Feb 24, 2009

the Jewish Week: "Conservative Jewry: Toward Renewal, Not Kaddish"

Conservative Jewry: Toward Renewal, Not Kaddish
Rabbi David Lerner
Special To The Jewish Week

This is a moment of great opportunity for Conservative Judaism.  Its three major arms are undergoing changes in leadership: Arnold Eisen is serving in his second year as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld has been chosen as the incoming executive director of the Rabbinical Assembly, and a new leader of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is being selected.

Those of us committed to Conservative Judaism should utilize this moment to make the changes necessary to ensure its flourishing, to build on the extraordinary successes of the movement of the past.  Although the movement is bleeding members and has lost much of the cachet it once had, this is not the time for Kaddish, but for renewal.

Conservative Judaism's successes

are legion. It helped stem the flow of immigrants and their children away from Judaism. Its emphasis on history and scholarship laid the foundation for Jewish studies in American universities. The Conservative Movement's unceasing support of Zionism influenced other groups to follow suit. Its unique blend of tradition and egalitarianism has become the mainstay of the new minyan movement, most of whose leaders grew up as Conservative Jews. Its approach to the status of women has influenced Modern Orthodoxy.  Its continuous advocacy of Hebrew and traditional ritual has had an impact on Reform Judaism as well.  

But for too many years, we have been too comfortable with the status quo rather than taking up the reins of change to bring our message to our members and beyond.

We should celebrate our unique egalitarian halachic Judaism more openly and passionately. Two parallel thrusts propel the movement today. On the one hand, we are more open to groups that were historically excluded, such as intermarried families, non-traditional families, and gays and lesbians. At the same time, we are deepening our experience of traditional Jewish practices, building sukkot and intensifying our Jewish learning by offering both entry-level and advanced adult education. These two trends share a commitment to participatory, engaged Judaism.

Most of all, we need to create Shabbat communities where those most committed to halachic Shabbat observance will find like-minded peers. Too often our lay members who observe Shabbat end up attending Orthodox synagogues, compromising their egalitarian values and intellectual honesty in order to be a part of a Shabbat-observant community.

Simultaneously, Conservative Judaism must create vibrant communities: shuls that are warm and inviting places where Jews come to daven, eat, learn, perform chesed (acts of kindness), and be entertained.  As teachers and guides our rabbis and cantors should empower others to teach Torah and lead davening. We should restructure b'nei mitzvah celebrations so that they are more meaningful both to the celebrants and to the rest of the davening community.

We should incorporate chesed as a pillar of our daily lives.  Specifically, our hechsher tzedek (justice supervision) initiative that incorporates ethical business practices into kashrut should grow along with greening our congregations, working on accessibility, and opening soup kitchens, as acts of kindness.  Interweaving social action and spiritual practices resonates with younger Jews.

We need first to welcome folks wherever they are. Free or low-cost introductory High Holy Day services and sedarim should become the norm. We also need to do a better job forming chavurot within our synagogues and foster Shabbat hospitality, where the seeds of meaningful relationships are planted.

Faculties at our seminaries should be scholars who are also religious role models who can serve as spiritual mentors for the next generation of leaders.

As it chooses its next leader, the United Synagogue in particular should take this opportunity to reshape itself. I propose that it replace the regional offices of its large national structure with a smaller operation that would coordinate more closely with other movement arms. It should re-envision itself as a think-tank and consulting group that creatively re-imagines the Jewish community of tomorrow as it provides counsel to its congregations. It should hire the best rabbis and educators and pay them competitive salaries so they will establish new communities, running classes and programs around North America, infusing the movement with energy and enthusiasm. 
When we see Jews beginning to move into a community, we should be there with resources, taking risks to spread our message.  A corps of adventurous spiritual leaders — perhaps newly minted and/or retiring rabbis, supported by the central movement — would help us grow.

We need a powerful publishing department that will unite the movement and Web sites updated with YouTube and podcasts, offering ritual instruction learning opportunities for joggers and commuters.
Perhaps most important for our future, efforts to follow up with USY (United Synagogue Youth) and Camp Ramah alumni as they enter adulthood must be made more effective.  Members of United Synagogue congregations must be reconnected to new congregations as they move around the country and even around the world.

If we are willing to embrace the changes necessary for our growth, all of these innovations are within our reach.

Most of all, we need passionate, energetic leaders — professional and lay — who model authentic yiddishkeit, who live and breathe God, Torah and Israel. They will build the Conservative Movement of tomorrow.

Rabbi David Lerner is the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in Lexington, Mass.