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Returning To Our Core

A temporary reduction in numbers can result in renewed and stronger growth.

Wed, 04/16/2014 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week
Rabbi Jerome Epstein
Rabbi Jerome Epstein

The recent plethora of blog posts and articles written about the Conservative movement would force even the most casual reader to understand the challenges being confronted by this segment of the Jewish community. Because numbers within the movement have declined, and synagogues and day schools have been forced to either close doors or merge, some observers have predicted the death of Conservative Judaism, with others acknowledging the challenges and proposing various solutions to increase the number of adherents.

While I firmly believe that increasing the number of Conservative Jews would be beneficial both for Judaism and Jews, I wonder whether achieving that long-term goal requires a new strategy that may, as an unintended consequence, force the movement to shrink temporarily. 

Let’s not delude ourselves: Size does matter. Yet, there is ample evidence that sometimes a temporary reduction in size — planned or unplanned — can result in renewed and stronger growth.

In the middle of the last century, the Conservative movement made the decision to become the “Movement of the People.” Conservative synagogues opened their doors and welcomed a broad base of Jews who were seeking to identify with a congregation that blended tradition and modernity. Although the Conservative movement had a distinct theological and ideological approach, it was not theology or ideology that motivated most adherents. It was, rather, the “style” of the religious services and programs that generated enthusiasm. In order to make themselves attractive to the widest possible segment of the community, many congregations made an implicit decision not to define themselves too precisely. The prevailing attitude reflected the belief that every Jew should be able to find something within the congregation with which he or she felt comfortable. More significantly, however, the premise that reigned was that as few members as possible would feel uncomfortable. Rarely was there an attempt to define the synagogue vision, mission, ideology or approach to religious life too specifically for fear of causing people to feel excluded. 

As a result, leaders often made decisions based upon programs or positions that had the potential to attract the greatest numbers. Compromise and consensus frequently governed choices. Those who were satisfied with this approach retained their membership, whether or not they actively participated in congregational life. Those who wanted that which Conservative Jewish ideology promised but often did not deliver, however, went elsewhere. Ironically, many adults who have studied traditional Jewish sources and were moved to seek a serious Jewish community, committed to what Conservative Judaism promoted in terms of Jewish living, were forced to find it outside of the movement.

To regain its vitality and become a central force for meaningful Jewish living, Conservative Judaism must focus on shaping Jews who will live the values, ideologies and teachings that are the core of its mission. This will require a radical shift in redefining what it means to be a Conservative Jew — from one who is merely a member of a Conservative synagogue to one who is committed to living an approach that is implicit in our vision.

There are many organizations to which I might choose to belong that annunciate a set of obligations in order to be a member. These might include active attendance at meetings, service to the community, working within the organizational structure and practicing the values for which they stand. I am required to make a decision as to whether or not I accept those expectations. Most Conservative Jews feel no requirement or obligation to the Conservative movement except to pay dues to their synagogues.

I am suggesting here the importance of Conservative synagogues developing a strategy that sets forth expectations of membership. It might include, for example, a commitment to study traditional Jewish texts for a period of time each week. Until we motivate Conservative Jews to make a serious endeavor of learning the Jewish sources that should guide their lives, Conservative Jewish ideology will remain a vague concept.

A Conservative Jew should be expected to strive to live a life defined by halacha. Conservative Judaism is unique in its approach to halacha and mitzvot. In Reform Judaism, halacha is not binding. For most Orthodox Jews, halacha is not evolving. For Conservative Judaism, halacha is both evolving and binding. The Conservative movement has been fairly effective in educating congregants as to the evolving nature of halacha. We have not yet met our goal of inspiring them to understand that halacha is, indeed, binding.

Until we clearly and unequivocally articulate the expectation that Conservative Jews will devote meaningful time to study, grow in their commitment to living a life of halacha, devote themselves to regular prayer, etc., Conservative Judaism cannot possibly nurture the Jewish soul as envisioned by its founders.

I have been involved in the movement long enough to recognize that it will not be easy to set forth meaningful expectations and obligations, and for both lay and rabbinic leadership to actively and — sometimes — aggressively promote them. I know some will object, others will ignore and large numbers may choose to leave. 

Ironically, however, that action would afford the movement the best chance of reaching its potential. It is through this new strategy — in which Conservative Judaism sets forth expectations and pronounces them forcefully and frequently enough — that a new core of people, sharing a commitment to Jewish living, could help our mission blossom and grow. Although this new nucleus would certainly be smaller than the current number of people who currently identify as “Conservative,” this reduced core could, over time, attract a steady stream of new members who would want to associate with this community of Jews adhering to the intended values of our movement.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president and CEO emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

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first - to those nice young men and women at JTS: Learn a useful trade to go with your ordination; we understand there's a severe shortage of welders due to increase construction of petroleum handling facilities resulting from the shale-drilling explosion

as conservative Judaism retreats to its natural institutional size designed for a smaller constituency, jobs for rabbis will be pretty scarce

I wouldn't agree with Mr. (or Ms.) Emet in total. I don't think one can ignore the resources that the Conservative Movement put into day schools (unsuccessful for the most part) and in summer camps (more successful). The weakness of the Conservative Movement is not that their communities are housed in big buildings (something that is not limited to the Conservative Movement), but as Rabbi Epstein noted, no expectations, which counteracts any work the Movement did with its youth. While Rabbi Epstein's solution of placing expectations on its member might work in principal and in the long term, in the short term it will almost certainly result in a wave of Conservative Jews leaving the Movement and fleeing to Reform Judaism (where there are few expectations) or to non-affiliation (where there are none). It is silly to think that Jews who have been asked for no real religious commitment (and who gave little or none) will happily knuckle under to new expectations of their synagogue. If Rabbi Epstein's solution were implemented, the result would be a smaller movement, and with no guarantee of success. It would be an interesting experiment, but one the Conservative Movement is unlikely to take up.

In a past Jewish Week article, a Rabbi/Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary was quoted as saying the following: "Any (Conservative) synagogue that refuses to be egalitarian is separating itself from the core values of Conservative Judaism." (Article: "In Northeast Queens, 'Tradition and Change' at Conservative Synagogue, writer: Sharon Udasin). I don't think this general attitude has helped or is helping the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. It's tragic what has happened to the movement and its followers in the last several decades.

Rabbi Epstein seeks to make lemonade out of lemons. The Conservative movement's growth came largely from the post holocaust generation and their children whose Jewish identification was largely based on nostalgia not observance. That generation is largely gone or retired. The movement has shrunk because it has repeated demonstrated an inability to develop a sufficient base of committed members. Where will Rabbi Epstein's new nucleus come from? Certainly not from its Hebrew Schools or Schechters - the former's inability to provide meaningful Jewish education is universally acknowledged and the latter has largely rejected by most Conservative Jews. The movement made no demands on its members and in return received no commitment from them.

The shrinkage of Conservative Judaism in America is not a good sign, it is sign of decay. When the movement had the money and size to reshape American Jewry, it spent it's resources on ostentatious buildings and self-aggrandizing institutions. Like the lemon, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of those who knew it could have been so much more.

"The movement has shrunk because it has repeated demonstrated an inability to develop a sufficient base of committed members."

@Emet: I would say "develop" sounds a bit too corporate or militaristic. I would say failed to "inspire" such a base would be more accurate.

Whatever the movement's initial history, basically, the vast majority of Jews in Conservative synagogues do not live largely Jewish lives as defined even by the movement's own watered down versions of halacha relative to shabbat, kashrut, or chagim. There is a "core" 5-30% of each congregation that is adhering to those elements, and saddly most of those Jews are marginalized and ostracized in their own communities for being "super-Jews" or "too Jewish. Most of the others at Conservative shuls are there because it's close to their home (mostly a real estate issue), because of certain programming, or because the local Reform option is just too "out there" to stomach.

The historical sin of Conservative Judaism is that they felt you could replace living Jewishly just with Jewish knowledge (or Jewish "seriousness," and make no mistake, here is no lack of "seriousness" in this movement). Send your kids to Schechter and fill their heads with Jewish learning... Take the (admirable, copious) adult learning options... Even, for a few, engage in study with others... The movement bet that somehow, all that serious learning would translate into continuity, but it didn't happen. There were too many winks and nods to comprise and wholesale retreats from discomfort, from the much discussed driving to shul to the (in my mind quite admirable and necessary but intellectually dishonestly justified) embracing of egalitarianism and homosexuality. It was serious learning without a soul, serious learning without any expectation, commitment, or communal expectation of living Jewishly. And as study after study after study of Jewish camping, day school, Pew, Federations, etc, etc has shown, Jewishness without living Jewishly *distinctly* from your neighbors as defined by shabbat observance (and not the driving to shul kind), some communal expectation of kashrut, chagim observance, and encouragement of inmarriage just isn't generationally transmitted. Period. It... Just.. Doesn't... Happen...

And we're not saying everyone needs to be "orthodox" (or more accurately, orthoprax) here either. There's huge room in every Jewish mainstream movement and each of those movement's theologies (especially the Conservative movement) for communal expectations of those elements. Failure to do so (and Eisen and company's squishy visions to date have certainly failed on those measures) just won't work either.

My life experience, having been engaged in many different movements on different levels, has lead me to believe that Rabbi Epstein's approach is the only way forward for Conservative Judaism. It needs to be smaller, but better, and the communities they create and replace will be so compelling that they will eventually draw people to them and increase their numbers. It will be painful, but necessary. It's long past time for Conservative Judaism to have the courage of its convictions and live its principals and learn the lessons of its Ramah camps and minyanim offshoots. Any other efforts it tries will no doubt be "serious" and professional and full of admirable learning, but futile...