Feb 13, 2011

Rabbi Ethan Linden: "Rethinking the USCJ Part One: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall"

Rabbi Ethan Linden: "Rethinking the USCJ Part One: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall"

One of the first things I noticed about the Draft Strategic Plan for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was that it was admirably blunt about the challenges:

The absolute number of Conservative Jews in North America, and their "market share" of the congregationally affiliated Jewish population, has been declining since the 1960's.  The reasons are multiple. First, the number of non-Orthodox younger adult Jews -adults age 25-44 – is shrinking relative to those 55-74 in the American Jewish population. So too, the number of in-married young couples is shrinking, with commensurate growth in non-married and intermarried. As a consequence, we are witnessing a sharp reduction in the proportion of in-married young couples, the prime market for synagogue affiliation in general and for Conservative affiliation in particular.  Second, Conservative Jews today are older, on average, than Reform, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, post-denominational, or non-denominational Jews. Over the years, losses to Conservative identity have been offset in part by commensurate gains for Orthodoxy, post-denominational, non-denominational, and secular identities.

Okay, that's pretty bad.  But it can't be that bad, can it?

Over the last nine years, USCJ has lost about 6% of its congregations and about 14% of its membership. The largest declines in membership units have been in the Northeast (30%). The 36 largest congregations have declined the most, both in number of congregations (33%) and in membership units (38%).

Okay, it is that bad.  (I should note that Shir Chadash has gained membership over the past two years, so we're happily bucking this trend.)

Now, we have to be clear here that the health of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is not the only measure of the health of the Conservative Movement in particular, but it is an important indicator.  The backbone of the Movement are the synagogues, and the USCJ has, for many years, been woefully inadequate to the task of nationwide Movement building.  So, for starters, kudos to everyone involved in the strategic plan for facing up to the seriousness of the problem.  The reality is that the USCJ has been poorly performing in most of its functions for many years.  All the major arms of the Movement: USY, Koach, Congregation and Education that flow out of USCJ are, to one extent or another, moribund.

A small example, and my personal hobby-horse: Koach, the putative college arm of the movement.  Anyone who has been to college in the last two or three decades and gone looking for Jewish life on campus has encountered Hillel, and has encountered Chabad, and of late, may have encountered one of the myriad of programs that place Orthodox rabbis on college campuses.  Almost no one has encountered Koach, because Koach is almost nowhere.  What that means is that people interested in creating traditional egalitarian communities are basically on their own.  If you get in touch with Koach, they'll tell you good and luck and maybe offer to send a few siddurim.  A few years back some friends and I (and our spouses) got it into our heads to try to change this situation.  We approached Koach with a plan to place four or five rabbinic families on major campuses where we could have immediate impact.  The idea was to commit to these campuses for three years and see if we could get something started.  Now, our plan was not fully fleshed out, and it would have required some tweaks, and we were certainly thinking a little bit pie-in-the-sky.  But you had several rabbis ready to go to college campuses and give this thing a go.

Koach told us to shut up, sit down and stop getting in their way, because they already had a similar idea.  We let it go.  And now, five years later…well, you know how this ends.  So I was impressed to see that Koach is on the chopping block in the new strategic plan:

The current campus environment is heavily serviced by Hillel and numerous other well-funded and professionally staffed efforts. The only way a relatively modest expenditure by USCJ can make a significant impact on campus is by highly focused interventions. While the USCJ cannot abandon Conservative Jewish college students, it needs a more effective vehicle than the current Koach program.

Truer words were never spoken.  I don't have any idea what "highly focused interventions" might be, and the details aren't important at this stage.  (I do have some ideas about how we can effectively service the college community, but that is for another time.)  What makes me happy here is that USCJ has made the same evaluation that I (and anyone who has thought about it) has made about Koach: it just doesn't work.

So, for starters congratulations to the USCJ for being honest about itself and its challenges.  Tomorrow we'll examine some features the plan to fix these problems and address these challenges.  But we're off to a good start so far…

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom  || Bay Area Masorti  ||  ShefaNetwork.org 
Rabbis for Women of the Wall  ||  menachemcreditor.org 
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Chag Sukkot Sameach, dear friends.