First woman to head Rabbinical Assembly

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld knows well that Conservative Judaism has been smacked around a lot in recent years, accused by insiders of being apathetic, unfocused, lacking in message and purpose.

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But Schonfeld is eager to shake up Conservative Jews, in part by helping them see how much Judaism’s “moderate” movement has contributed to Jewish life -and continues to give.

“The Conservative movement is the most undervalued stock in Jewish life, hands down,” she said.

On Wednesday, Schonfeld will become the new executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,600 Conservative rabbis around the world. At 43, the White Plains resident is believed to be the first woman to get the top executive position with any rabbinical group.

She’s less interested in cracking a glass ceiling, though, than giving a spiritual and organizational B12 shot to her fellow Conservative rabbis. The native of the Riverdale section of the Bronx and Yale graduate brings a background in theater, an engaging personality and a passion for the cause to what promises to be a demanding job.

She’s been with the Rabbinical Assembly for eight years, serving as director of rabbinic development.

“This is a time of intensive internal re-examination,” Schonfeld said. “While it is a challenging time, it is a wonderful time. The Conservative movement can create a visionary model for the Jewish future.”

She will replace retiring Rabbi Joel Meyers, also a White Plains resident, who has led the Rabbinical Assembly for 20 years. He said Schonfeld is the right choice to lead Conservative rabbis into the movement’s next era.

“She is learned, she is sensitive and she is assertive in a wonderfully compassionate way,” Meyers said.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the Conservative movement largely represented mainstream American Judaism. In recent decades, though, Orthodox Judaism has been thriving and the liberal Reform movement has seen its numbers grow.

A major national study showed that the percentage of synagogue members calling themselves Conservative fell from 51 percent in 1990 to 33 percent in 2001 – inspiring a decade of Conservative self-examination that is still under way.

Schonfeld’s mantra is that if the Conservative movement re-emphasizes its historic mission – to study Jewish law, tradition and ritual so it can repair and sanctify the larger world – the movement will regenerate itself.

“Conservative Judaism gives us this integrated, holistic approach to Jewish life, where the ethical and the ritual are inextricably intertwined,” she said, laughing at the tongue twister.

She contends that Conservative rabbis have long been the driving forces behind innovative programs that are not identified as strictly “Conservative.” So the movement hasn’t gotten credit and maybe has lost sight of its vital role in the larger Jewish community.

She points to the Jewish Service Corps, the independent minyan and havorah movements, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, and others.

Schonfeld is determined not to let this happen with Magen Tzedek, a closely watched Conservative effort to apply new ethical standards and certification to the kosher-food industry. The initiative, born after labor abuses were revealed in 2007 at a kosher-meat plant in Iowa, will consider factors like employee health, safety and training, and a company’s environmental record.

“Every action we take in our lives has to reflect the sacredness of the world,” Schonfeld said. “So how workers are treated in Postville, Iowa, is every bit as important to my kosher food as knowing the animals were slaughtered according to Jewish law. This is a classic case of Conservative innovation that is becoming part and parcel of our movement.”

Schonfeld also wants to market the Conservative brand in other ways.

She has already been appointed a director of public policy in Washington – where Orthodox and Reform voices have been much louder – and a director of Israeli affairs. And she’s restructuring the Rabbinical Assembly’s social action efforts to work more closely with established groups like American Jewish World Services.

When Rabbi Norman Lamm, chancellor of Yeshiva University and a veteran Orthodox leader, recently said that Conservative and Reform Judaism are on the way out, Schonfeld quickly issued a statement saying Lamm should save his “tired and false mantra.”

“We have to be much more vigorous in our public response,” she said. “We have a powerful message for the public square.”

Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center of White Plains, where both Schonfeld and Meyers are members, said Schonfeld is the right person to serve as rabbi to the Conservative rabbis.

“She has a good grasp of some the public-relations issues connected with projecting the message of Conservative Judaism,” he said. “She is a creative person and is used to thinking outside the box. At the same time, she is quite grounded. It’s a wonderful combination.”

The Rabbinical Assembly represents about 1,600 rabbis, including some 1,200 in North America and 200 in Israel, with most of the rest in Europe and Latin America.

About 300 are women. The Conservative movement began ordaining women in 1985.

Schonfeld’s maternal grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. She grew up in a culturally Jewish, but nonreligious home.

After college, she worked for four years for the New York Shakespeare Festival, helping students from Harlem, Chinatown and elsewhere write plays based on their cultural and community stories. This experience – combined with a trip to Israel – got her thinking about becoming a rabbi.

“What is a rabbi other than someone who helps develop this kind of meaning in their community?” she asked.

She will take the reigns of the Rabbinical Assembly during a rare period of change for the leadership of Conservative Judaism. Also Wednesday, Rabbi Steven Wernick will become executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents about 700 Conservative synagogues.

He replaces Rabbi Jerome Epstein of New Rochelle, who is retiring after 20 years.

In recent months, two Conservative groups, one made up mostly of rabbis and the other lay-led, assailed the United Synagogue’s leadership.

In an e-mail, Wernick said he expects to work well with Schonfeld, an “innovative thinker.”

“She and I share a vision of a dynamic Conservative Judaism rooted in communities of knowledgeable, engaged and committed North American Jews,” he wrote.

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