Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal has a simple motto: “More Torah and Jewish life for more people in more places and more ways.”
The motto serves the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism chief executive well as he works to fulfill his long-term goal of “creating a robust, Conservative Masorti movement in North American and throughout the world where we bring our unique tradition and modernity to as many people as possible.”
With more than 600 synagogues in North America and a home in Israel, USCJ is the largest network of Conservative Jews in the world. Blumenthal became the organization’s chief executive in 2020, after serving for a year as the chief executive of the Rabbinic Assembly, representing Conservative rabbis in 2019. The two organizations have a strategic partnership that allows Blumenthal to serve as the CEO of both.
The rabbi has taken the helm of the Jewish organization at an interesting time for the movement. Like those in the Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform movements, the USCJ has had to find ways to make Jewish life meaningful when members couldn’t gather in communal spaces because of COVID-19. It has also experienced a decline in the number of Jews identifying as Conservative.
A survey by the Pew Research Center, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” reported that for every person who has joined Conservative Judaism, nearly three raised in the movement have left. It also found that 57% of people raised Conservative now either identify as Reform, don’t identify with any movement or are no longer Jewish.
Asked about those numbers, Blumenthal said he doesn’t view Judaism as a contest.
“We have a lot of vibrant synagogues. We have lots of people who grew up in our movement. We continue to live very dynamic Jewish lives,” he said.
The rabbi said that although there is a need for synagogues to continue to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of the 21st century, he doesn’t think identity is the primary way Jewish people identify themselves. “If people are finding meaning in kashrut, in Jewish Holidays, in living an ethical life and they’re informed by our Torah, rabbis and institutions, then I think that’s great, whether they call themselves a Conservative Masorti Jew, or not.” In fact, Blumenthal said, congregation life and relationships are often more important than what movement Jews use to self-identify.
That doesn’t mean, however, that he feels there aren’t differences among the liberal Jewish movements. He noted that there are ideological differences in both Jewish law and tradition that vary among the various movements that can be significant.
“Our approach to egalitarianism, our approach to inclusion of people based on sexual orientation and gender identity, our approach to how we observe Shabbat and kashrut,” he said.
The type of Judaism practiced in USCJ synagogues can vary based on the community, spanning the bridge between liberal congregations and those sometimes labeled Conservadox. Blumenthal called that diversity the movement’s strength.
“I think extremism is doing extraordinary damage to our culture and our society. Being a dynamic and strong middle space is, I think, a very important contribution to Judaism, to Jewish life and our society as a whole. People don’t often see themselves as passionate centrists, but, in fact, that’s what we need is a strong and center for Jewish life.”
Differences in the movement, he said, are acknowledged and talked about, allowing USCJ synagogues and rabbis find value in those opinions rather than fighting against them.
COVID, and the USCJ’s response, is one example of where modern needs rubbed against tradition.
During the pandemic, the Rabbinic Assembly issued updated protocol for synagogues. Participants were allowed to join weekday minyans through electronic means, for example, and livestreaming services were permitted in certain situations.
Blumenthal wasn’t ready to say how long or whether those new allowances would continue;, rather, he said there are still some people facing significant health challenges that continue to require greater leniency for Jewish laws. He also said the technology has allowed for new ways to engage people Jewishly.
“Our communities will need to explore the best ways to do that,” he said. “We live in an age when people demand choice. I come from a space where we don’t judge that, instead we engage on those terms. I’m excited to see the opportunities that creates.”
One area that has been a long point of tension in the movement has been interfaith marriage. The rabbi said it’s an important topic that is always under conversation. An approach, he said, has to be balanced by both the need for engagement and Jewish tradition.
Blumenthal was clear though that Jewish adjacent community members should be welcomed as members of the community.
“The USCJ does have guidelines for communities, where they can include Jewish adjacent members, who are part of Jewish families to become members of our synagogues,” he said. “They can serve in leadership roles and many of our communities have embraced that approach to more fully engage members of the community.”
Blumenthal was in Pittsburgh to attend the USCJ national board meeting, which was held at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills on Sept. 11.
Pittsburgh, Blumenthal said, has been an important site since the founding of the USCJ in 1913. He pointed out that the Tree of Life synagogue was one of its founding congregations after breaking away from Rodef Shalom Congregation.
The rabbi spent time with representatives from all three Pittsburgh USCJ member synagogues: Beth El Congregation, Congregation Beth Shalom and Tree of Life Congregation.
“Pittsburgh continues to have vibrant Jewish life and synagogues for our movement,” Blumenthal said. “We got to spend time with three different congregations. We saw the vitality and vibrancy and creativity at each one. That was very exciting and inspiring for me and for our board.”
The city’s importance to both the USCJ and Conservative movement will be recognized in December when Beth El member Andy Schaer is installed as the board president. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org