In the previous decade, my mornings in the hospital seeing consults, would be interspersed with use of the hospital computers for other than its intended purpose, though never challenged. While now my marketplace for ideas has become SERMO, a comments site devoted to physicians for which medical licensure is required for participation, in that decade the diversion from work though not quite the time sink that SERMO can be, went to a list-serv operated by the Jewish Theological Seminary known as TOR-CH. I never learned what the acronym stood for, but not only was I a regular contributor but its founder graced AKSE with a guest presentation on establishing the relatively nascient internet as a forum for exchanging Jewish opinions. The forum was intended to be a source of moderated though relatively unrestricted commentary on Conservative Judaism as Conservative Jews lived it. Subscribers filled a polyglot of the self-declared Conservative Jewish adult population, nearly all of us in our professional prime. There were a few Rabbis who seemed to be taking the pulse of their constituents but were pretty careful not to use their professional status to leverage other posters, a few who had agendas to float by, but they were few. There were the usual organization loyalists and defenders, some defectors like me who had never really altered their ideology but got fed up enough with their local experience to deep six it in favor of a more observant milleau than the local USCJ affiliate could provide. There were those like me who had adverse experience and defensible contempt for a large fraction of the leadership. And there were trolls, not the Arab disruptive sloganeers who invite a click of the IGNORE option on more open sites, but a few mainstream Modern Orthodox men trying to tell the audience why they offer more than the Conservatives do, much like a return to the Debate Nights of the 1950-60's era when Orthodox and Conservative Synagogue representatives would meet to convince newcomers to the growing suburban communities that their synagogue was the best affiliation option. Those few people were highly moderated as some of the comments could come across as insulting, while I could pretty much post what I wanted, as critical as I wanted of the Rabbinical Assembly, which deserved it as a deterrent to learned lay participation in the movement. I did have to be polite, if sometimes not fully respectful, and I was.
You get to know some of the people and their special skills, both Jewish and professional. While private messages were discouraged, a few contacts asked me how to get the most out of their doctors and I quizzed some organization mavens about how to get some synagogue issue properly considered. There were a few people proficient with the computer, a few Federation types. Since I never was really a part of the Conservative Movement during my participation though very much a person who transplanted a Conservative mindset upward, if not just elsewhere, I did not get to meet any of the participants panim el panim except for two, on by invitation, the other by chance, yet became a Facebook friend to another. While the intent of the project had a business purpose and perhaps one of the best opportunities for people in charge to gauge what the semi-loyal base of Conservative Jews might find meaningful, its reality became more the type of Kehillah that the Movement now seeks, though without the dues payment that it expects its kehillot to provide. There weren't a lot of young people posting, mostly folks my age in the prime of their careers with tuition payments and mortgages to meet, people who liked to grapple with a question that had no real answer, whether of Talmud origin or synagogue branch point origin. Every day I could expect to find something from somebody else that I would very much like to think about and respond.
Yet for all intents and purposes, it is no more. The environmentalist Rabbi still sends an occasional insight. Every winter the Hilchos Christmas spoof gets recycled. But the candor about the Conservative Jewish experience, the type of comments and proposed interventions needed to stem its more widespread decline, these are no more. My last post a couple of years ago got zero response. If I might hazard a guess at its turning point, it would be the effective disinviting the three Orthodox missionaries to their cause. They are the conversation makers, the disruptive innovators in a movement that too often shields itself from critique, even internal critique. It allows those who remain to tell each other how wonderful they all are as mediocrity infuses inward. I've not found a replacement peer forum anywhere else in Judaism of comparable quality and ongoing potential. I miss the electronic conversation, something so readily available and vibrant medically through SERMO which in many ways has become the next destination, that TOR-CH like analog where all minds are welcome, restrained only by Derech Eretz.