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July 24-28, 2013FJMC 2013
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July 24 - 28, 2013
Theme:Conservative/Masorti Men at the Crossroads: Responding to a Changing World.
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|June 29, 2012 / 11 Tammuz, 5772
A letter to the FJMC
Rela Mintz Geffen
Mordecai M. Kaplan
415 Central Park West, New York, N.Y.
June 24, 1968
Dear Rabbi Geffen,
Only last Thursday did I receive a copy of Roads to Jewish Survival, which, I have since learned, appeared some months ago. It is a well edited book, from the standpoint of form and content and a valuable addition to the literature which records the achievements and mistakes of the Conservative movement. The title Roads to Jewish Survival records what the Conservative movement might have become, had I succeeded in making of it a coalition movement, instead of one rickety road to Jewish survival. That would have counteracted the divisiveness of Jewish denominationalism.
The second fatal mistake which the book records is the failure of the movement to join the World Zionist Organization. It thereby wrote the death warrant of Zionism and reenforced the monopolistic Orthodox hold on the State of Israel in the matter of religion, which is bound to lead ultimately to a dangerous Kulturkampf.
Being quite sure that you must have had to do the “lion’s share” of the work of editing this readable and highly informative book, I congratulate you and thank you for your part in it.
Mordecai M. Kaplan
When going through files a few weeks ago I came across this handwritten letter sent to my Father, Rabbi Joel S. Geffen, by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan thirty one years ago, soon after the publication of Roads to Jewish Survival (RTJS) by the Federation of Jewish Mens Clubs. I was amazed to read his prescient comments on the future of the Conservative movement which he considered to be on “one rickety road to Jewish survival”.
I was particularly struck by his comments on the consequences of the United Synagogue’s decision not to join the World Zionist Organization (WZO). An issue of The Torch (which was then more of a journal)had been devoted to this controversy. The text of the debate, with Kaplan and Dr. Nahum Goldman saying “yes” and Rabbis Simon Greenberg and Abraham Joshua Heschel saying “no”, was reprinted in Roads to Jewish Survival. Heschel, for example, argued that our connection to Israel derived from our religious integrity. He wrote that “from the perspective of history as well as from the perspective of the soul there is eminently one place where we meet as Jew: the synagogue. . .” He felt that joining the WZO would make religion subservient to a political organization.
The perspectives of Heschel and Greenberg, reflected the majority of the leadership of the movement at that time. For example, in November of 1959, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency had reported that:
The national convention of the United Synagogue of America today instructed its executive council "to create opportunities for joint discussions" by all its branches of whether or not the Conservative movement should as a body join the World Zionist Organization. The executive council was at the same time requested "to report back to the next biennial convention" of the organization.
Two decades later on November 15, 1977 the the decision reported on in the article below reaffirmed the decision not to join the WZO, though it was also evident that the leadership of the movement was divided on the issue. Part of the article reads:
KIAMESHA LAKE, N.Y., Nov. 15 (JTA) –
The United Synagogue of America, the congregational arm of Conservative Judaism, refused today to endorse "Mercaz," a Zionist organization recently founded to express the aims of the Conservative movement within the Zionist movement in America.
The biennial convention, attended by 2000 delegates from 830 congregations in the United States and Canada, after a long and bitter debate, removed the question from consideration by voting overwhelmingly to table a resolution which would have endorsed the organization.
The resolution did not mention the organization, Mercaz (Center, in Hebrew), by name which has already been formed and which has Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz of Washington, president of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA), the association of Conservative rabbis, as pro-tem chairman, and Rabbi Bernard Raskas of St. Paul, as pro-tem chairman of the governing council.
(As I was writing this short essay on June 11, 2012, I read of the passing of Rabbi Rabinowitz,z”l, an outstanding leader of the Movement)
Clearly, Kaplan felt strongly that the Movement had already missed its chance to be a major influence in Israel. One consequence which he anticipated was the dominance of Orthodoxy that, in future, would grow exponentially in Israel and
control critical aspects of society. In his time, life cycle events were already in the hands of the chief rabbinate.
Today the leadership of Mercaz and the Masorti Movement take Kaplan’s position on affiliation with the WZO as their starting point. Take a look at their mission statements on the web. We, of the Conservative movement (along with partners such as the New Israel Fund and ARZA) are certainly trying to gain greater religious freedom for Jews in Israel. The question is - was Kaplan correct? Are we too late to fight the trend? It is difficult to say. For now, I can only read the letter, acknowledge his wisdom and be glad that I finally decided to go through some old files.
Rela Mintz Geffen is the co-author (with Daniel Elazar) of The Conservative Movement in Judaism (SUNY Press) She is a sociologist of religion who studies the American Jewish community. Currently an Adjunct Fellow at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, she is an alumna of the Teachers Institute of JTS and the daughter of Rabbi Joel S. Geffen z"l, who was Spiritual Advisor to the FJMC for more than four decades.
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