This is our Movement. This is our Moment.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
This past month, I was asked to join a panel on the Future of Conservative Judaism at the Rabbinical Assembly convention in Las Vegas. My remarks were meant for my colleagues in the room. It turns out that what happens in Vegas doesn't actually stay there, and my remarks have found their way to numerous newspapers. What the newspaper quotations failed to report was the sadness that accompanied my remarks. I was raised in a family deeply involved in a Conservative synagogue. I met my wife in USY; I found my identity and calling at Ramah; I learned Torah in the institutions of this Movement. I am alarmed at its condition. I hoped that my remarks might bring some movement toward remedy and repair. I still have that hope.
We are in big trouble.
There is no demographic that offers optimism for the Conservative Movement's future. Not one. Read Steven Cohen's studies. He gives us seven years to live.
Consider: The United Synagogue has shrunk from a peak of 900 congregations to a current affiliation of 660 congregations. The majority of United Synagogue affiliated congregations have a membership under 200 families, and more than half of them are in serious financial difficulty. USY has shrunk by a third. Look at the RA Placement list: We are graduating bright, committed rabbis, but we have few jobs to offer them. As a movement, we are older than Reform and Orthodoxy, and growing older still. Yes, we have done a remarkable job educating our children in Solomon Schechter schools and Ramah camps. But we have failed to attract them back to our communities. Instead, they find their spiritual home in Orthodox circles, or they form non-denominational minyanim. They want nothing to do with us.
We are in big trouble.
Perhaps this doesn't matter. Perhaps denominational Judaism is obsolete and we're better off without the institutional baggage of national organizations. When my budget chairman asks me, what do we get for all the money we send to United Synagogue? – I hear this question. I believe that Judaism is an embodied spirituality. It is lived, and practiced, and cultivated, and celebrated in community. And community needs the structure of institutions to thrive. Institutions, no matter how robust they appear, are fragile. Once torn down and destroyed, they are very difficult to replace or rebuild. That's why I volunteered, as part of the Hayom Coalition, to work on a strategic plan for United Synagogue. I have never been a fan of the USCJ. But to lose our national congregational structure would be a terrible blow to Conservative Judaism in North America.
Why are we facing this situation? Let's consider three possibilities.
1. Big Ideas. Religious movements fail when their ideas fail. Does Conservative Judaism have big ideas? Yes. In fact, its ideas are so big that everyone else in the Jewish community wants them. The Reform Movement's move toward tradition -- its discovery that spirituality without a language of mitzvah, of normative obligation, leads to narcissism – Reform Judaism is sounding an awful lot like us. Modern Orthodoxy's move to embrace Bat Mitzvah, to advocate women's Torah study and women's minyanim, and now the introduction of the ordination of women as Orthodox "Rabbah" – Modern Orthodoxy is sounding like us. This is not triumphalism. It is a recognition that the core ideas of Conservative Judaism speaks to the condition of the contemporary Jew.
So why isn't it speaking to our Jews?
Rabbis tend to be philosophical idealists. We believe in ideas. And so we are tempted to believe that somewhere out there is an idea – or a way of articulating an idea – that will bring Jews home to the synagogue and to Jewish living. Philosophical idealism, these days, comes wrapped in the language of marketing. There is talk of "messaging" and "branding" or "re-branding" our Movement. My friend, David Wolpe urges us to articulate a message that can fit on a bumper-sticker. Chabad champions "Torah True Judaism." Wolpe offers "The Judaism of Relationship." Others argue that we need to change our name. "Conservative" connotes exactly the opposite of what we'd like to project.
They're all right. But it is not sufficient. No new name or no new slogan is going to revive our Movement. And the danger of worshipping at the altar of marketing is that younger Jews, raised in a media-saturated universe, are wary of anything that seems contrived to sell. They seek authenticity above all else. And authenticity is defined as that which cannot be marketed.
We do need new ideas. We do need a clear message. But we need something more.
2. Big Personalities. Religion is intensely personal. At the heart of great religious movements we find great personalities. This is what astonishes me: How can a movement led by a soul as gifted as Arnie Eisen be failing? How can a movement that produces David Wolpe and Jeremy Kalmonefsky, Brad Artson and Danny Nevins, Elliot Dorff and Neil Gillman, how can we be failing? It's impossible.
Unless we recognize a third possibility.
3. Organization. When I started working on the problem of rebuilding United Synagogue, it struck me that the institutions of the Conservative Movement were incredibly dysfunctional. And then I came to realize something. They're not dysfunctional. They were designed this way.
The architect of the Conservative Movement was Solomon Schechter. Schechter loved American democracy. So he set up the institutions of the Conservative Movement to replicate the checks and balances of American democracy. The Seminary, United Synagogue, the RA were intentionally set at odds with each other so that no one could gain power over the others. Add in Womens League, the Mens Clubs, the other professional associations, altogether about 17 national organizations that represent Conservative Judaism in North America, and what do you get? You get leaders but no leadership.
We have a camping movement and a youth movement….but they don't talk to one another. And neither one talks with the people who run our day schools. Who in turn don't ever talk to the people who consult or lead supplementary religious schools. And no one talks to those who lead synagogues.
Leaders, but no leadership.
Our Seminaries prepare rabbis and cantors to lead congregations. And we have the two most brilliant scholars of congregational life in America – Jack Wertheimer and Ron Wolfson. Both Jack and Ron tried to build institutes devoted to researching synagogues and training a new generation of congregational leadership for our movement. And both failed to find support. So they gave up and took their efforts elsewhere.
Leaders, but no leadership.
We have no one who is responsible to visit Ramah camps each summer and our Solomon Schechter schools to recruit and inspire our best kids to take up leadership in our movement. We have great leaders – Julie Schoenfeld, Steve Wernick, and Arnold Eisen. But the structure of our so-called movement does not allow them to lead.
Even if we embrace David Wolpe's proposal to articulate a clear, concise message, who would be its advocate? Even if we had a message, we have no messenger.
Perhaps Schechter's structure of institutions worked in the early 20th Century. It's killing us now. I submit to you that the organizational chaos of the Conservative Movement threatens our future. And until we fix it, nothing else will save us.
So if Solomon Schechter so loved American democracy, let us do something quintessentially American: Let us call a Constitutional Convention of the Conservative Movement. Bring together the leaders of all the organizations, and rebuild the movement. Bring together our leaders to create the possibility of leadership. We will have a powerful message only when our institutions coordinate and cooperate in delivering that message.
We can continue to worry, or complain, to scorn the people who brought us to this precipice. Or we can kill the messenger and pretend it's not real. Or we can act.
This is our movement. This is our moment. We will either fix it or we will bury it. We will either integrate or disintegrate.