On the wall in my study is a black-and-white photograph titled “Family Reunion of Mr. & Mrs. H. Tilsen and Gertrude’s Wedding, 4 February 1923, Milwaukee.” Seated in the middle of a large group of their children and grandchildren is a distinguished looking couple, my great-grandparents, Herschel and Chaia Tilsen, of blessed memory. Visitors to my study sometimes comment on my great-grandfather, with his long beard and black cap (pictured at right), saying, “He must have been very Orthodox.” They would not be more mistaken if they were to say, “He must have been a Hippy.”
My great-grandparents were decent people and observant Jews. When he caught his partner in the rag-peddling business adding rocks, thereby cheating customers of a few pennies, Herschel refused to work with that man ever again. Herschel and Chaia kept a kosher home, did not light fires on shabbat, said their daily prayers, and gave tzedaqa (charity). And they went to a Conservative shul.
When they were born in 1857, there was no such thing as an Orthodox or Conservative Jew. There were just traditional Jews, of varying degrees of observance, differing outlooks, following local standards. There were already Reform Jews, and there were Hasidim and Mitnagdim and Maskilim. But to call anyone Conservative or Orthodox would be anachronistic. It wasn’t until some time later that the Orthodox and Conservative Movements were formally constituted with platforms and institutions.
The Conservative Movement is both the newest and the oldest movement. Of the three major movements in America — Reform, Orthodox, and Conservative — the Conservative Movement was the last to be formally constituted, in the 1880s. It was formed by religious and communal leaders who saw the Reform Movement breaking away from traditional Judaism by abandoning kashrut, changing Shabbat to Sunday, and radically altering the siddur. At the same time, these Conservative Founders — who included many Sefardim along with Ashkenazim — saw the recently-constituted Orthodox Movement as deviating from the tradition of halakhic development and intellectual enlightenment that has characterized our cultural and religious history.
These Conservative founders viewed themselves not as leaders of a new movement, but to the contrary, as guardians of the old tradition, as the leaders of the masses of traditional Jews who declined to follow the deviant approaches of Reform and Orthodox. In that sense, Conservative was the oldest of the three major groupings. It was not until the 1960s that Conservative leaders fully recognized that Conservative Judaism was not simply the non-movement of the non-Reform and non-Orthodox, but rather a distinct movement in its own right. It was not until the 1990’s that the United Synagogue took the name United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
My great-grandparents followed in the footsteps of their parents in living as observant traditional Jews. They were not Orthodox. They were not Hippies. They were by definition Conservative Jews. I am proud to be a Conservative Jew like my great-grandparents. May God grant that I be blessed with great-grandchildren who will carry on this tradition.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen