Toronto’s Rabbi Philip Scheim says one of the perks of being the new president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the umbrella group for Conservative rabbis, is that he’s not American.
As the first Canadian ever to head the 1,700-member, New York-based RA, Rabbi Scheim says his nationality will bolster his efforts to make the organization more international in scope and reach.
His being Canadian “accentuates the priority to strengthen ourselves as an international movement,” Rabbi Scheim told The CJN in an interview. “Because a majority [of members] lived in the United States, there was a tendency over the years to be kind of American-centred.”
The Conservative movement has developed a strong presence in Israel, South America and Europe, and Rabbi Scheim has made it a priority to go global.
“The fact that that I’m not an American is helpful in that regard,” he said.
Rabbi Scheim, spiritual leader of Beth David B’nai Israel Beth Am Synagogue (known as Beth David) since 1984, was scheduled to be installed in his new post May 22 at an event in New York.
He “has emphasized the connection between his congregation and the State of Israel, and the importance of reflecting and exemplifying Canadian values in all of its congregants’ endeavours,” the RA said in a statement announcing his appointment.
Rabbi Scheim has been an officer of the RA for the past eight years and has served on its committee on Jewish Law and standards. He’s also a regular contributor to The CJN.
Founded in 1901, the RA has embraced change while adhering to tradition.
“It is precisely this traditional approach, which combines fidelity to inherited tradition and the courage to integrate necessary change, which motivates Conservative Judaism today,” states the RA’s website.
Conservative Judaism “insists on observance of tradition and respect for visionary change. [It] places its trust in its rabbis to be interpreters of Halachah and guides to Jewish life and learning. Each rabbi serves as halachic authority for his or her community, and our rabbis collectively give direction through the Rabbinical Assembly,” the organization says.
The group encompasses both the Conservative movement in North America and its affiliated Masorti movement overseas.
Among Rabbi Scheim’s priorities is to strengthen Conservative Judaism in Israel. He said the RA “is heavily involved” in Israeli policy on access to religious sites.
Earlier this month, reports in Israel said leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements in North America are organizing a trip to notify Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in person of their strong opposition to any changes in the plan to build a new egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
A 2013 poll found 3.2 per cent of Israeli Jews self-identified as Conservative. Rabbi Scheim said there are about 75 Conservative congregations in the country, a seminary and some 200 rabbis.
Apart from the “major goal to strengthen ourselves as an international movement,” another priority is to undertake strategic planning.
“We’re really looking to increase our level of service to our members, and by extension, to our communities. Many [RA members] do not head synagogues, but do chaplaincy, academic and on-campus work,” Rabbi Scheim said.
In the early 1990s, some Conservative rabbis bolted the RA and formed the Union for Traditional Judaism, a more right-leaning group.
Rabbi Scheim said the hot-button issues that threatened to split the Conservative rabbinate have been settled. Among them was the role of women.
“We’ve moved past some of the really difficult issues of the last few decades,” Rabbi Scheim said. “The movement is, by and large, egalitarian at this point, save for a few places in Canada [and] in Toronto that are not completely egalitarian. They have the right not to be, and I respect for them for that. We don’t legislate. We are pluralistic. We represent and respect different approaches.
“The truth is, there are no major schisms at this point. I don’t see a major split.”
He said nearly all Conservative synagogues in the United States are fully egalitarian.
Rabbi Scheim conceded that his thinking on the subject took a long time to evolve. His own congregation is fully egalitarian, “which I would not have envisioned 25 years ago.
“Over a very gradual process in my own development, I’ve come to see that the argument used to deny women access to ritual was much weaker than the incentive to involve them and empower them. The results have proven that was the correct course, but it took me a long time to evolve. I pride myself on the fact that I’m willing to change a position on a certain key issue.”