Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Realistic Options to Stabilize Conservative Judaism

Op-Ed: Conservative Judaism — many options, unlimited possibilities

By Marc Gary January 11, 2016 JTA       

Article Green/ Commentary Violet

NEW YORK (JTA) — When I was a law student, I took a course by a renowned professor who warned that if a prosecutor ever told us that our client only had two choices, we should walk away from the bargaining table. His point: There are always more options.
In a recent JTA Op-Ed, law professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall said this is precisely the situation facing Conservative Judaism. Her piece, headlined “Conservative Judaism has just 2 viable options,” argues that the movement can either merge with the Reform movement or shrink dramatically to a limited core group “whose daily lives revolve around Jewish law in a way closer to modern Orthodox Jews.”

Not exactly what she said.  Doing nothing and accepting the status quo is also a default option.

Are those really the only two options open to more than a million Conservative Jews in North America? If so, we should just walk away.

Fortunately, there are other options likely to bring new vitality to the Conservative movement.

Kwall joins the voices of others who assert that the 2013 Pew Report and other data show a sharp decline in Conservative affiliation. From there, she projects a dismal future for the movement. Similar statements were made about the fate of Orthodoxy 50 years ago — look how those predictions turned out.

There is a world of difference between being a Conservative Jew and maintaining formal affiliation with Conservative institutions.  Ideology and personal expression of religious adherence are highly portable.  The real problem of United Synagogue and its related organizations is not a dearth of believers in the cause as much as it is attrition of payers into the treasury that jeopardizes the ability of those organizations to progress.

Jewish history is rarely linear. In fact, the actual numbers in the Pew Report undercut the narrative of irreversible decline for the Conservative movement.

Don't recall the narrative going in the direction of either irreversible or inevitable.

In a JTA Op-Ed titled “On Conservative Judaism, why all the talk about failure?” published last fall, three eminent scholars of Jewish history and demography note that the Pew data shows “the Conservative proportion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population is holding steady.” Importantly, the proportion of non-Orthodox Jews who identify as Conservative remains constant across the critical age groups of Jews 45-59 and 30-44 (20 percent for each group), showing no proportional decline in the younger adult generation.
When we turn from market share to impact, there is no reason to wring our hands. The movement’s Ramah camps are indisputably the most successful religious and educational camping program in North America. Most of the independent minyanim, innovative Jewish start-ups, and other cutting-edge organizations in the Jewish community are founded or led by products of the Conservative movement.

While this is all true, sort of, The Buddha had an interesting insight which he conveyed to his disciples.  If what you are told conflicts with what you observe, accept what you observe as the reality.  While the glass of Conservative Judaism may indeed still be half full, their successful contributions to American Judaism includes becoming an exporter of talent elsewhere.  The congregations that I visit, as I nominally defected in 1997, are not particularly vibrant with one very glaring exception.  The worshippers can all chime in with a catching tune giving the warmth of community but cannot read the sentence that occurs in the siddur after that tune.  The people of my Bar Mitzvah era that made shabbos happen were largely imported talent, some immigrants of my grandfather's generation, some escapees from Naziism, some of my parents generation trained for Bar Mitzvah in the orthodox shuls of the Lower East Side.  Not a lot of alumni of the Conservative Hebrew Schools or Ramah.  That came later and was not particularly sustaining.

Those cutting edge independent minyanim are indeed comprised of Conservative Jews, but those people with all they have to contribute to the larger Jewish dialog are still defectors in their current form.

The movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary continues to produce leaders who are in high demand. And hundreds of thousands of Jews join Conservative synagogues and find experiences of meaning and community that are joyful, profound and inspiring.
No one denies that we face a host of challenges, including low birth rates, high intermarriage rates and a decline in affiliated synagogues. Our unique vision has not been clearly and consistently articulated for the new situation confronting North American Jewry today. And we face the age-old problem of the disparity between the movement’s commitment to Jewish law and the actual observance patterns of most of its members.

The demand might not be quite as high without the assistance of the RA Placement Service rules.  Monopolies have a way of creating demand but with a disdain for the customer. And if hundreds of thousands of Jews are happy with the status quo, then maybe there really isn't a problem to be solved.  Just have a smaller tent with a smaller budget serving the Real Conservative Jews and good riddance to the less worthy.  My guess is that if not for the budget part, that might be viable policy.

The disparity between policy and practice is not limited to Conservative Jews.  Some like Reform adapt policy to reality.  Others like Orthodox also have to deal with their reality so some keep their parking lots open on shabbos and don't evict their doctors on call who come to worship when their pagers go off.

But the answer to these challenges is not to merge the movement out of existence or to turn it into an elite cadre of modern Orthodoxy, albeit with an egalitarian twist. The first option ignores the important differences in ideology, practice and outcomes between Conservative and Reform Judaism, while the second would denude the movement of its unique characteristics of innovation and inclusiveness, rendering it unrecognizable and undermining its raison d’etre.

The second option may really be the default option, whether desired or not.  In the era of my Bar Mitzvah, as migratory patterns took young Jewish adults from the Jewish enclaves of the big cities to the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific to GI Bill funded universities to suburbia, new congregations formed and a new breed of Jew moved into towns that already had a skeletal Orthodox and Conservative base.  Some of these places had open forums, sometimes called Debate Night, where the Orthodox and Conservative Rabbis would promote the benefits of their congregation to those not yet affiliated.  Conservative entered its heyday from these forums promoting family seating, open parking lots and afternoon Hebrew schools while maintaining a reasonably identical worship experience for daily minyan and Shabbat morning, less a few responsive readings from the Silverman Siddur.  Friday night, a vestigial gathering for the Orthodox became the point of differentiation for the Conservatives with late services, discussions, guest speakers and sometimes even an organ and choir but for the most part worship did not differ a whole lot while the environment did.  As the modes of worship began to separate between Orthodox and Conservative shuls, there developed a reason to select one over the other for that reason.  As it has rebounded, traditional egalitarian is still worship conducted in Hebrew with a full Torah reading but with women.  In a sense, a revision of Debate Night where one chooses which synagogue on the basis of something other than liturgy where there is already parity.
The future of the Conservative movement does not lie in abandoning its distinctiveness or its innovative spirit or shrinking it to a core without a mission to the larger community.

Would challenge this.  Conservative Judaism as I experience it, or multidenominational Hillel Judaism for that matter, has always been a mosaic.  People affiliated for all sorts of reasons, picking and choosing what they wanted from synagogue programming.  There were worshippers, Hebrew school parents, Mens Club machers, whatever else, often with little intersection and crossover.  None of this is really being abandoned as much as it's natural history seems to be redistributing it.

The larger question, though, is how effectively the sponsoring institutions, which have now been around a hundred years,
As a movement, we need to clearly, succinctly and consistently articulate our vision of Judaism — a Judaism, to quote the JTS mission statement — “that is learned and passionate, pluralist and authentic, traditional and egalitarian; one that is thoroughly grounded in Jewish texts, history and practices, and fully engaged with societies and cultures of the present.”

Other than the part about egalitarian, this could just as easily describe a Modern Orthodox approach to Judaism.  Moreover, there are a number of Mara D'Atra's at Conservative synagogues in the USA and Canada who have ruled against true egalitarianism and are permitted to do that in their professional capacity and enforce it for their Conservative Synagogue.  There is also a gap between what you aspire to, what you really have, and what risks you might be willing to take to ease that gap.
This is not merely a branding or marketing exercise. It reflects a claim to both authenticity and inspiration that are essential to attracting new adherents.

There is of course a prohibition against geneivat da-at, or misrepresenting a product to a potential purchaser.  If you want people to think they will have authentic traditional learned Judaism when they affiliate, you have to really have it in place.  That means Hebrew schools with literate alumni, not the Framework for Excellence illusion of education, a place where somebody is able to put a cap on hemorrhaging membership when the Rabbi becomes a little too arbitrary and abrupt.  Yes, I have seen these and others and that basic protection was subordinate to the druthers of those in charge.  Branding does not make a good surrogate.  People will kind of figure out what a Beth Sodom experience is, though not necessarily right away.

We must also train a new type of communal leader — whether rabbi, cantor or educator — who understands and is equipped not merely to head a community, but to create one. We need entrepreneurial professionals who go beyond the four walls of synagogues or other institutional forms and seek out Jews who are unaffiliated and feel disenfranchised. These are the individuals to whom our sacred wisdom can bring meaning and fellowship.

As a teenager, there was an organization know as LTF z"l where we read pamphlets by Chaim Potok before he became famous.  Rather good writing and analysis.  Now there is Sulam.  In Federation I was recruited for Young Leadership potential prompted by the anticipated earnings of my professional degree and not the intellect or hard work that enabled it.  There were entrepreneurs at one time, but as some of the congregations matured, loyalty and obedience too often became valued over people of creativity and imagination who challenged what was in favor of what might be.  Being prickly pretty much set you external to the USY clique and every subsequent in-crowd, irrespective of ability.  It's a tough culture to change, one often very uninviting to genuine mavens.
Other strategies must be deployed as well, but the Conservative movement’s future requires neither disappearance through merger nor dramatic shrinkage to an elite few. It requires dynamic and entrepreneurial leadership, a clear and compelling message, the courage to fully exploit the innovative spirit of our tradition and the commitment to create radically welcoming communities.
(Marc Gary is the executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer of the Jewish Theological Seminary.)

And more than anything it requires giving people a better experience than they expected.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Inferior Decorators

Image result for Inferior DecoratorSomebody sent me this from the NY Post.    Me.  Post

Conservative Judaism is about to get a makeover.
Down to roughly 1 million adherents — having lost one-third of its members over the past 25 years — the moderate movement has hired a team of marketers to give it a new look.

I think they've already made the transformation from traditional modernized worship on the mid 20th Century to Sound Bites of the 21st Century.
New York’s Good Omen agency is interviewing hundreds of Conservative Jews to get their views on the movement in order to develop a new “position statement” for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

I was raised and educated in the Conservative Movement, maybe spent 40 years there as a nominal adherent.  Nobody really asked me what I thought about anything during that time and if I volunteered a comment not within the druthers of the guys in charge, my intellect and discernment was summarily dismissed with a wave of the hand but not with a discussion of my comments' merits.

More than just new fonts and graphics for the group’s public messaging, the “rebranding is about understanding the experience people have with your product or service,” says Rabbi Steven Wernick, the head of the USCJ’s organizational arm. “And we know there is a level of uncertainty about precisely where the ‘brand’ of Conservative Judaism sits in our members’ lives.”

It would probably be better to go beyond interviewing those in the organizations fold but also those who used to be.  They have members who are there for some reason which may or may not be ideological.  It may be to connect with friends, they may like the Rabbi, it may be the place their family has gone for generations.  They may be synagogue consumers purchasing a seat on Rosh Hashana or a Bar Mitzvah.  These have nothing to do with Conservative Judaism but a lot to do with how many dues payments keep the congregations and assorted institutions afloat.  
Stricter than liberal Reform Jews — but with few of the lifestyle constrictions associated with Orthodox Judaism — the Conservative branch is a kind of moderate middle ground.
Conservative Jews don’t don modest black ensembles like their Orthodox brethren; they’re also open to lesbian and gay members and even allow same-sex marriage ceremonies. But they don’t sanction intermarriage and recognize only children born from Jewish mothers as Jewish.
“It’s a culturally demanding version of Judaism,” explains Steven M. Cohen, professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

On the local level, it doesn't really demand anything other than an annual financial statement of support.  People do not attend much on shabbat, graduate five years of Hebrew School without being able to sight read a paragraph of unfamiliar Hebrew even if they've just chimed in with the catchy tune the sentence before, don't maintain kashrut, haven't struggled with a Jewish text since their college days.  The institution becomes the surrogate for doing these things, not very different from the Catholics who seek an intermediary for their own confession of sin.
Cohen calls the rebranding “helpful,” but isn’t sure it’s enough to attract new congregants — or stop current ones from defecting.
“The real cause of [community] shrinkage is intermarriage and the decline of ethnic attachment among American Jews,” he says.

Might challenge the Professor on this.  The real cause is more likely how they were treated when the intermarriage occurred, not the intermarriage itself.  In my Bar Mitzvah era, 1960's a form of shunning was often advocated.  It was unworkable then and now, but still has its vestiges built into various official policies.
Wernick says the overhaul has another purpose: it can help reconnect members with the movement’s traditions.

I would like to think that the Rabbis and other honchos have been trying to do this all along, even while people were seeking greener pastures.  Remember, a good portion of the talent has migrated Orthodox as the implementation of the movement's traditions, which never really changed that much, got a little loose.
“There’s a sense that Conservative Judaism offers a strong balance between [secular] society and Judaism as a whole,” he says. “And this provides for many nuanced opportunities for partnerships and synergies for the movement.”

There is nothing wrong with the ideology, which can be rather portable.  For me, and undoubtedly for others, there was a lot wrong with the experience of dealing with the institutions and the leaders who carried their banner.  Branding doesn't fix this.  A more traditional Tochacha/Selicha/Teshuva/Mechila might give more of a fighting chance.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Working on These

Twice a year I divert from my askance look at Judaism and medicine to direct some effort at myself.  In recent half-years I've designated a dozen projects worthy of my effort, few reach fruition but the exercise in directing myself toward an end point has its own inherent value.  From Thanksgiving to Christmas, including some unimpeded vacation time, I sorted through some of the semi-annual planning, identifying a project in each of twelve categories.  They had to meet the SMART criteria:  specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time restricted, in this case mid-year.  

Image result for goals
1.  Mental:  I purchased a CME program from the New England Journal of Medicine that will give me 50 badly needed credits for my next licensure.  There is a 2-3 month window for doing the research, all of which appears in the NEJM.

2.  Family:  One day a month belongs to Irene.

3.  Health:  My weight will decline under 155 lb.   This is a perennial effort which almost reached target last winter when I was very consistent with diet modification.  It requires consistency of effort.  The diet component I've done in part before.  The exercise component has never been what it should be. 

4.  Personal:  I will have read two books, one fiction and one non-fiction.  I've pretty much selected the books, Herzog by Saul Bellow and The Myth of the Cultural Jew by Roberta Kwall.  I can read more, but I want the project to be without excuses for failing to complete them.

5.  Long Term:  My blog will generate 15 comments.  Actually I have very little control over what people do and tried to take that into account in my planning.  I also express myself irrespective of readership.  Yet my Jewish world has not been interactive in recent years.  Much of my synagogue experience the last few years has been dull, people sitting in a room with the Rabbi or somebody else speaks, questions that are more likely to be deflected than addressed in the way I might expect as a college graduate.  I thought the infusion of blogging would remedy that but I do not really encounter a lot of that.  Oodles of sermons that Rabbi's post on Blogger or their congregation's web site.  Some very good analysis in The Forward et al, easily accessible and with some interaction in the comments but little of it is sustained.  So while I cannot affect what anyone does with what I write in my blog, I can format it in a more inviting way, soliciting advice from electronic, printed and personal sources to bring this project forward.  

6.  Financial.  I will be a serious participant in this year's tax preparation.  One of Irene's expected tasks, though I used to do this as a resident.  It lapsed and I should relearn how to gather the data and present it to the CPA.  This is the only project one of two projects whose completion is guaranteed by a deadline imposed by somebody other than myself.

7.  Purchase:  I will cook in my cosmetically upgraded kitchen.  This one has been on the wish list forever.  I have the money to make the purchases but it is one that needs to be a joint project.  I think it attainable but will need some joint decisions on where to put our current too much stuff and what order to do the multiple sub-projects that create the end result.  Step 1, the lighting.  Once in the ceiling in the places it needs to be, contractors can do the rest one step at a time.

8.  Friends:  Four new friends.  Never had a lot of friends and kept the few that I've acquired indefinitely, which most people would think is good.  Yet between work and shul, I have become friendly with people but none really extend beyond the pleasantries of the hospital and synagogue.  I have no other outlets either.  There are forums for connecting with others and a value to trying.

9. Community:  I will create a sustainable non-worship activity at AKSE.  For all my usually friendly jabs at my synagogue it is in many ways the best forum in the area for bringing people ahead Jewishly.  I've done a few rather important things over the years, from insisting that a novice Rabbi be given training to enable him to progress professionally to the annual education forum that people have insisted be maintained even after I dropped out in, frustration.  In a place that seems in the relentless pursuit of mediocrity, a leadership preoccupied with enhancing revenue to the neglect of the experiences, creativity of natural explorers such as myself have been devalued.  While my mind has generated useful things, it hasn't in a while and the worship has a life of its own that nobody particular wants to sparkle.  But any number of things can better connect those whose participation is currently at the margins.  That's where the handful of people who can imagine what might be instead of protecting what has already become ingrained have a value even it it means swimming upstream.

10.  Frontiers:  I will submit for publication four articles, two medical and two Jewish.  I just like thinking about my medical experience and my Jewish perspectives.  One medical opinion piece found its way to cyberspace, though not print.  It was a good piece of analysis and I derived much gratification from the few people who commented upon it.  While I have enjoyed my entry into the pageants of medicine and Judaism each has room to become more interactive than they currently are.  The marketplace of ideas can never have too many items on the shelves.

11.  Travel:  I will visit three wineries that I've not visited before.  At least one project has to be a slam dunk.  I've only had a negative experience at a winery one time.  More commonly I get to praise the effort and pride that people have in their work and express a genuine interest in learning about what they do to bring their vintages about.

12. Home:  All papers under my control will be removed from flat surfaces.  This is a big one, the project most likely to frustrate me.  I phrased it so as not to need help from anyone else, as I am not optimistic about getting help from anyone else.  Yet relief from relentless clutter, even if temporary, gets me ahead.  Had I needed assistance of another person it would not satisfy the criteria of attainable.