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Growing The Conservative Movement
Mon, 10/14/2013 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Judith Hauptman
Rabbi Judith Hauptman

The recently released study of the American Jewish community by the prestigious Pew Research Center points to some serious problems in the Conservative movement.  The survey reveals declining membership and the inability of the movement to retain its young people. As a rabbi who has been leading free, walk-in High Holy Day services for young Jews for the last 10 years, and as a Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I want to make some suggestions to keep the movement robust.

Those people who show up in our synagogues only on the High Holy Days, who used to be vilified as “three-day-a-year Jews,” are actually our greatest asset for future revival. They still feel the need to recharge their Jewish souls a few times a year. That means we have a chance to get them to show up more often, even to become Jewishly active on a monthly or, better yet, weekly basis. How can we do that?

Many people avoid our synagogues because they find our services long and boring. Since we recite many prayers in Hebrew, and since most rabbis do not interrupt the ongoing chanting with intellectual and spiritual commentary, people feel shut out. It is not a good sign that many show up at 11 a.m. for a service that began at 9 a.m., and that even more don’t make an appearance at all.

To draw people back into the synagogue, we at JTS need to train rabbis in the art of running engaging services, certainly on the High Holy Days but also all year round. We responsibly fill our students with great Jewish texts and ideas, but we irresponsibly pay scant attention to teaching them how to use those texts and ideas to enliven services. We place great emphasis on the Saturday morning sermon, but ignore the rest of the service. Since people are looking for meaning, we need to unlock the liturgy for them. Therefore, instead of making the “senior sermon” the rite of passage for future rabbis, we should instead ask them to run a complete Shabbat morning service. They would pass only if the assembled participants found it intellectually engaging and spiritually uplifting.

What also draws people to services is the presence of other people. One explanation for why the Ramah camps are so successful is that each camper sees herself as part of a larger community all “doing Jewish” together. That makes Shabbat at camp, for instance, a far more powerful experience than Shabbat at home. We need to rethink the structure of the movement to make it possible for large numbers of people, in particular young ones, to “do Jewish” together.

I am therefore suggesting that in addition to synagogues serving local communities, there should be, in the metropolitan areas where young Jews tend to congregate, a Conservative super-organization that offers religious activities for all, but focuses on young Jews in particular. Every such area should have a Conservative-sponsored, free, walk-in High Holy Days service for 20s/30s. This same super-organization should offer classes on Jewish subjects for young people and everyone else. It should run holiday events for young Jews, such as a Megillah reading at Purim and a seder at Passover. “Footloose” young Jews would attend such events if they knew there would be a good number of other young Jews there. There are many Jews — young and old — whom we could reach if we stepped outside our synagogue confines.

When I was a student at Barnard in the 1960s, JTS was open seven days a week. It was where my friends and I went to study Judaica, pray, eat, and “meet guys.” JTS is now closed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Given its superb Manhattan location and magnificent physical plant, it could and should become a Conservative super-organization. True, JTS already offers a rich array of nighttime lectures. But there is so much more it could do. Why not open JTS, the flagship of the Conservative movement, on weekends? Why not start a new Conservative synagogue at JTS and ask rabbis and cantors-in-training to think of ways to make Shabbat morning services engaging and then try out their ideas on the local Morningside Heights community? Why not run Friday night services and meals for Jews in their 20s/30s? Why not offer ongoing courses on great texts with great teachers — already on JTS faculty — for young people and also for people of all ages? Why not, assuming such a model succeeds, help other metropolitan areas to do the same?

Of course synagogues should continue to create communities on a local basis. But if we can establish Conservative super-organizations, and train rabbis who know how to bring people in, we could attract a critical mass of currently unaffiliated Jews who are eager and pleased to live Jewishly together. Therein lies a bright future for Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Judith Hauptman is the E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the founder of Ohel Ayalah, a free, walk-in High Holy Days service for Jews in their 20s and 30s.

American Jewish, conservative, Pew Research Center

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Perhaps we should study the methods and practices of successful congregations and see what makes them tick. My wife and I were members of Agudath Israel in Caldwell before we moved to South Jersey. It is a congregation that reaches out to everyone and offers everyone something. We have belonged to numerous other Conservative congregations and nothing has ever come close to giving us a feeling of community. A super organization is a good idea but we need congregations that offer everyone soemthing, both the young who are our future but also the seniors who can help nurture us.

Camp Ramah must also be supported for our youth. Our daughter went to Camp Ramah, forged life long friendships and has already informed her husband that their children, age 2 and 4, will be going to Camp Ramah. It is one of the best investments we can make for our children and grandchildren.

Perhaps the place to begin is to stop using the word/concept "services." That implies, in modern common English, something performed for you like "legal services" or the "service" at the restaurant was poor etc. It has no connection to the Hebrew Teffilot or Tefilah and it implies all the wrong things about the movement, that is, that the Rabbi and/or Cantor is performing for you.

Rabbi Hauptman asks a number of "why nots"? She asks, for example, Why not start a new Conservative synagogue at JTS? Why not run Friday night services and meals for Jews in their 20s/30s? She may as well have asked (but didn't) why not run free High Holiday services? The answer is because all of those ideas are counter-productive if the goal is to preserve existing or developing Conservative institutions -- both synagogues and community facilities. Of course the movement has to attract new people and strengthen the bonds of those already attracted. But offering the same services that existing institutions already offer, except at a lower price,may work for Walmart. But I don't think it will do anything for the Conservative movement, except put the local institutions out of business. Like Walmart does.

The Conservative Movement will NOT be saved by Jews who see nothing wrong
with Jews praying in churches; for example: Conservative Rabbi Judith Hauptman.

October 17, 2013

Having read the article by Rabbi Hauptman,
I am reminded about Albert Einstein's comment
about insanity as doing the same actions many
times and expecting different results. What
Rabbi Hauptman is proposing has constituted
outreach in the Conservative movement for
the last 40 years. It fails miserably because
rather trying to create an engaged core, you
are aiming at Jews at the periphery of Jewish
life. Programs like Ramah and USY try to create
that engaged core and these represent the success.
The problem is that on the congregational level
far too much energy is spent in regard to attracting
Jews who the Rabbi will see several times a year.
Rabbi Hauptman's own program of free high holiday
services does exactly that. One does not have to
disbarage anyone, but if the Conservative movement
should focus on what works. In the end, an engaged
core will effectively attract Jews from the periphery.

Alan Levin
Fair Lawn, NJ

Excellent ideas. Thank you!

I would like to see a stronger relationship between Conservative shuls and Hillel organisations on campus. This as a golden opportunity to reach out to the very people the Conservative movement wishes to attract--young adults. As a university student, I had an opportunity to hear talks from Conservative rabbis who met with our Hillel members on campus. We were also invited to Conservative shuls for discussions and other activities that would appeal to us. At the time I was involved with this, I considered myself to be a Reform Jew. However, I sometimes struggled with Reform viewpoints and, oftentimes, practices at my shul that I felt had departed from Jewish tradition. Perhaps had I not had exposure to what Conservative Judaism was about, via Hillel, I might never have come to appreciate Conservative viewpoints and, later on, embrace the movement and become a member of a Conservative synagogue.

While the article deals with "bringing young adult Jews into the synagogue", your comment made me wonder what, if anything, the Conservative movement is doing to promote shidduchim. It seems to me that shuls have a core of single adult children of members, many of whom may have moved far away from home. Are there existing programs among our shuls that attempt to do outreach to these young people, specifically with the goal of building relationships leading to marriage? I believe that while this is a matter which might be dealt with on the kind of large institutional level described by Dr. Hauptmann, I also wonder if, both via technology and old-fashioned caring, we could create more Jewish marriages by working on the smaller, and more intimate synagogue levels.

Most of her ideas are terrific. I especially like the idea of "testing" a student Rabbi on a Saturday morning service. this is a thoughtful and serious piece.