This week’s Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle focuses on my brother, Michael, in its piece about younger Jewish community leaders.Â
When Michael Kelsey became president of the Young Israel of Pittsburgh in October, he became the fourth generation of his family to serve as a congregation president, succeeding his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
What the Chronicle does not mention is that our great-grandfather (who had attended Yeshivas Yitzchak Elchonan, a school later absorbed into Yeshiva University), according to family legend, was instrumental in transforming his synagogue in Easton, Pennsylvania from an Orthodox synagogue into a Conservative one.Â
Granted, this was not “post-denominational,” but like most liberal ritual movements today, the early Conservative movement focused on rectifying the hot gender issue(s) of its day.Â Back then it was mixed seating, which was perceived as a most critical improvement for enticing a younger generation into synagogue attendance.Â By just taking down the dreadful mechitza,Â the eternal lamp would stay lit.
For most of my family, like so many Jewish families who moved into the Conservative camp, the family shul’s nod to the modern, relatively egalitarian reforms of the times proved over the generations to be a bridge, but not to enthusiastic Jewish involvement over the successive generations, but rather, from a Jewish perspective, the Conservative movement proved a bridge to Terabithia.Â On the Conservative movement side of my family, there are very few identified Jews left in the youngest generation.Â This is true of many such families.Â Â
This is not to suggest that all Jews should be religiously Orthodox.Â It is, rather, a suggestion that progressive Jews should not seek to reconcile their synagogue with their secular and political beliefs.Â When even in our sanctuaries we appear to apologize for the ostensibly reactionary and outdated nature of our civilization through successive nods to progress, we may no longer be risking that our granddaughters will be second class citizens in Jewish life, but instead, we are suggesting that our grandsons and granddaughters seek first class gentile citizenship in the superior, larger civilization.Â Our changes in the synagogue demonstrate our own conviction of that superiority.
Not that this is the end of the world.Â But let’s not fool ourselves about the message sent by a synagogue’s striving for accordance with secular norms.Â
In my discussion with many in the more ritually liberal camp, I have found a presumption of ignorance about the magic wand of “halachic progress,” as well as an assumed “insensitivity to gender issues” (academic for ignorance) to those who disagree with them, as well as suspicion of religious fundamentalism.Â
Only a fraction of us have descended from these earlier progressive movements are still Jewish.Â Â How many of you who demand similarly motivated changes can trace your family back to the beginnings of the Conservative movement in this country like I can? If yours does, how has it worked for your extended family?
Judging by the way so many of the leaders and layman of these new movements think these ideas are truly new merely because of new names or labels, I can’t help but assume they came to non-Orthodox movements much later than my family did.Â If they did go back as far in these movements, they should be more wary of the end results.Â History does not stop with our generation. At least, it has never done so before.
There is a strong parallel in the axioms of today’s progressive movements to the movements of previous generations in their common desire for reconciliation of Jewish theology with the dominant secular, progressive ideologies.Â I expect similar end results with the progressive theological movements of today to the one that led to my extended family including many younger Christian members through intermarriage.
Not everything is ours to change.Â Sometimes when we tinker with things because we weren’t willing to wrestle with them, our descendants are even less willing to see the need to wrestle with them.Â