Old-New Paths to Religious Renewal in America

Conservative: Embrace Jewish Practice

By Jerome Epstein

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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One year ago this month, I announced a new campaign for Conservative synagogues in order to strengthen Jewish commitment. The campaign articulated a vision of synagogues stimulating congregants to climb the ladder of Jewish living by urging Conservative Jews to make a personal “Compact of Conservative Commitment.” The compact was based on the recognition that while we need to welcome congregants at their level of observance, we must also motivate them to grow in such a way that they live their daily lives according to Jewish values.

Meant to address the concern that too many of our members are doing little Jewishly in their daily lives, the compact promoted a gradual reaffirmation of the commitment to and practice of the values held by Conservative Judaism. The goal remains as clear today as it did when the compact was articulated: We must motivate Conservative Jews to grow in their commitment to living the values of our tradition.

For many of us, numbers validate who we are — our self-worth. We spend a great deal of time and money on surveys, such as the National Jewish Population Survey, in order to attach numbers to growth and progress. Yet whether we require numbers to validate what we instinctively know is questionable.

Congregational leaders often measure success by the number of members who affiliate, the number of participants in religious services, the number of individuals involved in a particular activity or the number of students in educational programs. This bias toward numbers is unhealthy. Size does matter — but it is not everything. Numbers cannot be the sole or even the most important criterion of our effectiveness. Instead, we must train ourselves to ask, “How did people grow?” and “What did people learn?” And we must begin to evaluate our success by considering how people have changed their lives.

The true testimony to the success of Conservative Judaism is our ability to instill in our members a commitment to live as Jews. We should take pride in the creation of each mitzvah-observant Jew. We have made the partnership with God a reality for Jews in a society that ignores God. Now our task is to build on that success.

Our standard definition of a Conservative Jew is one who joins a Conservative synagogue, whether for the synagogue’s values, the convenience of the religious school, the charisma of the rabbi or the voice of the cantor. In order to truly fulfill our potential, however, we must reserve the tag “Conservative” for one who seeks to live as a Conservative Jew. That definition places the challenge where it belongs — on us.

Affiliation itself is not our goal. It is only a means. We must radically change the practice of some congregations, and of our movement, where “membership acquisition” is treated as the goal rather than as a means to an opportunity — the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our congregants. Because congregations often focus on attracting the broadest base possible, we sometimes tend to blur the articulation of our mission in order to appear attractive. We may have to be less timid in inspiring and challenging Jews to live a life in accordance with rabbinic law.

When we play the numbers game, we often pay more attention to recruiting members than on inspiring Jewish growth in those who do become members. Without a focused plan to foster Jewish commitment in our members, we will never achieve it.

But growth will not happen without a catalyst to stimulate the translation of concrete Jewish values into behavior.

Without encouraging people to take meaningful steps, we will never help them reach the ultimate goal of living a rich Jewish life. No longer can we ignore the broad population of Jews who see Jewish living as irrelevant. It is our job to demonstrate the relevance — and beauty — of a Jewish lifestyle.

Let us be clear: Conservative Judaism is not a style of religious service. Conservative Judaism is not an approach to ritual that sits somewhere between Reform and Orthodox. Conservative Judaism is not a vehicle designed to make people feel comfortable with living less intense Jewish lives.

It is our responsibility to teach what Judaism stands for and why it is important. Conservative Judaism is replete with possibilities for conveying Jewish values and Jewish sources in an honest, meaningful and articulate fashion. Still, having the ability and actually conveying the message are two different things. Conservative Judaism will never achieve its promise unless and until we make teaching a priority. An educating congregation does more than merely offer a multitude of courses. It also stimulates each congregant to study.

Yet that is only part of what is needed. A congregation must also challenge its congregants not only to study, but to grow. Judaism is not always what our congregants want it to be. Our religion has clear values and defined expectations for each Jew. The challenging congregation will stimulate its members to change — to become closer to God, to engage God, to live God’s plan for our lives.

Certainly, some members will view such endeavors as intrusive. They may not wish to grow, and they may decide that Conservative Judaism is not for them. Just as our doors must be open to welcome people who are ready to enter, we must also be sufficiently secure in our mission to reluctantly — and after efforts to inspire with our message — acknowledge that those who choose a different way of living Judaism may elect not to be members.

To reach our great potential and harness our rich resources, we must dedicate ourselves to the difficult task of refocusing our system. The time has come for us to focus on the quality of Jewish growth as much as on the quantity of congregational members. We don’t need surveys to measure our success or tell us what we must do. Our success is evident, and so is our challenge.

We have the right to enjoy the successes for which we are responsible. But we must also accept our responsibility to challenge to help Conservative Judaism become what it was intended to be — a dynamic force to stimulate Jews to find meaning in Jewish living.

Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the association of Conservative congregations in North America.

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