The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' (JCPA) Institute for Global Jewish Affairs
The Future of Conservative Jewry
Interview with Chancellor Arnold M. Eisen
- Conservative Jewry faces three major challenges. These concern its message, its quality control, and its structure. The definition of the message has become a priority in part because of the blurring of the boundaries with other movements.
- Quality control is a prime issue because Conservative Judaism depends on "franchises." It relies on local organizations - synagogues, camps, day and congregational schools, youth groups, men's clubs, and sisterhoods - to provide a quality product.
- Conservative Judaism has structural problems because it only has a loose umbrella body, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism. Up to twenty different organizations are represented there and in such a framework it is hard to function in a unified manner. A major restructuring of the movement is underway.
- Ten elements define Conservative Judaism's worldview: learning, community, klal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), Zionism, Hebrew, changing the world, mitzvah (commandment), time, space, and God. A major project to make Conservative Jews more aware of the role of mitzvot has been undertaken at the initiative of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"Conservative Jewry faces three major challenges. These concern its message, its quality control, and its structure. When I speak throughout the United States to Conservative Jews, many of them do not know what the movement's message is. Even some rabbis complain that they are not able to convey its essence to their congregants. Some seem not to know it themselves."
Arnold M. Eisen, one of the world's foremost experts and authors on American Judaism, is the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). Before coming to JTS, he was the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion at Stanford University.
Eisen stresses that, despite the fact that the current primary threat to the Conservative movement is not ideological, one has to analyze the message first. "The Conservative movement, including the JTS, has fallen down somewhat on conveying our message. The last systematic effort was Emet Ve-Emunah (Truth and Faith) in the 1980s, a statement of the principles of Conservative Judaism issued by JTS and the major bodies associated with the movement. Since then we have done little in this area.
"The definition of our message has become a priority for several reasons. One is that on our left side, in the Reform movement, there have been changes that have made it look more like Conservative Judaism. On the right side, a type of left-moving Modern Orthodoxy has emerged in New York and a few other places. Rabbi Avi Weiss's seminary Yeshivat Chovevei Torah ordains women in a way that is partly similar to that of male rabbis (though without all the same roles and obligations). Thus some people leave Conservative Judaism because they want something more to the left or the right. This new blurring of boundaries requires a clear definition of what Conservative Judaism stands for. JTS will be taking the lead on this matter, with which we have already started.
"Currently one cannot take for granted that a person born Jewish is going to remain committed to Judaism. Certainly one cannot assume that a person raised in one denomination is going to stay in it. One thus has to give Jews a good reason to be Conservative. Intellectuals tend to overvalue the importance of ideology. The quality of a person's experiences within the movement may, however, count for more than its message."
"Quality control is thus a prime issue that the Conservative Movement has to confront. This process affects every business and institution. For an international organization like Conservative Judaism, which depends on 'franchises,' it is particularly important. We rely on local organizations - synagogues, camps, day and congregational schools, youth groups, men's clubs, and sisterhoods - to provide a quality product. We have many fine professionals and first-rate institutions. Yet we must admit that some others are mediocre or even worse."
Eisen observes: "Quality control is so important because any individual's judgment of Conservative Judaism is based on what he or she encounters on the local level. At present we cannot ensure overall quality throughout the movement. We cannot see to it that every school, synagogue, summer camp, and youth group is performing well, let alone make sure that it is good all the time.
"That quality control is a genuine problem in part results from the structure of the Conservative movement. Reform has a distinctive edge in this matter thanks to the existence of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which is a unified organization. There is one person at the top of its hierarchy, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. Together with Rabbi David Ellenson, the head of Hebrew Union College, he sets most of the course for Reform Judaism."
A Loose Umbrella Body
"Conservative Judaism has only a loose umbrella body, the Leadership Council of Conservative Judaism (LCCJ). The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) represents the congregations. We have separate men's and women's groups and a distinct women's league. The educators are separately organized and so are the rabbis and cantors. The Israeli operation is unattached. The LCCJ meets several times a year. Up to twenty different organizations are represented there and in such a framework it is hard to function in a unified manner.
"The USCJ will be fundamentally reorganized in the near future. I would like to see a unified Conservative movement with a similar structure as the Reform movement has through the URJ. In the reorganized USCJ, the spiritual and intellectual leadership will come primarily from JTS. I hope we will have a closer relationship with the congregations, schools, youth groups, and camps.
"It is also possible that, in the future, some of the USCJ's educational functions will be performed by JTS. This would give us a more direct link to the Solomon Schechter day schools. At present JTS has mainly indirect influence on most of them. We are involved in the training and professional development of Jewish teachers. Some come back for further training when they are already in the field. Furthermore, we plan part of the schools' curriculum. We could, however, have much more valuable input."
"JTS also has a certain amount of influence at the Ramah camps, which operate under our auspices. Many Ramah staff members are JTS students or graduates and part of the curriculum is planned by us. We intend to make Camp Ramah more of an integral part of JTS in the future. We are at the beginning of a strong relationship with the United Synagogue Youth. We want to develop connections with youth much earlier and not just wait for some youngsters to come to us later as college or rabbinical students.
"Camp Ramah at one time was totally Hebrew-speaking. This is no longer the case. The Hebraism movement has declined in general in the United States. One of the gaps between American Jews and Israel derives from there being so few American Jews with any knowledge of Hebrew. Their number seems to be shrinking even further. We will have to make an effort to reverse this trend.
"If there were an organized Conservative body we could, for instance, plant synagogues in areas where Jews are moving, such as the South or the Southwest. Even if we expect, for instance, more Conservative Jews to move into Tucson, Arizona, in the next ten years we cannot in an organized way establish a new Conservative congregation there.
"Similarly, there is currently great potential to build Masorti (Traditional) Judaism in Israel, Latin America, and Europe. But we don't have the wherewithal to do it, as the organizational resources are lacking to meet the demand on the ground."
"Structure is also important because, as noted, many of our challenges are not ideological. The leading challenge Conservative Judaism faces today is demographic in nature combined with a lack of economic resources to deal with it. Conservative Judaism has been strong for decades in many small towns, especially in the Midwest and the Northeast. These are losing population in general and Jewish inhabitants in particular.
"Many Conservative congregations are closing or are under siege in less successful economic areas. There are also regions of the country like the Midwest that are losing Jews to other parts of the country, like the Southwest, where Reform is traditionally stronger.
"Detroit is an example of a major town that is currently under severe economic strain. That also spells many problems for Conservative day schools and other institutions there. The economic issues are unrelated to ideology. We cannot be quick enough to follow with new institutions those Jews who are leaving for other areas. There are also parts of Long Island that are losing Jews and where Conservative Judaism has been traditionally strong. This is a further example of how Conservative institutions have weakened, because of demography and economics."
Conservative Judaism's Potential for Israel
Eisen explains: "The uniqueness of a movement doesn't mean that every single thing it does differs from what others do. Uniqueness rather derives from the consolidation of what is done and how that is realized. Orthodoxy, for instance - despite its close involvement with Israel - has had very little impact on using the insights of Jewish tradition to influence the life of the contemporary state. Nor has the reverse happened: using the existence of Israel as an instrument to influence Jewish tradition. Orthodoxy has not dealt, for instance, with what Judaism has to say regarding the health care system, or environmental policy, or foreign affairs.
"Conservative Judaism has a great deal of unfulfilled potential on these issues concerning Israel. This results from the way we approach Jewish tradition. On the one hand, we maintain it; on the other, we are open to flexibility and change. To use this potential, we would have to find ways to overcome the Israeli government's favoritism for the Orthodox.
"Even more important is that it would require substantial funds that the movement does not have. The Masorti movement has about seventy congregations in Israel. Most are serviced by part-time rabbis because the congregations lack financial resources. For that reason as well, some of the congregations may not last very long. It's not a matter of ideology or organization - just of money."
"The main impact the Masorti movement has made in Israel is through the TALI schools. (TALI, the Hebrew acronym for Enriched Jewish Studies, is a network of 120 Israeli state schools committed to providing a pluralistic Jewish education for Israel's non-Orthodox majority.) The Schechter Institute in Jerusalem has trained thousands of Israeli educators who are teaching Judaism differently in public schools thanks to the training they received there. But it hasn't taught a large number of rabbis, because they cannot get jobs in Israel."
Eisen stresses that Israel is vital to American Jews. "It gives us hope and faith. Israel is crucial to the meaning of being Jewish for every American Jew who gives thought to this subject. American Jews can see there a society that is Jewish and lives in Jewish time and space. This is in some way continuous with the Jewish past, yet in other ways radically different.
"We need to develop the concept of Israel's vitality within the Conservative movement. The fundamental issue of Israel's reality and potential influence is not yet very relevant to many of our synagogues and schools on an ongoing basis. Thinking positively, this means there is much room for growth. We have to understand that overall, we are dealing with an issue that is not unique to Conservative Jews but rather common to American Jews as a whole, indeed to the great bulk of Diaspora Jews."
The Essentials of Conservative Judaism
In October 2007, Eisen gave a much-publicized speech to the Biennial Convention of the USCJ in Orlando. It was titled "The Things That Still Unite Us." He mentioned ten elements that, for him, defined Conservative Judaism: learning, community, klal Yisrael (Jewish peoplehood), Zionism, Hebrew, changing the world, mitzvah (commandment), time, space, and God. He elaborated on each of them.
Eisen now says: "I outlined there the essentials of Conservative Judaism. I based myself, on the one hand, on the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig who - without knowing it - was a great Conservative theologian. On the other hand, my thoughts were rooted in those of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was also a great Conservative theologian though he didn't call himself that.
"Based on their idea, I listed those ten elements that together make up the Conservative Jewish worldview. Some are shared with non-Jews, as we face many similar challenges. Some religions respond to these the same way as Judaism. We also have much in common with Jews who are not Conservative. One aspect is that nowadays Hebrew is shared not only with Orthodoxy but even Reform is moving back toward learning it. In the past this was quite controversial there.
"Reform was openly anti-Zionist for a long time. Great parts of Orthodoxy were not Zionist. Conservative Judaism can best be defined as wildly Zionist, almost from the very beginning. Although our strong Zionism doesn't distinguish Conservative Judaism from other contemporary movements, it is an integral part of our 'whole.'
"If one asks: 'Is Jewish peoplehood as important a concept in the Reform movement or in Orthodoxy as it is in the Conservative movement?' I would reply empirically, 'No.' As a scholar of modern Judaism, I would make the case that the Reform and Orthodox movements do not value Jewish peoplehood as a core plank of their movement as Conservative Judaism does. This is embodied in every major statement of the movement since Solomon Schechter.
"We have, however, to realize that ethnic Judaism is on the decline. When Steven Cohen and myself polled a representative sample for our book The Jew Within, close to half the interviewees said they felt no greater obligation to other Jews than to the rest of humanity."
History, Texts, and Traditions
"The key distinguishing mark between us and other movements is that Conservative Judaism insists that the Torah wants Jews to live Judaism in a way that is firmly grounded in and continuous with the history, texts, and traditions of the Jewish people. That means the tradition in all of its complexity, nuance, variety, and substance. On the other hand, we aim to be fully involved with society and culture at large that we are part of. I think this attitude directly emanated from the Torah as a guide for living.
"I do not regard Conservative Judaism as a compromise with modernity. Our tradition entails the commandment to love the Lord, our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. The word heart should be interpreted as the Torah means it to be: both mind and emotion, holding nothing back. The Torah does not want us to separate ourselves out from the world at large, but to be fully involved in it. This should be done at the same time as we are completely devoted to the Torah, to the mitzvot (commandments) and our tradition.
"Conservative Judaism insists that this, while difficult, is possible. The question, then, is how it is done. How can one be fully involved with contemporary society and culture and simultaneously be within the Jewish tradition? Heschel talked about the dialectic of halakha v'agaddah (law and tradition). Both are required for Judaism, as it was traditionally lived.
"What Heschel was arguing, essentially, was that Orthodoxy put the emphasis on halakha to the detriment of agaddah, while Reform put the emphasis on agaddah and eliminated halakha. His point was that both are absolutely necessary. The main example is that the divine revelation on Sinai and the laws are based on the agaddah that tells about it."
"The Conservative translation of this is that a strong sense of communal observances and norms unites Conservative Jews. The critique that Conservative Judaism needs more observance particularly as far as Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, and the dietary laws are concerned is well founded. The practice is that observance in the Conservative movement is way below that of the Orthodox and way above that of the Reform. It doesn't please me, but I think we have a chance to raise the level of Conservative observance, and we'll be trying to do this. The Mitzvah Initiative is designed to get people to think about those observances and norms, and to elicit more consistency and deeper levels of commitment.
"We have a vastly varied array of congregations across North America. There is no uniformity of observance. Still, there is a process of consensus and there is more cohesion than one might think. It is not that our rabbis are truly autonomous. Much of what happens in various communities depends on negotiations between the rabbi and the congregation.
"At present the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) is reexamining itself and trying to figure out how the halakhic decision-making process will work in Conservative Judaism. Will we, for example, take the view of the majority of voting committee members as normative? Will we strive through other means for greater uniformity in the movement? Will we clarify the role of the individual rabbi as mara d'atra (the local authority) in relation to the law committee and movementwide standards? I think we must resolve such matters quickly so as to achieve greater agreement on what is normative for and/or expected of Conservative Jews.
"The leading members of the CJLS have been very active in influencing the movement in the last decades. These include Elliot Dorff, Gordon Tucker, Joel Roth, and Avi Reisner as well as others. They are highly respected but, once again, we do not have the right structures in place to bring their work to full fruition.
"One cannot move ahead if one denies that Judaism has been changing throughout the centuries. Gershon Cohen, a former chancellor of JTS, was probably the greatest historian of Judaism in his generation. He was often asked why Jews could not live the same way as they had always done. He loved the question so that he could contradict it.
"Cohen used to reply, 'Show me what Jews have always done. Obviously we have Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox Jews claiming that they are doing things the way they have always been done while other Jews have left these behind.' He added: 'I'll show you a history of constant change and innovation within the framework of the inherited Jewish past.' He was right. The issue is not one of tradition versus change - or even tradition plus change - but that there cannot be a tradition without both the elements of continuity and change. That is what Conservative Judaism has to stand for."
Achieving a Balance
Eisen adds: "We should avoid focusing exclusively on externalities, even if that is what many people look at. The classical questions were: is the prayer in Hebrew? Do men and women sit together? Then the synagogue must be Conservative. If men and women sit separately, it must be Orthodox; if they sit together and the service is in English, it must be Reform. We should much rather say that there is a style of being both in the modern world and in tradition that is specifically Conservative.
"In the Conservative movement, any question can be asked. The method of asking these questions and answering them is different from that of both the Orthodox and Reform movements. To realize this, one need only go to the rabbinical schools of the movements or to one of the congregations to hear what is said from the pulpit. This comes back to the issue of the Conservative movement both respecting halakha and being an integral part of the modern world. There is a balance between the two and I consider that this is best achieved in the Conservative movement.
"Furthermore, if one does not master Hebrew and does not put an emphasis on the range of Jewish texts that are learned in their original language, one cannot have a firm grasp of tradition. One can't know, intelligently, how to carry Judaism forward unless one understands the Jewish past in its complexity and variety."
Israel, a Paradigmatic Case
"If one understands the ten elements mentioned, one can easily see how Conservative Judaism differentiates itself from Orthodoxy on the one side and Reform on the other. We would, however, be wrong to define ourselves only in terms of what we're not. One should instead define oneself by what one is. I read the commandments to live Judaism in a way where I choose to understand what life, blessing, and goodness are. These, I am told, are not across the sea or in Heaven but in one's heart to do. To me this is a message that demands Conservative Judaism. How do I know in which way to live this tradition today? The answer is that I have to comprehend in great depth what it has been and also to fully understand contemporary circumstances. I have to live in this world, not hanging back from it.
"Israel to me is the perfect, urgent, paradigmatic case for Conservative Judaism. It is an utterly revolutionary element in the development of Jewish life. The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz was in the 1950s very eloquent on this point. He said that this reality demanded both a new halakhic and a new aggadic response.
One now had to take account of and apply what is 'Jewish' about politics, economics, and foreign policy in the new century.
"One cannot look up the readymade answers in the classic codex of the Shulchan Aruch or elsewhere in our sources. This Torah has to be created further. This can only be done if one is firmly involved in contemporary society and culture, as well as thoroughly grounded in the past and tradition. In Israel, however, most contemporary Orthodoxy lacks a principle of change and is much too hesitant. One has to say: 'This is a different reality. Torah needs to speak to this reality and thus must be adapted and brought forward. I want to stress: not to be cut back.'"
Gap between Rabbis and Many Members
Eisen observes that in Conservative Judaism there is a gap between the attitudes of the rabbis and the most observant members on the one hand, and many other members on the other. "There is an overlap in observance between our rabbis and perhaps 10 percent of our laypeople. Once we make this elite much larger, the difference between the movements will be much more apparent.
"One of the great achievements of Modern Orthodoxy in the last generation has been the reduction of a similar gap in its movement. People don't remember that there used to be many members of Orthodox synagogues who didn't keep kosher. This situation has now vanished.
"Orthodoxy has done a wonderful job in educating its laypeople by building strong communities where observance is normative. Reform has a very small gap between leaders and congregants because of its lower level of observance. The data collected by Steven Cohen show a significant gap between the Reform and Conservative movements concerning the level of observance. This is true for variables such as the Sabbath and keeping kosher.
"If, however, one takes a commandment such as assuming leadership of the Jewish community, one finds many Conservative Jews at the top. One will find higher levels of involvement with communal service than among Reform or Orthodox Jews. But I'm the first to admit that unless we can raise levels of observance - and in particular of Shabbat, the Jewish holidays, learning, and kashrut (the kosher laws) - the movement cannot stay strong. We will lose both many young people and the most committed adults unless we can give them something comparable to Orthodoxy when it comes to these key issues.
"When I go to Conservative congregations, I often say that there is a problem in dealing with young persons who come back from the Pardes Institute or the Conservative Yeshiva in Israel, or Camp Ramah. These may have an intense experience of Jewish learning and/or prayer. I then ask: 'Can these people find intense learning on a high level in your congregation or community? Is there a passionate prayer service available in your congregation? If your young people have to go to Orthodoxy to replicate that kind of prayer, it's a disgrace and we don't deserve it.' Clearly the movement has work to do in this regard. And rather than give up on it and assume it can't be done, I think there's a lot to build on while preaching norms."
A Shabbat Community
"For Shabbat, one needs a Shabbat community. Too many Conservative congregations do not have those. When traveling I meet a lot of loyal Conservative Jews who want our movement to succeed. They can't imagine themselves being Orthodox or Reform. Even if they might go to services at a Modern Orthodox or a Chabad congregation, they don't regard themselves as identifying with them. They consider themselves Conservative Jews and are looking for our institutions to bring them home.
"There's no doubt sociologically that it is easier to have a Shabbat community if one walks through the streets, sees others walking, and meets people at the synagogue one can invite to walk home for lunch. It's harder when one has to invite them to drive their car to your house.
"Conservative Judaism was weakened by the rabbis' decision to allow driving on Shabbat. On the other hand, if Conservative Judaism had not made that decision it would have a fraction of its current membership. It would perhaps not even be alive today were Jews not riding on Shabbat. It is both a weakness and a necessary condition of Conservative Judaism today."
Demands from Rabbis
"JTS has always aimed at a standard of great observance. The demands from our rabbis will continue to be high. We have never accepted the tshuvah (legal decision) that allowed driving on Shabbat. JTS rabbis and faculty do not, nor do I. We demand a high standard of kashrut and so on. We want to inspire our rabbis to be models for Conservative Judaism.
"Our rabbinical school could last much shorter and be cheaper to run if we didn't insist on a profound degree of learning. We must have rabbis who are as learned if not more learned than the most knowledgeable members of the congregation. We reject many candidates because we insist on very high levels of learning and observance in this program. American Jewish University is not identical, but similar in its standards.
"As far as outreach is concerned, I tell rabbinical students at JTS that if they cannot exhibit the same love for the Jewish people and Judaism as Chabad rabbis, then they have chosen the wrong profession. The Conservative movement is strong on academics; we have many PhDs who can speak with all the required footnotes. We are, however, not good at conveying passion in our services. Heschel spoke already fifty years ago about synagogues lacking fervor. One can only have a missionary capability if one has a very clear message.
"Chabad, however, doesn't reach out to non-Jews. I think Conservative Jews could do much in this field, especially given the increase in intermarriage. I want to reach out to the non-Jewish partners and convert them. This approach requires a missionary quality.
"Harold Schulweis, a Conservative rabbi in California, was proselytizing to non-Jews who had no connection with Jews through marriage. That approach is problematic. On the one hand, we have a religion that can mean something to non-Jews. On the other hand, once you missionize to non-Jews you cannot complain about Christian missions working among Jews."
A Major Project: Mitzvot
"When I came to JTS as chancellor, I knew that I could initially only start one major project. I had to begin somewhere and asked myself what JTS was going to do for the Conservative movement in the opening years of my chancellorship? I decided that we had to get Conservative Jews talking to each other about mitzvot, about studying and doing mitzvah together. I had learned from Heschel that one can't talk about halakha if people have no concept of mitzvah.
"We thus launched this project in the Conservative movement. This year, about fifty congregations plus JTS's Schechter schools and some Ramah camps will talk, study, and do mitzvot. The participants will reflect on what they mean, and hopefully increase the level of doing mitzvot and awareness of them in their congregations. One can only have a strong Conservative movement with a strong notion of mitzvah.
"The mitzvah initiative consists of having small groups in congregations discussing what they believe obligates them and why. The instinctive response of American Jews, like Americans in general, is that a commandment is the opposite of freedom. They consider themselves sovereign and free and therefore no one should command them. But, if one pushes them a bit, they realize that they do have obligations and responsibilities. Some are evident such as those to their children, aging parents, friends, and also to their community. Many also recognize that distinctive responsibilities exist - because they are Jews - to Judaism and to other Jews.
"If one insists on asking these people why this is so, some of them reply that it is a matter of conscience. When they start talking in an honest way, God often enters into the discourse, even if they do not believe in divine revelation on Sinai. Yet these people admit their special obligations as Jews, which for many of them are connected to God.
"Once this has been said one can start explaining the concept of the mitzvot, which have a very broad range. Some are in one's home, such as keeping kosher and making kiddush (a ritual blessing) on Shabbat. Other commandments are fulfilled primarily in the synagogue or in the community. Yet others are between a man and his friends and toward other people in society. Again, others are between man and God. Some commandments are distinctly Jewish; others are more general and should concern all people, such as working against genocide in Darfur and helping to save the planet.
"The essence is that Jews do feel a sense of obligation and a belief in God. We will have to enable them to put these things together coherently in a way that hasn't been done before. Many rabbis, to whom I have talked, told me that they had never thought about the mitzvot themselves in this way, let alone spoken to their congregations about them. Our yearlong curriculum on the mitzvoth will enable this process.
"Bringing this program to the congregations is just the beginning. We will cooperate with the sisterhoods and the men's clubs. We will do more at the Schechter schools, the Ramah camps, and the United Synagogue Youth. The nature of the conversations about mitzvot will be an important issue that further separates Conservative Jewry from the other denominations. One might call it a practical theology derived from Rosenzweig and Heschel.
"We cannot accept what Steven Cohen and I call the 'sovereign self,' an individualism that borders on narcissism. I believe that American Jews walk around with a much larger notion of being commanded and being obligated than they initially wish to acknowledge."
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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 Steven M. Cohen and Arnold M. Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002).
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Arnold M. Eisen, one of the world's foremost experts and authors on American Judaism, is the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Before coming to JTS, he was the Koshland Professor of Jewish Culture and Religion at Stanford University. He has also taught at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University. Chancellor Eisen received a PhD in the history of Jewish thought from Hebrew University as well as degrees in religious thought from Oxford University and the University of Pennsylvania. His many publications include a personal essay, Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America (1997), and The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (2000), coauthored with sociologist Steven M. Cohen.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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