The final night of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial was filled with spirit and a call to action.

“We have one decade to ensure that Zionism is not taken over by fundamental Judaism in Israel,” Yizhar Hess, the executive director of the Masorti (Conservative) movement in Israel, said Monday night, Dec. 4, at the Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta.

Hess was joined by Rabbi Mauricio Balter, the executive director of Masorti Olami, to discuss a renaissance of egalitarian Judaism in Israel and the world. The two agreed that the Conservative movement and Zionism in general are threatened in Israel even as more Israelis choose to identify with the movement.

Rabbi Balter, who was born in Uruguay and made aliyah in 1995, said many Israelis want more structure from their Judaism: “People were very flexible for many years. Today they want definitions.”

But despite the increasing number of Israelis joining the Conservative movement, Hess is alarmed that fundamentalism has too much power. He pointed to the June suspension of plans to develop an egalitarian prayer space and share oversight at the Western Wall as proof.

He was somewhat critical of the North American branch of the movement. He told the crowd that a long-term lack of financial support stunted the growth of the movement in Israel.

“North American Jewry missed out,” he said. “They should have invested over the last 40 years but didn’t. And I’m only talking about tens of millions of dollars, not hundreds.”

Hess said the Conservative movement has 10 years to get back on track.

The highlight of the night came when Jerusalem-based liberal prayer community Nava Tehila performed inspirational prayers set to song.

It wasn’t quite a concert, and it wasn’t quite a service. After the first tune, the group asked the crowd not to applaud after each song; the result was a spiritual, intimate atmosphere. Still, the audience was so entertained by the high-energy group that applause broke out after certain songs.

Photos by David R. Cohen