Tuesday, October 14, 2014

A Year Later

Somebody sent me an item from his local Jewish newspaper about an assessment of how the Conservative Movement has spent the year since the release of the Pew Research Center report on American Judaism trying to create a turnaround.  This reality is not limited to Conservative Judaism, of course, nor is it precipitous.  My own congregation once had 700 members, I am told, and even during my time in the on the membership roster as a USCJ expatriate, the membership households have declined from a little above 300 to right about 200.  Board meetings talk not about the talent and energy that a vibrant membership can bring to the congregation but the necessity of adequate membership to be able to pay everyone's salary and have enough left over to keep the power company from making the shabbos goy irrelevant.  In the Conservative Movement the Rabbis and officers have been aware of disquiet among their talent for some time.  As long as forty years ago people were reading The Jewish Catalog where a chapter on Havurot implied a need for alternatives to an often insipid experience watching Bar Mitzvahs on shabbos morning.  Some congregations, including mine, experimented with Havurot.  We would meet monthly for study and schmooze but when push came to shove, the other members arranged amongst themselves a Sunday trip to Jewish Baltimore, not inviting us so as to not have to deal with young children.  There is a book by Dr. Jerome Groopman, an active Conservative Jew who acknowledged his Rabbi in his How Doctors Think.  How Baalebatim Think remains to be written but understanding this probably determines whether the non-Orthodox branches of American Judaism have any remote chance of recapturing the children of the participants they have lost.  Getting defectors like me back to the organizations abandoned for cause probably has little prospect for reversal.

United Synagogue's "Conversation of the Century", the theme of their last convention approaches its first anniversary with either little to show for the effort or little transparency to the activities that will restore Conservative Judaism and the organizations they sponsor to their former glories.  As a Pew Research Report poster child, one who despite decades of engagement always felt estranged from the mainstream, external to the USY cliques, and leery of any place that valued obedience more than talent, the survey's findings hardly surprised me.  Conservative kehillot can probably trace this skepticism among their proficient young participants to the early days of congregational Hebrew schools where selection for the Honor Roll correlated a lot more with behavior than intellect.  I could say the same for USY participants disqualified from holding office for wanting to be on their high school athletic teams or performers in the arts, defaulting to less capable students who were willing to show up for services on shabbos.  When you set your organizational values that way, you will eventually be left with neither talent nor much participation.  The concept of disruptive innovation had not yet arrived in the business world but nothing made me feel less valuable than being sidestepped by a Rabbi or two who did not take kindly to even the most polite challenge and by baalebatim manipulators who thought they could run the congregation from the back seat of a Mercedes Benz while the Rabbi drove.

As I read the various responses from within Conservative organizational sources, or even Orthodox sources, I wonder whether any of them really interviewed any of their former members as they proceeded onto their congregational exit ramps.  We will expose them to the beauty of a shabbat dinner.  They've already been to shabbat dinner.  Our committees will give them what pleases us.  They used to be there and it didn't please them.  We will develop leadership.  Attrition is already leadership generated.  These machers think they can kick Lucy's football just one more time, perhaps, and this time make it sail through the uprights for a score.  There are certainly turnarounds but they usually depend on outsiders who understand the benefits of schecting a few sacred cows.  That's just not what I see happening at present, either through the organized Conservative Movement or in my congregation.

Fortunately Conservative Judaism, whether the modern USCJ or AKSE, the surviving relic on what mainstream observant Conservative Judaism once was, has not really disappeared.  It has reassembled and will continue to as denominational labels become ever less appealing.

No comments: