I sent this out to the Shefa list and, with a few modifications, I share it with all my readers today.
Let me start by saying that I am a “company man”. I believe in the institutions of Conservative Judaism and while the structure may need some improvement, I don’t mind working with what we have.I am also a realist. I don’t have any nostalgic preferences for what we have done in the past. I only know that it is important to teach the ethics and the rituals of Judaism to Jews where ever they may be. And that I am committed to teaching a Judaism that is pluralistic, egalitarian, and equally open to all Jews who share the Positive Historical approach to Jewish History and Halacha.
With both of these ideas in mind, I believe that the reason our institutions are dying and our denomination is shrinking is because we have never really been good at the things we need to do now. We have hung on to our past for so long that we no longer reflect the needs of those who should be finding a home here, and this includes all those who think like us but who don’t affiliate with our movement. Each of these areas below needs an entire essay to explain but I will keep this short. These are my opinions on what we can do now to re-energize our movement;
1. We have, in the past, built our synagogues around our schools. Jews today marry later and have children much later. By the time they need us, they have already lived over 10 years as an adult without us. Our synagogues must be something more than a school for children of members.
2. Our Cantors have been dedicated to preserving music from the golden age of Cantorial music at the beginning of the twentieth century. Jews today are creating new music for liturgy and there may even be a new golden age going on but our congregations and many Cantors have decided to stick with the past. The issue is not musical Instruments on Shabbat vs. no musical instruments, the real issue is what kind of music will be use for prayer. There are many Cantors out there who really “get” this, but I find that other Cantors margialize the new contributions of their mostly younger colleagues
3. Synagogues see themselves as social centers for Jews. Today, Jews of all ages, and particularly young, single, professional Jews, do not not need a synagogue for social or professional reasons. There are way too many other, more interesting ways to spend their free time. We need to program what is missing from the lives of Jews today. For example…
4. Our synagogues have never been committed to ongoing, get your hands dirty, social action/political action. Jews of all ages today are hungry for meaning in their life and we give them very little to do that will help them feel they are making a difference in changing the world. They can’t get this from the internet or from cable television in High Definition. We need, as never before, a strong social action/political action agenda for Conservative Jews. We have some, but we can do better.
5. Our synagogues give only poor lip service to serious Jewish studies. All Jews today are interested in a serious examination of texts and spirituality that is less about indoctrination and more about how to live a better life. You can tell how much we value Adult Learning by how little our congregations spend on it. We need to make Adult learning a major budget item and a key part of synagogue life.
6. We offer one main service in a world where one size no longer fits all. Here I could blame Rabbis who are either afraid to let their members daven in a different room or who would rather daven in the other room but are “stuck” in the main service. We need services that we are proud of going on all over our buildings.
7. I believe nobody will care how long services will take if they are engaged in meaningful prayer and thought provoking study. They don’t need another 3 hour show that is the same thing every week. If the service we will conduct before Universal Health Care is passed ( or rejected) is the same as the service we will conduct after it is passed (or rejected) then what we do is meaningless to the people who we want to reach. We need to engage our congregations in prayer and study if we want them to attend Shabbat tephillot (prayer)
OK so all of you who have said, “the time for meetings is past, it is time for action” here is your action plan. Start with any of these seven issues and see how quickly your congregation will become vitalized. Ignore them at your own peril. BJ, Ikar, Hadar, and, Anshei Chesed in NY are living proof that this works. Ron Wolfson and Synagogue 3000 have been collecting data to prove the point. We know what we need to do, so lets roll up our sleeves and get to work!