There has been a lot of ink spilled over the last month or so about what is wrong with Conservative Judaism. Some synagogues have rebelled against the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ) for its perceived inaction in these hard times. Some blame rabbis for the decline in membership and financial resources; others blame the “Movement” for not doing more to help. Some blame the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTSA) for not training better rabbis and some blame lay leadership and the members of our congregations for not demanding more from their spiritual leaders or for creating synagogues that cater to insuring that members remain members even if they have little or no interest in doing anything Jewish
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to go around. Rabbis can cite many examples of members who wanted a quick fix for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah with little or no preparation and then leave the congregation right after the last child has his or her ceremony. Lay leadership can tell stories of rabbis who don’t seem to understand “what congregants want these days”. Everyone wants to blame USCJ for not doing more to help congregations but there is very little specific that they want the USCJ to do (other than to stop charging dues when it’s perceived that they offer no services in exchange). Everyone wants change, but it seems that they want someone else to do the changing. In the end, as the song in this title, the more things change the more they stay the same.
My friend, Richard S. Moline, writing in the Jewish Week (5/21/09 “Conservatives must look in the mirror”)[ http://jta.org/news/article/2009/05/21/1005348/op-ed-owning-the-conservative-movements-challenges-and-its-successes ] writes the following:
“But it does trouble me that we have not successfully created Shabbat Communities in most of our congregations. It troubles me that most students do not find the level of commitment in their home communities that they do in USY or Ramah or Koach. It does trouble me that if they do find it, it‘s likely not in the Conservative movement, so they may become involved in other communities not by design but by default. And it does trouble me that our clergy and laity become more concerned about institutional viability than about motivating themselves and others to live fully Jewish lives. “
“What can we do about it? It’s easy to assign responsibility, but is courageous to shoulder it. If I were speaking to the key leaders of the movement, professional and lay, I would start by handing each of them a mirror and asking them to take a long hard look. “
“It’s easy to blame the institutions – and there is plenty of blame to be assigned to them all. But how many rabbis tell their president that in order to be a more effective leader, the two must study together for an hour every other week? How many presidents tell their rabbi the same thing? How much time do we spend teaching and encouraging people to observe Shabbat or to keep kosher, compared to the amount of time we spend making the bar or bat mitzvah schedule or collecting membership dues?”
Sometimes I feel that congregations don’t understand the Prado Principle and end up spending 80% of their time catering to the bottom 20% of our congregants, who may or may not appreciate all that a synagogue is doing for them. I believe that every Jew is important, but there clearly is a much larger community out there that is looking for something more than just a ceremony for their children. Perhaps what they want is only a feeling deep inside that they can’t really express very well, but they know that they need to address that feeling and that our synagogues can (and sometimes do) fulfill that need, at least partially, at least some of the time, at least a couple of times a year. We need to do better. National organizations cannot do this for us. It is not a Lay or Rabbinic problem. It is nothing less than a redefinition of what a synagogue is and what it does. It has nothing to do with Jewish Law or ritual questions, it has to do with the nature of an organization and how we answer basic questions about life and meaning.
There are rabbis who think that our members want to know the details of the laws of Judaism. They need this information in order to accept those laws into their lives. Every place I turn to, however, I see lay leaders and ordinary Jews saying, “just tell me what I need to do and I will try my best to live by Jewish Law”. They don’t want uncertainty; they get enough of that on the internet. They want honest truth to live by and a way of looking at the world upon which they can build a life in which they can be proud.
There are lay members of our congregations who want us to be more “spiritual” without any understanding about what that means. God is all around them and yet they think that they need to do something esoteric to acquire spirituality. Rabbis talk about Mitzvot and Social Action as ways into the spiritual realm but nobody seems to be listening. Social Action and Political Action in our congregations is anemic and half hearted. Let us create a menu of items which lay members can incorporate into their lives and let them see how by doing God’s work, they can find the spiritual fulfillment they seek. As they grow in deeds, we can then reframe their actions as Mitzvot and Tikun Olam. As their actions become more spiritual so will their need to study and pray as well.
There are lay leaders who think that if they change the service then people will flock to the synagogue. I think that they are partially correct. Conservative services are boring. People are expected to sit quietly for hours at a time while things happen on the bima that they don’t understand. Opera had this problem that was solved by putting a screen above the stage and having a simultaneous translation of the opera on the screen. That might help our services, even though we do have translations (and transliterations) in our siddurim. We have lost the drama of the Torah reading. We have lost what stirs the soul in prayer. Our music is old, our approach is old and our membership is old and getting older. Synagogues compete today with multiplex movie theaters, weekly concerts, special events and exciting sporting events (football, NASCAR, even hunting!!) for our members’ time on Friday night and on Saturday morning. The good people at Synagogue 3000 [synagogue3000.org] say we can get thousands of people in our congregations, just like our colleagues in the mega churches down the street, if we learn the lessons that they have learned. It is not about the liturgy, that does not change; it is the approach to the liturgy, it is the possibility to participate in the service, to be a part of something exciting, in an exciting place. My congregation here in NY ripped out the pews in the first ten rows of the sanctuary (and it is an old venerated synagogue and building), and replaced the seating with moveable chairs arranged in a semi circle. They got off the bima and put the action right there on the floor, no more than a foot or two in front of the first row of chairs. The members lead parts of the service and everyone takes part in what is going on. The liturgy and the siddur are the same as any other synagogue but the atmosphere is dynamic.
It is not, as the comic character Pogo once said, “We have met the enemy and he is us” rather we need to stop trying to maintain the status quo. I have seen congregations replace a rabbi looking for a new approach to Judaism, only to find that the new guy is the same as the old one. The problem is not just the rabbi; it is the congregation, the leadership, the members and the rabbi. Each one has expectations of the other and is not prepared for the kind of personal change needed to help our communities grow.
First, we need to change ourselves, to break out of our old Jewish habits and see our faith in a new and deeper way.
Second, we need to challenge our friends and members to a Judaism that does make demands on them, but they will quickly see the spiritual growth that arises when they confront those demands
Third, we need to build a community where study, prayer and community service are the backbone of what we stand for. This kind of synagogue can compete with the multitude of distractions and will make a synagogue a place worthy of our time and energy; a place where every Jew is welcome and a place to where we can go to find our way in life.
And finally, we need to demand from our institutions the kind of support that will help us along the way. The educative resources, the connections to national service projects, the advice and support we need to help us transform our own lives and the lives of those in our community. These institutions can’t transform others on our behalf; they only can and should supply the resources that we need to do the job ourselves.
It is time to stop looking in the mirror to find the problem and to start looking forward and creating new and innovative solutions. Let us go forward, professionals and laity as partners to get the work done.