’s international executive president in 2002 and credits his experience in the youth group with his choice to become a Conservative rabbi.
Olitzky said he received the petition but declined to sign it.
“The 17-year-old version of myself thought of the standards very differently from how I see them as a rabbi serving a congregation of the Conservative movement,” Olitzky said. As a 17-year-old, “I saw myself as needing to serve as a dugma (role model) and follow the standards. But leading a congregation, I realize that everyone is on their own journey.”
“Is it better to observe the letter of the law when you sign on the dotted line or is it better to go on a journey and commit to the journey?” he continued. “To me, going on an individual learning plan allows each individual to put in place a goal for religious growth that means Shabbat and Judaism will be part of their lives long after they leave USY.”
He also suggested that student leaders must be given the opportunity to set policy — something all sides seem to agree on. During his own leadership tenure, he said, he led a move to add requirements regarding drug and alcohol use. He would not have welcomed outside advice from alumni.
“It’s an example of empowering young leaders,” said Olitzky. “They’re being given an opportunity to make decisions they feel will be the best.”
Students who comprise the international board declined to be interviewed. The Hagalil regional director declined to comment or make the Hagalil regional president available for an interview.
Rabbi David Levy, director of teen learning for USCJ, said that current policies regarding interfaith dating and strict adherence to shomer Shabbat standards were “creating difficulties” around the country.
“They have kept away good kids from leadership roles,” he said, speaking to NJJN from the hotel in Atlanta where the convention was scheduled to be held Dec.21-25.
Over the summer, however, current international executive board members proposed drafting an amendment. “They wanted to take language that was somewhat direct,” he said, and change it to provide “a longer on ramp and more proactively educational standards.”
Levy said he was “a little surprised that the petition was not preceded by a conversation,” although he was “not surprised by the content.”
However, he said, he felt those signing the petition had misunderstood the amendment.
“This is not in any way an attempt to dismantle the standards, but rather to make them more accessible.” He added, “My understanding of the amendment is that what’s possible with the amendment is that by working on a plan with a rabbi and local director, leaders can identify which mitzvot and rituals are a reach and which are a breeze to follow. With mentoring and more personal training, it creates a layer of accountability.”
Conservative leaders, at the head of the centrist movement among the three major Jewish denominations, have often struggled with the ideals represented by its rabbis and top institutions and the reality of its members’ behavior. While the movement prevents its rabbis from performing intermarriages, for example, nearly four in 10 members of Conservative congregations marry outside the faith, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center’s survey of American Jews.
Similarly, only a minority of members of Conservative synagogues observe the Sabbath according to Halacha, or Jewish law, which includes refraining from vehicular travel, engaging in commerce, or taking part in secular activities like attending school or the workplace.
The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s main lay organization, does not require board members to be shomer Shabbat nor refrain from interfaith relationships, but USY leaders say USY’s constitution reflects the youth organization’s educational goals.