Conservative rabbis from around the world gather in St. Louis for first in-person conference in three years


Photo courtesy of the Rabbinical Assembly

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky and Rabbi Larry Bazer both live and work in the Washington, D.C. area. Sharofsky, director of intergroup relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council there, and Bazer, a military chaplain, are longtime friends and colleagues. A busy schedule makes it challenging for them to meet face-to-face, but a gathering this week in St. Louis provided the perfect opportunity to reconnect.

Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky and Rabbi Larry Bazer.
Photo by Bill Motchan

The Rabbinical Assembly convention brought together more than 180 members of the International Association of Conservative/Masorti Rabbis. It was the group’s first in-person assembly since 2019. For the past two years, the association has held COVID-induced virtual conferences. This year there was no online option. Rabbis traveled from all over the world to attend, and for many it was a welcome opportunity to catch up with colleagues.

“It’s wonderful,” said Bazer. “It’s the fellowship with colleagues. It’s being together as our conservative rabbinate, coming together to pray together, sing together, to learn together, to schmooze together, to see old friends. That’s what’s special about this.”

While virtual conferences offered a safe alternative with important content, they lacked the after-session camaraderie, Sharofsky said.

“We miss that part that happens right after the session ends and everybody mills around and you can ask each other, ‘What did you think about that?’ ‘What are you doing next?’ There are those transitional times when you can really get a chance to catch up and debrief,” she said.

The conference planners intentionally offered attendees many opportunities to decompress and de-stress, according to Rabbi Ilana Garber of West Hartford, Conn., director of Global Rabbinic Development for the association.

Rabbi Ilana Garber.
Photo by Bill Motchan

“We are here to nourish and nurture our rabbis who have been through two very long years,” said Garber. “We’re hoping they take away a sense of wellness. We wanted everyone to refresh, to be strengthened and renewed.”

The ability to do that was welcomed by the rabbis eager to see each other. Attendance was higher than usual, according to Rabbi Noah Arnow, who serves Kol Rinah locally and is the convention chair.

Rabbi Noah Arnow
Photo by Bill Motchan

“This is the biggest convention of conservative rabbis that we’ve had in 10 years,” Arnow said. “A lot more people came than we expected. It’s a really great turnout.”

During the four-day conference, the rabbinate attended a variety of sessions focused on the major issues facing Conservative Judaism and the world. One session focused on how to handle a situation where an engaged interfaith couple asks a rabbi to officiate at their wedding. A panel discussion on Nov. 7 addressed key learnings from St. Louis, using the Michael Brown killing as a backdrop to tackle racial justice and clergy partnership.

Along with personal development and current events discussions were opportunities for wellness and relaxation, like morning yoga and meditation.

“What became clear as we were planning this about a year ago, was we needed to focus on actually renewing and reconnecting rabbis,” said Arnow. “When we really thought deeply about what rabbis needed most of all, and most urgently, was just to be together and to get a little bit of nourishment.”

Among the attendees who appreciated the focus on renewal was Rabbi Daniel Isaak, rabbi emeritus of Neve Shalom in Portland, Ore.

“It’s an opportunity to get together with old classmates and friends who haven’t gotten together for a couple of years and just retool,” Isaak said.

Conference planners carved out sufficient time for attendees to visit local attractions. Rabbi Eli Garfinkel from Temple Beth El in Somerset, N.J., had just returned from an excursion to the Missouri History Museum and offered his take on significant issues for the Conservative movement.

“I think the most pressing issues affecting conservative Judaism are the same ones affecting all Judaism,” said Rabbi Garfinkel. “Those include the rise in antisemitism. That’s the number one concern.”

Rabbi Oliver Joseph, a conference attendee from London, England, had an optimistic view of the state of Conservative Judaism in the European region.

“We have stronger leadership and a really innovative and exciting program for communities,” Joseph said. “We have a relatively new rabbinical school in Germany, a campus at Potsdam University just outside Berlin, which just ordained three new rabbis.

“They are transforming the character of the European community. Within the next 10 years, the European clergy will double from where it was. It has doubled actually in the last 10 years and it will double again within the next 10 years, which is wonderful.”