5 Steps and an Unlikely Outsider Can ‘Save’ Conservative Judaism
Recently Dr. Roberta Kwall wrote an article entitled “Saving Conservative Judaism” for Commentary Magazine. Kwall writes “In short, the Conservative movement needs to return to [Solomon] Schechter’s mission of conserving Jewish tradition by focusing its educational and spiritual energies on enlarging and strengthening a root group of Conservative Jews who are drawn to tradition.” Kwall’s answer to how we “save” the Conservative movement is on the surface a good one. I am a strong believer in the traditional models and observances of Conservative Judaism. But as a rabbi in the field, I know my congregants are traditional in their hearts but face the realities of the modern world. This struggle is one that makes our larger communities so unique. There are very dedicated and passionate lay leaders working hard to synergize their passions into practice. However, I do not believe saving Conservative Judaism requires theory or belief, but rather actions and perceptions. I offer up these suggestions, without pointing a finger, that if done within a one-year timeframe could help us move forward:
6) Rethink College Engagement
In 2013, the United Synagogue closed its college engagement program called KOACH. The program was flawed for two reasons: for many it felt like an unnecessary extension of United Synagogue Youth (USY) and economically it did not make sense. We could never cover the landscape of campuses that other organizations have done. Even if we had a boom in Conservative Hillel rabbis we would still not be centered on Conservative rituals, learning or programming in a pluralistic environment. My suggestion is to place college engagement in the hands of local rabbis and allow them to open their synagogues and homes to college students. Allow them to partner with Hillels around the country, teach a small amount of classes, run a few Shabbatot and ensure that the students have a place to feel spiritually supported. The feedback my synagogue receives from all of our college students are they want us to be around when they want us to be around. There is low financial risk with a high reward; few congregations or rabbis would turn down the opportunity to welcome college students.
5) Provide More Value To Dues-Paying Synagogues
There has been a long standing tradition of synagogue’s paying dues to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). The USCJ historically has done great work highlighted by USY for teens and their teen summer programming. These teen programs have grown tremendous Jewish leaders and engaged countless numbers of Jews who found their Jewish connection. More recently the USCJ has instituted SULAM Programs, many of which engage synagogue leaders, and have recently created an innovation lab. Knowing that we now live in a world in which each individual and community has their own needs, the USCJ must find low-cost or free resources for congregations. For example, could there be global synagogue marketing or backend booking for all congregations? Since we pay into the pot to ensure the USCJ is up and running, we must justify and feel the direct value of our dollars.
4) Our Websites Need A Refresh
If websites are the new lobbies of organizations, then we desperately need to upgrade. The Jewish Theological Seminary has drastically overhauled their website in recent years and I think it represents the institution much better. But we still need to look towards other organizations that are driving people to their sites. How can Conservative Jewish hubs draw visitors to their user-friendly websites? By using exclusive content, personalities and ideas, our websites can reflect who we are in the 21st century.
3) Cultivate Community Rabbis and Educators
We should invest in placing rabbis, educators and their families in targeted communities to ramp up engagement and outreach. I am not certain where these rabbis, cantors and educators might originate from; USCJ, JTS, American Jewish University, Camp Ramah, etc. but they become the Conservative Movement liaisons to a variety of cities and regions. They must become community resources running our USY regions, developing alumni events for Ramah, supporting local synagogues by backing up clergy on lifecycle events, teach courses, host meals and fundraise. These highly educated professionals can bring synergy to regions, provide a skilled resource and potential stability to these regions and allow for innovation while developing strong long-lasting connections.
2) Buy Up Communal Stock
In the open market of today’s Jewish life, my suggestion is for the Conservative Movement to “buy up” best practices. What would it take for our Movement to be the umbrella for Moishe House, OneTable and/or PJ Library? Granted many of these organizations, if not all, are not for sale and pride themselves on being trans-denominational. But in many ways the Conservative Movement at its core is trans-denominational. If we cannot “buy up” these amazing entities can we outdo them? Can we provide a better product to a concept that they have already proven to work? We have a critical mass of people. We have quick intros into communities that can become proof-of-concept. How do we build the next Hadar from within or ignite the next songleader boot camp as our own program?
1) We Need A Pope
I am all for hearing everyone in the room as long as someone at the end points in the direction we are headed. When I was in my final year of Rabbinical School a classmate of mine suggested that the Conservative Movement needed a “Pope.” He wanted one individual leader who was able to make statements and synergize. The current model of multiple seminaries doing different things, dues to the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ, then USY, Ramah and Schechter includes a lot of voices. Five years later I agree with this classmate of mine. We need a Pope. And luckily, recently, one became available. I believe the Conservative Movement should hire Richard Joel. Joel has run Hillel (and grew it to what we know today) and Yeshiva University. What do we know about Richard Joel? He is a dedicated Jew who can raise money, who has every important connection, and understands the language of all ages. Most importantly he is a phenomenal speaker. He would be an outsider to Conservative Judaism, but someone who truly knows how to look inside a Jewish Movement and challenge us by forcing us to think differently.
But here is the biggest obstacle the Conservative Movement faces: where does someone take these ideas? In the Hillel world, when Rabbi Josh Feigelson created Ask Big Questions, Hillel was able to create programming around it. When Conservative Jews have an idea we blog about it and hope it catches on. We need a center to listen and help foster implantation. We have spent far too much time talking. I suggest, if anyone is listening, that we begin working.