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.

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