By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin of Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation in Northfield was recently installed as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international membership organization of Conservative/Masorti rabbis.
One of her priorities as leader of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents 1,700 rabbis worldwide, is to take an organization that is international and “think about how we can break it into smaller parts in order to help fulfill the needs of rabbis. We’re looking to see how we can become a networked organization and how to really help rabbis help other rabbis.”
The Rabbinical Assembly, she said, can do this by “breaking down rabbis by geography, common interest or where they are in their careers. We’re taking a big organization and trying to make it smaller.”
Newman Kamin also serves on the Chancellor’s Cabinet of the Jewish Theological Seminary which trains and ordains Conservative rabbis.
Nearly one-fifth of American Jews identify with Conservative Judaism, a centrist movement that aims to bridge traditional Jewish observance with modern societal norms. “The thing about Conservative Judaism in today’s world that is unique is that we really are a centrist organization,” Newman Kamin said. “We have members on the right and members on the left both politically and religiously. I think in some ways, the Conservative movement has become countercultural because the culture that we live in is a polarized culture.”
Newman Kamin, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1990, said that the Rabbinical Assembly “believes very firmly in being a big tent that can bring in people even if they have different views. I think it’s a really important role in the discourse today because it’s hard to find an organization that really values a middle path. And it is really tempting to go to the right or go to the left, to affiliate yourself with only the people that are exactly like you.”
The Conservative movement is no longer the largest in America as it was post World War II. “But I think the type of Judaism we offer can really be helpful to the spiritual lives of American Jews today. The idea that there’s still a middle, moderate centrist path is important to add to American discourse today.”
Of the Conservative movement’s position on the State of Israel, Newman Kamin said that “Our members are Zionists and care very deeply for Israel, but like any family relationship there can be major disagreement. Our rabbis are deeply committed to supporting Israel and maintaining a relationship with Israel. But it’s not unusual to find public statements from the Rabbinical Assembly calling on Israel to live up to a higher standard.”
The Rabbinical Assembly has called on the Israeli government to stand by its commitment to build an egalitarian space at the Western Wall prayer section known as Robinson’s Arch. “It hasn’t been fulfilled by the Israeli government and we call on them to stand by the commitment they made to us.”
Israel loves President Trump as much as American Jews dislike him. “I think it points to Israel wanting so much to feel that they are understood and their challenges are understood. Israel feels very beleaguered and criticized by the media and certainly on the left. They are grateful for the support of an administration that seems to not have a nuanced view of the situation. I think it unfortunately adds to a big disconnect between the American Jewish population and Israel.”
Newman Kamin said there are still challenges for female rabbis or what is called the stained glass ceiling. “I’ve been at this for a long time. I see incredible career advancement for women over the course of my lifetime, but like so many other social changes, there is still a long way to go. It’s hard for women in the Conservative movement to become senior rabbis, even to become assistant rabbis in large congregations. In the Reform movement that’s almost normative, but not yet in the Conservative movement. Pay disparities are also a big challenge.”
Newman Kamin sees great potential and challenges for American Jewry. “I see so many things flourishing in the American Jewish community like new, small startup congregations that are forming all over the country. They are attracting 20-somethings who are interested in connecting with spirituality and Jewish practice.” She added that initiatives like Open Table are encouraging young people to celebrate Shabbat in their homes and invite other young people. Then there is Birthright, encouraging young people to travel to Israel.
“Having said that, we also face the challenge of assimilation. We have people coming in and people going out. That I think is the nature of an open society.” Newman Kamin likened the generational divide to her experience with her children and Judaism. “I tend to be somewhat philosophical. I always say to my kids when we disagree about something in politics or Judaism that I gave it my best shot. You will decide what this is going to look like for the next generation.”