We Can Fight Assimilation and Win
By: Gad Nahshon
"I agree that assimilation is a major danger to the future of Judaism in America. I do not challenge the fact of a 53% rate of inter-marriage among Jews, but I know and believe in our ability to fight this tendency and win. And I am optimistic by nature. I am from Cleveland, Ohio. My parents used to tell me all human beings are the same. But, today, when I visit many Jewish communities all over the country, I hear a different tune. Parents teach their children to be Jewish and to preserve their unique identity as Jews in America," remarked Jerome M. Epstein, a Rabbi, an educator, a psychologist, a scholar and an expert in the field of adult education.
For 13 years Rabbi Epstein served as the Executive Vice�President and the Chief Executive Officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. His headquarters is located in Rapaport House on Fifth Avenue. Rabbi Epstein is in charge of a huge kingdom in America, Latin America and Israel. Over there is the nerve center of the conservative movement and its plethora of organizations, agencies, and network of educational institutions such as the Jewish Theological Seminary. The Rabbi is in charge of organization, coordination and developing policies seeing the micro and the macro of this great movement: 790 conservative congregations with 1.8 million American Jews who define themselves as "conservative" mostly young and well educated. Their socio�economic profile is the same as that of the average Jew in America.
There is a youth movement with a membership of 25,000, a national network of daily schools or "Solomon Schechters", The League of Conservative Women, The Rabbinical Assembly with a membership of 15,000 Rabbis from North-America and other countries such as Israel or Argentina, a Cantor assembly, and 20 regional offices of the United Synagogue itself. Rabbi Epstein also has to deal and work with various board of trustees and donors, as well. Of course there are more bodies that the Rabbi has to work with. But it looks as if Rabbi Epstein enjoys this kind of pluralism, he masters the issues and the problems and he is ready for growth and applying his own formula to stop or, at least decrease, the process of assimilation: "I would also like to point out that we have "Mercas", the movement of Zionist conservatives and in Israel we have a movement of conservative Israelis or the Masoratin movement. We have 45 congregations with 10,000 members over there and our Rabbi and leader Ekud Bendel is a sabra. We also have strong centers in France, England and Argentina. We have also a world council to deal with the international aspects of conservative Judaism," said Rabbi Epstein.
He was ordained in the J.T.S. Later he studies psychology and received his Ed.D in the field of adult education (from Temple University). He served as a spiritual leader in a few congregations and later joined the United Synagogue apparatus. Rabbi Epstein ? ? ? ? ? "Hamadrich" (The Guide) and published many scholarly works especially on Jewish education and identity. What should we do in order to combat Assimilation saving Judaism in America or the biological future of this super-Jewry?
I asked Rabbi Epstein to illuminate the needed path of action. "First we have to teach Jews that by preserving Judaism as an integral part of their life, per se, they basically help themselves to improve their own lives. We told Jews that by coming to the synagogues, they help to save Judaism. Now we must teach the opposite. Being a good Jew who follows Shabbat's laws, for example, means to become a better person, per se. Second, we must develop non�stop programs for our target population � the young adults and the young parents. Let me explain. We sent children to Jewish schools or Sunday schools. The children think, "Well, Jewish education is only for us...Therefore, we must revolutionize this attitude. Jewish education must be an entire family one, children and adults alike." Rabbi Epstein sees the light at the end of the tunnel. "I feel a positive change. Parents today tend to preserve Jewish identity. There is a steady growth in our educational system. There is a growth of our schools and the summer camps as well. Also, we see a growth of 5% in the number of children who will visit Israel this year." Rabbi Epstein feels that the conservative movement is strong and united toward the challenges of the 21st century. He does not foresee the coming of new inside strugglers inside his camp.
As to the posture of his movement inside the establishment, he explained: "We are ready to speak and have a dialogue with the reform and the Orthodox movements. The Orthodox, 10% of the total Jewry (mainly New Yorkers) caused the dismantling of the synagogue council of America. They do not agree to speak to us. We believe in pluralism. We are looking for unity as well. We can work together in many fields despite the many differences among us." As to the issue of the new Israeli conversion law, Rabbi Epstein stated: "We do not preach for separation of state and synagogue. But we believe in pluralism and we are against the ultimate control of the Chief Rabbis. What we need is one united practice of conversion, period and the question of "who" is marginal. If our process of conversion is the same as the right process, it should be recognized by all. The stress must be on the essence of the process itself."
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