Thursday, December 31, 2015

Or Might Not Be the Best Options

The 2 Options Left for Conservative Judaism

(JTA) — The Conservative movement was once the very embodiment of what it meant to be an “American Jew.”
As the 130th anniversary of the founding of its flagship Jewish Theological Seminary approaches in 2016, the centrist movement that historically straddled the polarities of Reform and Orthodox is struggling to maintain its identity and attract new followers. The movement’s congregational arm recently hired branding consultants to provide it with a clearer identity.

They might do better with a branding iron.

As one who was raised as a Conservative Jew, I believe there are only two realistic choices for the movement. One option is to acknowledge that it has become virtually indistinguishable from Reform Judaism and the two denominations could merge their institutional structures. The other option is to carve out a much narrower middle ground catering to the smaller group of Conservative Jews seriously committed to observing Jewish law but in an egalitarian worship framework.

There are many more than two realistic options.  While I greatly admire the thought that went into the Reform Movement's current siddur, Mishkan T'fillah, which opens many options for their Rabbis in conducting worship, it is a long way from Siddur Sim Shalom which carries a very traditional mode of worship in its pages.  This would not be a merger as much as a takeover.

The ideological roots of Conservative Judaism date back to Europe in the mid-19th century, but the denomination was defined by Solomon Schechter, who served as president of the Jewish Theological Seminary from 1902 to 1915. The Conservative movement clung to rituals far more tightly than did the Reform movement, which was characterized in those days by a pronounced rejection of Jewish law and tradition. But compared to Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism was more liberal in practice and ideology.
For many years, Conservative Judaism’s middle-of-the-road message was a very good fit for the majority of American Jews. By the 1940s the movement boasted the largest number of affiliated families.
What changed?

What seems to have changed in many respects is maturity of the movement with its adaptation to American reality, some of which went well and some of which did not.  Mixed seating and driving on shabbos have acquired prompt, widespread and permanent acceptance with little negative consequence other than perhaps dispersal of participants over a wider geographic area than if driving were restricted and maybe some ridicule in the manner in which the driving decision was reasoned and conveyed.  Egalitarianism is more mixed, widely accepted and expanding the talent pool but with a little baggage as it becomes one more litmus test for a movement that has too often created absolute You're In or You're Out choices among its participants.  I think that is one of the things that distinguishes mature organizations from those that are more entrepreneurial and fluid.

Sociologist Samuel Heilman has documented the growth and strength of Orthodox Judaism beginning in the later decades of the 20th century. Meanwhile, many Reform synagogues have manifested a return to tradition, embracing once-discarded practices such as Hebrew prayer, the celebration of life cycle events, and the wearing of kippahs and prayer shawls. In contrast, many of the Jewish law opinions of the Conservative movement have become more liberal on certain issues, further blurring some lines between Conservative and Reform Judaism. Natural attrition and an increasing number of unaffiliated Jews also have taken a toll. All of these factors have resulted in a one-third drop in Conservative movement affiliation over the past 25 years.

During my year of Kaddish about six years back, I worshiped at the Reform congregation which had a late Friday night service that would assure 10 Jewish men who I estimated by counting kippot at the start of services.  While tradition is back, it is a very superficial return.  Kippot are optional, not mandatory, the content of the liturgy varies from week to week based the many options the Mishkan T'fillah prayer book offers the Rabbi, Oneg shabbat is milchig though for occasional communal Federation shabbatot labelled pareve is offered, there is an organ, candles are kindled on the Bimah after sunset.  This is a long way from Conservative Light, distinguishable enough to make the worship experiences unique between the two.

The more compelling question is whether the particpants care one way or the other.  For me, I just wanted 10 Jewish men present for Kaddish and then took advantage of things like the best sermons and musical experience in town.  My own observance and Jewish knowledge remains Conservadox.

Visit most Conservative synagogues on a Saturday morning when there is not a bar or bat mitzvah and likely you will find mostly an older crowd. Where are the children of Conservative Jewish baby boomers? According to sociologists of American Judaism as well as anecdotal evidence, the really serious ones often migrate to modern Orthodoxy or attend independent prayer groups (minyans) that lack an official denomination. Many of the others put their Judaism “on hold” until they have a family, at which point many find Reform a better option for a variety of reasons — not the least of which is intermarriage. Since Conservative rabbis still are prohibited from performing such marriages, Reform becomes an easy choice for these couples. The 2013 Pew Report on the American Jewish community found that 30 percent of Jews raised Conservative have become Reform.

What your affiliate with and what you really are do not always coincide.  Many of the previously Conservative Jews who move in a different direction are more consumers of congregational affiliation than ideological affiliantion.  My own congregation while nominally Orthodox in most of its practices depends heavily of men raised and educated Conservative who found our local USCJ affiliate lacking in some way.  Many of those going Reform really have no ideological center.  They are purchasing with their congregational membership a cadre of friends, acceptance if they have intermarried, patrilineal descent if they need it for Bar Mitzvah, a Hebrew school large enough to give the kids social contacts, or the personality and intellect of the Rabbi.  It makes no difference to the consumer purchase if Torah is read from a scroll on shabbos.

A merger between the Conservative and Reform movements is more than a theoretical possibility. Surveys over the past 15 years show that although Conservative Jews still exhibit higher degrees of traditional observance than their Reform counterparts, a growing number of Conservative and Reform Jews agree on hot-button social issues such as interfaith and same-sex marriage, as well as the determination of Jewish status based on either parent rather than only the mother. A formal union between the movements could afford a majority of the American Jewish community a greater sense of unity as a result of one governing institutional structure rather than two.

This comes at a very high price, including a next generation without the education to decode Hebrew, the loss of very stable and valuable Conservative institutions such as Ramah and USY, the option for those who succeed to migrate towards Orthodox if that is appropriate.  Not a good deal for Conservatives.  In his outstanding book, Getting Our Groove Back, Scott Shay devoted a chapter to the evolving implosion of institutional Conservative Judaism, regarding it as one of America's great Jewish disasters.  While there is much reason to criticize those institutions and how they operate, the loss of transmission of tradition and knowledge which an institutional absorption of Conservative into current Reform would cause some very irreplaceable damage.

The alternative is for the Conservative movement to narrow its audience by refining its mission. A tribute to Conservative Judaism is that it has produced a core group of Jews whose daily lives revolve around Jewish law in a way closer to modern Orthodox Jews but who insist on an egalitarian worship community. By contrast, the Rabbinical Council of America, the largest organization of Orthodox rabbis, last month issued a resolution banning its members from hiring a growing number of Orthodox women who are being groomed as clergy.

These exist now, mostly as transdenominational assemblies of worshipers without engaging in the non-worship activities of a synagogue or subsets of people within an active Conservative synagogue who ditch Shabbat Service Lite to conduct full Torah reading et al in a smaller room while the usual service goes on in the main sanctuary with the hired clergy.  While it may be a form of salvage of Conservative Judaism, in another way it illustrates it failure to insist that what the central leadership aspires to remain the norm.

One of the distressing elements of how Conservative institutions present themselves in recent years has been the pitching of ideology over substance.  A congregation seeking members will advertise as egalitarian as their main draw when perhaps it should be the quality of the Jewish experience or its educational opportunities that forms their product differentiation.  Too many divrei Torah and Conservative sponsored podcasts promote the egalitarian ideology when they might be better promoting the insights of Torah without those strings attached.  

There was a time in my formative years when new suburban communities experiencing a growth in Jewish population would sponsor a form of Debate Night, inviting usually the Orthodox and Conservative Rabbi's of the community to tell the newcomers why they ought to consider their congregation.  The Conservatives sort of had an advantage.  We're just like them in worship but your family can sit together, you can live where you want and drive here, and the youngsters can go to the outstanding public schools and still learn enough for Bar Mitzvah with us.  It was a form of parity and then some.  When you promote egalitarianism as your distinguishing feature instead of the quality of the Jewish experience as your distinguishing feature you have irreversibly lost the parity that made you succeed in the past.

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Given that the center of Orthodoxy has moved further to the right over the years, it is highly unlikely that these views concerning female participation will change anytime soon. This reality opens the door for a slimmer but more cohesive Conservative movement that potentially could draw members from pockets of modern Orthodoxy as well the proliferating independent minyans sharing these practices. According to a national survey conducted in 2007, nearly half of those who attend independent minyans grew up in Conservative synagogues and another 20 percent in Orthodox synagogues. This group alone provides a solid target audience for a refined Conservative movement.

There was an interesting podcast by one of my favorite speakers Rabbi Jeremy Wieder on where he addressed the role of Modern Orthodoxy in current times.  While halachah as the Orthodox poskim interpret it cannot accept gender equality of worship, the more general Jewish theme of treating people in as dignified way as possible makes the role of women a moral imperative that cannot be ignored, and in fact wasn't ignored in Biblical and Talmudic times either.  The end point may not be equality but the need to be respectful and offer opportunities persists.  In any community, it is the Orthodox women who are prevented from equal opportunity who still become the most Jewishly knowledgeable and Jewishly identifiable women in their communities.  Some people will of course set equal participation as their sine qua non but if that were really the case an observant core within the Conservative movement would be a good deal larger than it is now.  More likely though, the outcome will be like what my shul has, learned people who owe their knowledge and skills to their Conservative educations of fifty years ago who are not willing to sacrifice the educational and worship advantage that we have to defect across town to get gender equality.  That option has now been there for thirty years, long enough to have a result far different than exists now.

This second alternative will face obstacles. It probably will further shrink the movement; this will have financial consequences. It will depend on rabbis who are willing to set and demand higher religious norms with respect to all areas of Jewish observance. But the payoff is that it would provide a viable and distinct identity for the denomination.

When you become dependent on institutions over people, volume matters a lot if you want those institutions to have the resources they need to conduct their usual business.  A smaller tent may indeed make the Movement more vibrant but they need the support of the big tent of low utilizers.  In that sense it is a little like insurance where you need a lot of people putting in and deriving nothing from what they put in to protect the subset that smash up their cars each year.  The Conservative Movement has already had shrinkage.  While they could say good riddance to the Inferior Conservative Jews who went elsewhere, thus declaring themselves as something other than Real Conservative Jews, it is that shrinkage which jeopardizes the defining institutions.

The easiest route for the Conservative movement is to make cosmetic changes to its big tent brand and hope that better marketing will bring in more numbers, but this goal does not seem realistic. Neither does a merger with Reform just yet.

As Candidate Obama reminded us, "A pig with lipstick is still a pig."  They are going to have to make some really difficult decisions, not so much on how to promote from without but to give some very clear direction to advancing Jewishly the people who remain.  They really are not Reform as most of us understand and experience Reform.

I would urge the movement to reclaim Solomon Schechter’s mission of “conserving” the Jewish tradition by focusing on its strongly observant but egalitarian constituents. This path will allow the movement to preserve a unique legacy.

This is what they have been doing for about thirty years.  The results are contraction and aging.  They may need to content the Movement with being a niche product, though an important niche in the American Jewish mosaic.

Much thanks for a terrific essay.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall is the Raymond P. Niro Professor at the DePaul University College of Law. She is the author of “The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition” from Oxford University Press, 2015.

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Friday, December 25, 2015

No Clergy

We have an unusual circumstance this shabbat with the Rabbi away in Israel and the Cantor out ill.  So we see what our men can do.  I am ba-al shacharit, we have a ba-al musaf, a person who gives a uniformly superior D'Var Torah, leaving us to get Torah reading done.  About five guys stepped up to the plate, so we'll see how it goes.  Mincha/Maariv a little less secure. Hopefully no surrogate for those irritating Aliyah Sound Bites which I think mar our weekly experience.

I came of age Jewishly in Hillel sanctuaries where students created the weekly services they wanted.  There are problems when the shabbos reaches it peak in your 20's followed a suburban sanctuary wasteland dependent on hired professionals, often less talented than the students but more sustainable, if not more reliable.  But's that's what we have with a brief welcome interlude from time to time when we can return to what we once had.

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Historical Synagogues

While I wanted to vacation with a road trip to the pleasures of Orlando, my wife being more sensible cut the journey by about a third each direction, bringing us to different pleasures of Charleston, SC for about a week.  While the city's historical area is now charming, it was not always that way as warfare, yellow fever and the cruelty of slavery shaped what take inspiration from now.  In a South of John C. Calhoun and within my adult lifetime Strom Thurmond, Jews who would have been regarded as acceptable targets of hatred elsewhere in Dixie, in Charleston the welcome of colonial times was never seriously interrupted.  One can drive on Sam Rittenberg Boulevard memorializing a public official of the 1920's or worship at either a Reform or Orthodox synagogue's housed in classically elegant buildings.  But unlike other historical synagogues of Curacao or New York's Lower East Side that have become more museums than congregations, these two Charleston synagogues attract worshippers, local and transient, for regularly scheduled services.

Both have history, formalized in a tour of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, the Reform congregation where a fine guide told about ten visitors the various transformations of his congregation from a Sephardic Orthodox origin to something 19th Century Reform with schisms that created a modern orthodox congregation and migrations that resulted in a Conservative shul in proximity to where the people live.  Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the Orthodox shul resulting from a merger at about the time the two AKSE congregations merged, sits within walking distance of a hotel, so we attended shabbos morning there.  The experience was classic Modern Orthodox, where I was one of the few with a full beard, nobody wore black, and the people could not have been friendlier to us.  At one time women sat in the balcony but now they have a fairly standard mechitza with glass on the upper quarter allowing a view to the other side and with the Torah processional following the barrier so that women can touch the Torah with their Siddurim.  They worship from Artscroll, siddur and chumash.  Services were much as I would expect anywhere though an Israeli read Torah in Sephardic trop and the Haftarah was also done as Sephardic chant, which I assume was just that week.  They had a kiddush luncheon which we attended and on the way out to our hotel, noted a small unpaved parking lot in a discrete nook at the side of the building with a few cars in it.

Both of these shuls outlived many others but along the way, they had and have to deal with the same challenges that we have now, with the added interruptions of fire, earthquake and flood.  Neighborhoods change.  Buildings are too small sometimes and too large sometimes.  Modes of worship evolve, satisfying some but unacceptable to others.  Each place has to find somebody to lead worship each day for the Orthodox and each week for the Reform.  Both buildings show some wear and tear, one needing roof repair and better lighting needed on the other.  Yet they are both adaptable, never running out of the people needed to keep them active for their own members and welcoming for visitors like me.  Our places currently in some jeopardy should be able to take a look at this history and make comparable adaptations and realignments as well.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Making the Minyan

Our Rabbi has decided that the security of our two daily minyanim, which makes us unique in town, should be the litmus test of our viability.  We may be in the process of depleting shabbos morning, but Monday morning must go on.  At least there are priorities, if not necessarily the best ones.  The minyanim, of which only men count, assemble at 7AM and 5:30 PM most days but on Wednesday and Friday, we combine with the USCJ congregation nearby unless Torah is read to avoid conflicts over policies on women.  Similarly, on combined services at their shul, their Hazzan being female, their Rabbi conducts services.  I do not know how successful the minyanim have been, as I've only gone to one combined service for Tziyum Bechorim last spring, finding the hybrid liturgy a lot more Conservative adaptation than our traditional fully Hebrew proceedings.

As a service to our congregants, and perhaps a form of Meaningful Use from the computer, people can request a broadcast of when they need to observe yahrtzeit and an email will go out requesting men to make a special effort to attend.  Such a notice went out yesterday for a person who really should get my best effort, so being on vacation this week, I'll help out this evening.