My father was ordained as a Reform rabbi. I grew up as a young child going to the local Reform temple. I am a committed Conservative rabbi, but truthfully, I became a Conservative Jew by accident.
Growing up in Central New Jersey, my family and I would often drive twenty plus minutes to the Reform synagogue. I didn’t know any of the kids in Religious School so I begged my parents that if they were going to drag me to services Shabbat morning, the least they could do was bring me to the synagogue that was much closer, where all the other children in my neighborhood also belonged. This way, at least, I wouldn’t be getting into mischief by myself. From there, I got involved in USY, switched to a Solomon Schechter Day School, attended Camp Ramah, and eventually, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yet, I became a Conservative Jew by accident because, as a child, I wanted to go to synagogue with my friends. I became a Conservative Jew first, because I was engaged.
I am a Conservative Jew. I believe in Conservative Judaism. As Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, of blessed memory, once said: “Conservative Judaism is where Tradition meets Change.” Yet, it seems that that crossroads where these two concepts meet is also at a crossroads.
The Pew Study on the American Jewish Community that came out last week, gives insight to the challenges facing the American Jewish community, but even more specifically, facing Conservative Judaism. According to the study, only 18% of American Jews identify with the Conservative movement. Additionally, over 30% of those raised in Conservative institutions have chosen to affiliate with another movement. Furthermore, the median age of Conservative Jews according to the study is 55 years old, the oldest of all Jewish denominations and movements in this country.
The movement – with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism at its head – must reestablish itself if we are to be a movement that offers anything worthwhile a generation – even a decade – from now. I am proud of the thriving, ever evolving, and innovative institution that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is, but as the only Conservative synagogue on Florida’s first coast, it’s easy to see our vibrancy and ignore the struggles of the movement outside outside of Northeast Florida.
Part of the struggles have to do with the evolution of the movement juxtaposed with the ever changing U.S. Jewish community. Some worry that the Conservative Judaism of today is not the Conservative Judaism that they once knew. That is true, but that is because movements move. Chancellor Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary highlights this idea by explaining that the Judaism he practices is different from the Judaism that his parents practiced and the Judaism that his children practice. Movements move. So where will the Conservative Movement move to?
This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Lech Lecha, which focused on Abraham and Sarah’s journey. The Torah portion begins:
Lech Lecha me’artzecha u’mimoladtecha u’mi’beit avicha el haaretz asher Ar’eh’ka
Go out, for yourself, on a new journey, from your land, from your birth place, from your father’s house, from what you know, from what you are used to, from what is most comfortable, from how you grew up.
We aren’t sure where we are going to go to. El Haaretz Asher Ar’eh’ka. To a land that God will show us. But we will get there eventually. That place may look different from where we started. But it is where you are meant to be. It is where you will find God.
Like Abraham, the Conservative Movement is going on this journey, unsure of where the movement will end up, but knowing that we must take this journey.
Friday October 11th, 2013 began the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference and Celebration, a celebration of USCJ’s 100 years. This centennial conference is the beginning of this journey, figuring out where the movement will end up. This centennial, which includes over 1200 participants, is being called the “Conversation of the Century.”
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, has described the centennial as “a big reset button for United Synagogue, and in turn the Conservative Movement.” How big? The conference is offering a wide variety of worship options including egalitarian and non-egalitarian, musical services, “retro” services, renewal services, Carlebach services, and “dynamic” services. Additionally, it will also host honest and essential conversations about the struggle to engage college students, continuing to embrace feminism, welcoming men back into our communities, engaging 20 and 30 somethings, the role of halakha in the future of the movement, the role of music in services, how to reach out to young families, how to engage those who have grown children or no children, and the relationship between Israel and our movement
While I’m unfortunately unable to attend this conference, I’d like to add my thoughts to the conversation. If we are to press the reset button, then these are the five areas in which we must emphasize in order to truly reset the Conservative Movement:
- Spirituality. We, as a movement, lack spirituality. Statistics show that while the affiliation rate among Jews in this country is down considerably, the rate of those who seek spiritual connection and meaning has greatly increased. As I said on Kol Nidre and will repeat again, we do plenty of davening, but not enough praying. If the synagogue is to thrive as a House of God and a House of Worship, then we as a movement must create multiple entry points to find God and wrestle with the Divine.
- Literacy. For most of the twentieth century, there was an assumption that education would take place at the synagogue school and reinforcement would take place in the home. Now, we need to make our institutions the home base for not just education, but for the experiences that reinforce the education. Furthermore, we need to remember that education does not end at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In fact, for many of us, Jewish education didn’t start until adulthood. Talmud Torah is a lifelong process. In order to ensure the engagement of all affiliated with all our communities, we cannot only emphasize teaching our preschoolers. We must also emphasize learning with – and learning from – our adults.
- Stand for something. This is the struggle of being perceived as being “stuck in the middle.” We are the bridge, it seems, between those on the left of us in the Reform movement and those who practice Orthodox Judaism on the right. We, as a movement, for too long feared that if we were to take a stand, we would upset those on our left and those on our right. As a result, the movement rarely took such a stand. The truth is, those to the left may never appreciate the tension between tradition and modernity that we wrestle with and those on the right will never accept our evolving halakhic process as truly authentic. We are who we are, yet if we don’t stand for something, then we stand for nothing. We must take a stand as a movement for what we believe in, even if others disagree.
- Social Justice. This is something that the Reform Movement does exceptionally well. We can certainly learn much from them. As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, Social Justice is one of the pillars that define us as Jews and yet, our institutions and synagogues often focus on insular education and tefillah before we roll up our sleeves and take action. Social Justice and Social Action are the avenues in which the ethics and values, which are the core of who we are as Jews, are put into practice. According to a study prepared by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “sixty-four percent of Jewish young adults report that ‘making the world a better place’ is an essential element of their Jewish identity, and fifty-six percent report participating in some kind of community service or volunteer activity in the past year.” We must make Judaism not just about what happens in our buildings. Judaism is also about what happens in this world and through Social Justice, Judaism allows us to act on what happens in this world.
- We must create Welcoming Institutions. It is one thing to say that we are welcoming. It is a whole other to prove it. Do our institutions truly welcome all who come through our doors? Do our websites and synagogue brochures reflect the diverse spectrum of what a Jewish family looks like in 2013? Are we reactively welcoming or are we pro-actively welcoming? This is the simplest act and yet the most difficult, for if our institutions aren’t welcoming, then no one will walk through our doors.
Some of these issues must be addressed more in-depth in individual synagogues, including where I serve as rabbi. All of these areas need to be addressed by the Conservative Movement. If we are truly pressing the reset button, and prepared to start over, then this is where we must start. This is how we reset. This is how we reengage.
Like Abraham and Sarah, we are unsure of where this journey will end, but we know where we must start. Lech Lecha. Together, if we, as a movement, are brave enough to move, then we will get to that land that God will show us.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky