You Don’t Send Me Flowers Anymore

One of the topics that always comes up when lay leadership or Rabbis talk about Conservative Judaism is why things can’t be like the “good old days”. Back in the “heyday” of our movement, back in the 1950’s, congregations were large, suburban and filled with families with lots of children. It was the center of Jewish life. Fathers, Mothers and Children had many activities to fill their days and there was a sense of community that everyone felt they needed to join. One could not be a “full” member of the general community without membership in a religious institution so everyone was a member. We were drawing members who were disgruntled with the Orthodox movement in this country and those who wanted more than what Reform was prepared to give them. So our congregations were growing like crazy.

We may all agree that those days are gone. We only need to read the above paragraph to understand that the world has changed in the last 60 years. For better or worse, we live in a different reality. We can look at all the demographic changes and instinctively understand that we can not live in the past. So why is it that Conservative Judaism can’t get it’s act together and grow? It is not the fault of Jews, or even synagogues. Members and congregations are all struggling. Everyone is trying to find the solution to why our movement is shrinking, yet the answers are painfully obvious. We have set our benchmark as the way things were in the 1950’s. We can not be the movement between Orthodox and Reform because there really is no one seeking that space between them anymore, at least not like there was six decades ago. Our Jews are not looking for a movement, they are looking for God, and if we show them how we seriously search for God, we can ask them to join us in our quest. Being a movement that is “between Orthodox and Reform” is the wrong benchmark and it directs us to the wrong goals. Our vision is limited, so our results are limited too. It is time to face the world and revision our place in it.

There are those who say that Conservative/Masorti Judaism is aging and dying, that we have failed to inspire and motivate our congregations. The facts of this are correct, we don’t have as many young Jews joining our synagogues. I believe that there are great changes taking place in Judaism today and our communities have yet to adjust to the changes. It is still true that people only join a “full service” congregation when they have children, just as they have done for almost a century. One of the main differences, however is that today, parents have their children when they are 35 instead of 25. Our congregations are aging because parents are aging. Take a look and see how many 40 year old parents we have in our pre-schools. We have lost 10 years in the lives of young Jews because we see ourselves only as a place for “families with children” There are young Jews, lots of them, but they are not interested in our synagogues which are still “business as usual” i.e. waiting for couples to have children. Young Jews marry later, often only when they are ready to have children. They live together, sometimes for 5-10 years before they marry and then return from the honeymoon pregnant. Why should they join a congregation that has no programming, religious or social for these young Jews? There are congregations who have attracted younger Jews but our movement still does not embrace these kind of synagogues. We don’t really publicize their programs nor learn from their experiences. Why? I think it is because we are still clinging to the older model.

There are others issues too. Let us look at synagogue music. There is new music for liturgy being written every day, but how much of it finds its way into our synagogue? Most of the Cantors and those trained by Cantors are using music that is almost 100 years old, from the beginning of the last century! Besides Adon Olam and L’cha Dodi, how much new music do we really see in our congregations? Part of this problem is that the people writing this music today, are not trained Hazzanim. They are lay people expressing their spirituality through their musical talents. Instead of co-opting this talent and embracing the new music, instead of refining the trend and writing their own music, Hazzanim bemoan the loss of cantorial music from the “golden age”. I believe that we are beginning a new “golden age” of liturgical music and Hazzanim and congregations ignore this at their own peril. I like my “oldies” as much as anyone else, but there is no point in bemoaning the fact that my favorite music is not played on “top 40” stations anymore. This is not about musical instruments on Shabbat or no musical instruments on Shabbat. Musical instruments will only bring attention as a curiosity for a limited time. If the music is right, a service a cappela or with instruments will draw Jews to our services.

Let us look at learning. Have we done all we can do to make the Torah Service more interesting? It is not about full or triennial readings, it is about engagement. While having an aliyah is interesting for the family who is honored, take a look as what is happening to the others who are in the congregation. They are as unattached as they can be. We need to discuss how we can engage our members in the Torah Service. How can we do this? There are models out there that have just never gained traction. Do we discuss the parasha with the congregation between alioyot? Do we challenge congregants to dig into the text before we start to read? Does the congregation ever get a chance to discuss the interesting comments at the bottom of “Etz Hayyim” or do they just sit there and watch what is going on in front? Far too few congregations have any kind of discussion either before or after the service. Can’t change the “Bar/Bat Mitzvah show every week? Why not offer a Torah discussion in the chapel or in a classroom or even in the Rabbi’s study during the Torah service for those who are interested. There will be plenty of Jews left in the main service to hear the students recite their haphtara. Check out “Storahtelling”( for a radical Torah adventure and then see how we can make it a part of our more halachic service.

Another way we live in the past can be found in our sanctuaries. We are still building large synagogues with fixed pews as the standard for our movement. Fixed seating is just not the way we need to go. Take a look at many successful congregations of any denominations. Modern prayer spaces need movable chairs. Worship space today should require that pray-ers need to see the faces of those with whom they are praying. We don’t need theater seating with everyone watching the Rabbi and Cantor. In the round? Maybe; certainly in a semi circle where people can see each other. If we try that configuration for services we will see an immediate difference.

In our world today, not everyone comes to a synagogue for a religious service or to provide a religious education for their children. Synagogues today have to have many ways to enter the Jewish world. One of these ways is Social Action. How many Conservative congregations have really active Social Action/Social Justice groups making a difference in our communities? Do we feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, support for those recovering from addictions, lobby our representatives? (When was the last time one of our congregations sent a delegation to Washington DC or a state capital to lobby our legislators?) Do we support our local volunteer fire and ambulance corp? Do we open our doors for town hall meetings for neighbors and the larger community? When we ask someone to join a congregation, are we asking them to just sit in a seat a few times a year, or do we challenge them to greater commitment in life? I know absolutely that there are USCJ congregations that are doing this but they operate almost alone. Where do we highlight their work and where do we encourage others to follow their lead?

Permit me one final example of misguided visioning. We no longer live in a world where one size fits all. Small congregations can focus on the needs of those who are their core constituency. Larger congregations need to have more diversity to meet the needs of their large and varied community. We need to experiment with alternative minyanim where people can try out different ways of practicing their Judaism. If Conservative congregations don’t provide these alternatives, then our members will go to the synagogue/temple that does. In the synagogue world today, we are so attached to the B/M show service that most weeks, our members only want to come if they are friends of the family. We complain that the B/M takes over the synagogue; so why let them? If we have smaller alternatives, we will soon see smaller more intimate B/M services with happier students and happier families.

We live in a world where Rabbis and Synagogues have to work together to compete in this world. We should be promoting models that work instead of bemoaning what we have lost. We are still looking backward in too many cases, when we need to be looking forward.

Everything I have mentioned are all programs out there in the open market for those with vision to see and understand. It is up to us Rabbis and Congregational leadership to embrace these models and move these models forward. I know that there are many forces in an established congregation that don’t see this vision and don’t want to leave the models of the past behind. But if staff and lay leadership develop a common strategy and language to work on these changes, a new direction can be achieved. The role of the movement, i.e. The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Jewish Theological Seminary is to be there to help us learn about new approaches and guide us to find new solutions of our own. We should not dwell on the frustrations. We need to be motivated by the future.

I have been a Rabbi in the pulpit for over 25 years. I should have many good reasons to be frustrated that our congregations don’t do more and our Movement does not do more. Instead, I try to motivate myself to do more to make Conservative/Masorti Judaism and the synagogues that I lead, the fine jewels that I know they can be.

I would love to hear your opinions and I invite you to leave a comment. Just click on the link below.

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