My colleague Rabbi Jerry Sussman recently wrote:
Many of our struggles have to do with the disconnect between us as Rabbis and the members of our congregations. I think that Conservative Jews … like traditional ritual but do not want to be told what to do. While many of our members like services in Hebrew and traditional practices; they want to maintain their autonomy as to what they consider obligatory and what they do not. Which means that they do not accept Halacha as something they are obligated to do. They are thus ideologically Reform Jews who like tradition. The amount of tradition they can tolerate is however getting less and less with the generations (with more than a few exceptions). In this way we can regard our movement as a partial failure in that we have been trying to develop a laity committed to the Conservative approach to Halacha for close to a hundred years and have not succeeded. That’s a pretty big failure.
There are many directions we can go in. Founding a real community is one. Maybe we can consider the Chabad type of organization in which the Chabad houses are essentially franchises and the shelichim the franchisees who do not have to contend with our contentious structure where the Rabbi serves at the pleasure of the congregation.
What it all means is that we have to rethink some of our fundamentals including the question of whether or not a religious movement based on the Wissenschaft approach to Judaism can work. Until we clarify our own beliefs and approaches we won’t be able to change the picture.
I don’t want anyone to think that I am picking on my colleague. I am not. He is expressing an opinion that I hear a lot when I am around other rabbis. I have trouble believing that he really feels that way about lay people in Conservative Judaism. I think my other colleagues who repeat these accusations are also not really anti-lay people; they are only reflecting the frustration they feel when they realize the differences between themselves and the people in the congregations they serve.
Rabbis are unhappy these days; they are unhappy because our congregations are shrinking, our members don’t seem to want to hear what we have to teach and there is a big world out there that is doing a better job in reaching our members than we in the pulpit are doing.
The lay people in our movement are unhappy too. They look at Orthodox congregations and feel that the worship there is more “authentic” than what we have in our congregations. They look at Reform congregations and see that there some really important things are happening that don’t happen in our congregations. The other congregations seem to be filled with happy people and members of Conservative congregations seem to be so unhappy.
The reaction to all of this is to asses blame. Congregations go looking for “new, young rabbis” who may have new ideas and casting out the older rabbis who seem so, well, old. Rabbis go blaming congregations who don’t know what they want and they blame the “movement” for not helping them figure out what they want and they blame their training for not having the skill to figure it out for themselves.
So it is time to stop the blaming and begin to change fundamentally what our rabbis and congregations are all about.
First of all, it is time Rabbis challenged our lay leadership. Rabbis need to ask our board members to write a statement about what Judaism means to them and something about their own Jewish journey. If they can’t write it, Rabbis should give them the background and vocabulary to write a spiritual statement that belongs on the synagogue website.
Next, Rabbis should look at the entire congregation and find the spiritual stories that get to the heart of what it means to be a Jew, especially a Conservative Jew, today. Those stories should be told in public at services (Shabbat and/or Holiday) and then put on the website and published in the bulletin. Rabbis may need to edit these stories to keep them focused and to help the authors find the right words that will not lead to ridicule or embarrassment by others. Conservative Jews need to see the faces of those who are just like them but who have made good spiritual decisions.
Every Conservative congregation needs to have a social action/political action program that the leadership not only supports but participates in. The track to leadership needs to go through work on/with this committee. There should be a long list of projects going on all the time and lots of ways to get involved. It should become the most important work our congregations do. Services are important and so is education, but I believe that they are only really effective if there is a social action program that backs them up so we can practice what we preach.
Synagogues need to train as many members as we can in synagogue skills and in writing/delivering a d’var Torah. Adult Education should be as important as Religious School and have similar funding. The road to synagogue leadership should pass through education as well.
Rabbis should save the sermon for a really important event/topic/holiday. Otherwise there should be more discussion with the congregation and stories that relate to everyday life. If a rabbi feels a need to comment on what is going on in the news, the rabbi should use the website, email or bulletin. Rabbis cannot compete with news pundits and cable television to comment on the news. Rabbis should stick to teaching our members how to live life better, a topic that you can’t get from the secular media.
Congregations need to invest in technology. Websites need to be better; filled with pictures of people having fun, not only pictures of the building. It should have a list serve or social networking site so members can chat and share day to day information with each other. The synagogue should have a “virtual office” that is open 24 hours a day so members can sign up and pay for upcoming events when they finally get to go online after the kids are asleep or they are home from evening meetings. Save postage and send out an online weekly bulletin. The Rabbi and Cantor and other staff members should write a blog linked to the website. The school, social action groups, and the board (at least the President) should be updating their webpage at least weekly.
Synagogues need to be more user friendly. Think about your facility. Does a newcomer know which door is used during the week for the office and which door is used on Shabbat for services? Can a visitor find the office, Rabbi’s study, restrooms and chapel once they are inside? Is there someone, with a nametag, that will find a visitor and help them find their way once they are inside the building? If a new person shows up for services will someone welcome them and help them get settled in their seat, offering those not familiar with the service to sit with someone who can help them or will the visitor be told to sit somewhere else because “that is MY seat”?
Where did I learn all of this? I assure you they don’t teach it at any seminary. But all of this information is out there if we take the time to look for it. My friend Dr. Ron Wolfson has a rule that any congregation of any religion that has hundreds of people coming every week must be doing something right. We need to find those congregations and just do what they do. We all know about these congregations like Hadar, B’nai Jeshurun, IKAR, Anshe Chesed, (even the mega Christian churches with thousands of members have something to teach us.) We know about STAR and Synagogue 3000. The information is right there on the internet and so many rabbis and congregations just close their eyes to it and expect someone else to tell them what they need to do/change to be successful when, all too often, rabbis and congregations are too comfortable with the way things are or too scared that someone will be unhappy to try something new.
This is not about Halacha. Our members will follow us with Halacha if we give them a reason to follow us. If people see our congregations as irrelevant, then Halacha will be seen as irrelevant. If people see us as dynamic and we are an important part of their life, then the Halacha will also become an important part of their lives. The issue today is not if we have musical instruments on Shabbat or not, nor is it if we include imahot or not; the real issues are if our congregations are relevant to the lives of our members. The world out there is filled with dangerous ideas and a culture where “the one who dies with the most toys wins”. Our Jewish people don’t buy that philosophy but don’t know what their own religion has to say about it. Synagogues that don’t address this need will find themselves aging and shrinking. If that describes our Movement, then we know what the movement needs to be addressing as well. Chancellor Eisen at the Jewish Theological Seminary gets it. He is creating a Mitzvah project for the movement. USCJ and the RA now have new leadership. We will see if they get it or not soon. But why wait?
There is no point in crying that everything is pretty bad. We know what we need to do. We know where we can go for answers. What we need now is the will to get it all done.