Thursday, November 26, 2015

At the Crossroads

Somebody sent me JTA synopsis of the biennial United Synagogue Convention, recently held.  The one two years back created a lot more interest than this one, but for all the quest for new initiatives, not much seemed to come of the effort or it escaped publicity.  I saw very few news reports of the current convention though I suppose eventually some of the comments will become podcasts to be tapped on the site.  In his book, Getting our Groove Back, Scott Shay recognized that for all the problems organizational Conservative Judaism has endured over a few decades, a fair number of them self-inflicted, implosion of the middle ground may be one of the great Jewish calamities of our day.  The problems seem to me so ingrained into a self-perpetuating culture, that I think remedies are better imposed externally than by insiders who thrived under current system, though at the expense of attrition.  Edited JTA Report.  My analysis for what it's worth.

JTA - Conservative Judaism is at a crossroads.
The movement is committed to Jewish tradition, but it’s seeing a growing number of its young people walk out the door — most often to Reform Judaism.

American Jews who self-identify as Conservative increasingly are leading lives at odds with the core values and rules of Conservative Judaism, especially when it comes to intermarriage. And the number of Conservative Jews has shrunk by one-third over the last 25 years.  In this movement meant to occupy the center ground between Orthodox and Reform, Conservative leaders are struggling to figure out how to appeal to a new generation of Jews without abandoning their core values or becoming a near-facsimile of Reform Judaism.

I'm less convinced they were ever really in the door.  Organizations that focus on institutional development often do that to the neglect of the people.  The kids there had Hebrew School which may or may not have given an education but exposed them to peers.  Ramah succeeded.  USY no doubt had the same cliques of times past, you were either in or out.  There was not a lot of attention given to creating loyalty.  Had there been, things like excluding athletes or musicians from USY office if their teams functioned on shabbos would not have happened.  They basically ranked obedience over autonomy, maybe even over talent.

“Tradition and change has long been considered a tagline of Conservative Judaism, a concise statement of what we are about,” said Margo Gold, international president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the movement’s congregational arm. “But in the 21st century, the vision of Conservative Judaism requires that we rethink this as a community and see what we really want our core message to be.”

I think they need to think less about the institutions and more about the people they would like to be participants.


“We’ve bought into the narrative of decline of our own movement,” United Synagogue’s CEO, Rabbi Steven Wernick, said in his address. “We need to stop shraying our kups [ Yiddish for ‘screaming our heads off’] about everything that is bad and get to work.”

In order to get to Mechilah, you have to start with Tochacha, then Tshuvah, then Selicha.  My sense is the leadership does not differ a lot from that of my shul which has also watched attrition.  They want business as usual but with better affiliation.  There's something a little irrational about this.

The focal point for the dilemma over how much to stick to tradition versus how much to change has been intermarriage. Though the movement forbids it and does not count as Jews those whose fathers are the sole Jewish parent, four out of every 10 Conservative Jews is marrying out of the faith, and community leaders want to reach out to intermarried Jews.
“We’re in an awkward situation where the sociology is pushing us in one direction, but our organizational structure is hindering us moving in the direction we need to be moving,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and an outspoken Conservative proponent of embracing interfaith families.

Some history for those younger than me.  Intermarriage became a focal issue about 50 years ago, my Bar Mitzvah era, prompted by a widely publicized article in a now defunct magazine entitled "The Vanishing American Jew."  The initial response from the Conservative Rabbi's was brisk, akin perhaps to what we see from the NRA on gun issues now.  Oaktag in various colors announced guest lectures by regional or national rabbis who would talk about intermarriage, with the recommended approach being a form of shunning directed at reversal.  Intermarrieds could not be members, the births of loyal members'  grandchildren could not be acknowledged with a faceplate in the siddur from a donation given to honor the occasion, some children could not attend Hebrew School.  Intermarrieds could not work as secretaries or math teachers at Schecter Schools but nuns could.  Eventually there would be kids, some halachically Jewish, some not, who themselves would need Education, USY, burial of their parents and grandparents, services where shunning is generally destructive, but at one time had widespread support not only from the Rabbis but from the baalebatim as well.  That approach, while nominally still there in a number of policies, some with the imprint of the Rabbinical Assembly's Committee on Law and Standards, has a natural history and reasonably predictable outcome of moving those affected to their next destination, which happens to be either a Reform affiliation or no affiliation.

There was perhaps no better illustration at the conference of the movement’s identity crisis than at its penultimate session. Led by Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, some 200-300 participants tried to brainstorm a new tagline for the movement – something that could convey its essence, appeal to young Jews and fit on a bumper sticker.

<snip, proposed slogans deleted>

While Sound Bites of various forms have digested anything from the Weekly Parsha at my synagogue to the news we get of the world, certain things require Machshava, thinking and analysis.   The flashy car ad might get you interested in getting a new car, the purchase requires that car be suitable.  A branding logo does not really address the substance of the organization and the often adverse experiences that people had while there.  Those are the roots of attrition and also the opportunities for its reversal.  Many places, including mine, are asking $2000 for a seat at the table to participate.  It does not fare well in competition with  other consumer purchases, magnified when the hype falls short.

That’s bad news for United Synagogue, which has seen the number of its member synagogues fall to 580 today from 630 in 2013 and 675 in 2009.
United Synagogue has acknowledged the problem. The opening session of the conference, held Sunday to Tuesday, was called “Moving Beyond the Crisis.”

Less people and less synagogues are only partially related.  My bar mitzvah synagogue and the place I looked forward to attending each shabbat as a resident are both gone, one largely a victim of demographics and aging, the other partially demographic and maybe some inability to attract newcomers.  The great congregations of the Lower East Side are long gone as well but the descendants of those who once worshiped there keep many a current place vibrant.  The synagogue membership figures can be deceiving, as there is sometimes tension between the United Synagogue, a sometimes heavy handed Rabbinical Assembly, and a local congregation trying to meet its own needs.  A better figure, which I've never seen, is what happened to the 95 congregations that are no longer affiliates.  The interpretation would be very different if they disappeared, merged, disaffiliated without disappearing.  The answer to disaffiliating would be to offer individual memberships, something that I have through the OU but which the USCJ feels might jeopardize congregational membership.


Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Calif., said that for the Conservative movement to survive and thrive, it must make adaptive changes for the 21st-century, not just technical changes.
“We will not find our way if we say: ‘Let’s have better board meetings and more strategic plans and better fundraising and different dues structures.’ Those are all very important technical changes; none of them are going to save us,” Feinstein said. “We’re only going to get saved if we start by saying: What is the truth of this movement and how can we best convey it to a new generation?”

Never found candor to be valued.  Congregations often dominated by modern day Nimrod's who impose their will, a Rabbinical Assembly Placement Service that just invites us to confess to Latznu at the next Viduy, and a very real sense that if you are not happy with what is there, something must be wrong with you or you must be inferior in some way.  Those are cultural changes.  Ten Year Plans directed by a Planning Maven using Power Point slides to Sulam alumni really doesn't fix something so scripted into the participants.

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Thursday, November 19, 2015


Our congregation finally addressed its albatross last shabbos, the classification of our shul's women as dhimi's, a protected but subordinate class of people.  Orthodox and other non-egal places like ours sometimes get a bad rap about how we treat our women, banning them from leading our worship based on assessments of Rabbis of yore whose world had a very different form than ours.  Whether you adhere to tradition or schect the Sacred Cow of these sages' ruling, the proper treatment of women is really a moral issue of our generation that cannot be simply dismissed or even undermined by a few guys in our minyanim whose Y-chromosome may be their principal asset.  Despite the subordinate religious standing of our women and those of any Orthodox congregation, it is also hard to escape the reality that the talent within our cohort far exceeds the talent within the movements that have brought women to ritual equality.  It is a matter of showcasing that talent, enabling those women to acquire those 15 minutes of fame that should be the destiny of all human beings.

To do that, AKSE arranged a suitable forum, not quite egalitarian but recognizable as parity if not equality.  A mechitza of balloons was placed, some Tircha d'Tzibburah imposed by the Rabbi by having two services each at inconvenient times to run consecutively when they could have just as well run simultaneously, and the service that people actually attended conducted half by women and half by men.  Pseudkei D'Zimrah, Torah Service, half the Aliyot, and Haftarah all performed expertly by some very outstanding women, all far more capable than those Ritual Committee denizens who impede them.  Rabbi stayed in the background, no Aliyah Sound Bites, only the briefest of remarks on his part.  Some of these women can and have given pretty decent Divrei Torah at a collegiate level far in excess of the more typical fare that has become our norm, but with the time shift making a late morning, that opportunity had to be set aside.  And the women prepare an ever outstanding Kiddush each shabbos, duplicated for this shabbos as well.  What differed at this kiddush were the sincere congratulations bestowed upon the participants and a little more camaraderie than has been our norm, but something that should be aspired to.

With a little tweaking, this reflects AKSE at its best, a sanctuary that comes alive, that makes shabbos morning the sparkling centerpiece of a synagogue's existence, something it can really use as the favorable product differentiation that has been so difficult to achieve.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Preparing a Presentation

Each year AKSE holds a night of college level adult education known as the AKSE Academy, created by me and run by me until frustration in setting it up got the better of me and I walked away but others picked up the ball.  This year the committee offered me a slot to present something, opting for a medical ethics topic but giving me some leeway.  Narrowed down to three options:  The Sages Guide to Electronic Medicine, The Otisville Minyan and Other Tales of Frum Misconduct, Tircha D'Tziburrah or burdening the congregation.  Each has the potential to take a little poke at people's personal experiences, amid a cast of presentations that seem more pedantic, or at least removed a bit from what people encounter Jewishly or personally.

There's a certain Jewishness and a certain reality to each.  As I read and create medical records each day, there is a certain misrepresentation built into the electronic form where people do the illusion of a physical exam and discharge analysis but establish a document for payment, known by the Rabbis as genevat da-at.  Every frum criminal has loyal supporters and rationalization of the crimes committed, or at least offset by the ill gotten gains going to tzedakah.  And for Tircha, don't even get me started on Aliyah Sound Bites.

So I have a week to decide, then it's on to sources and Power Point.

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