The Letter

 This is an exchange about issues in Conservative Judaism from the Shefa Network . The issues raised are important and I have added my reply to the end. I have changed the names of the writers to protect their privacy. It began with the link to the article in the Boston Globe. You can find it at this link:
 http://www.boston.com/yourtown/brookline/articles/2010/03/28/conservative_judaism_struggling_with_changing_demographics/

This is how it started:
 On Wed, Mar 31, 2010 at 10:47 PM, Gary G wrote:   Thank you very much for distributing this profoundly important article.
The Conservative movement needs to wake up quickly and recognize that there are some fundamental issues that are effectively shutting young singles and couples out of existing Conservative congregations.
Besides not offering spiritual and educational experiences that create a draw for this demographic, there is the problem of the economic status of many younger Jews making it difficult for them to purchase homes that are within walking distance of most Conservative synagogues, and how, in general, it is an incredibly expensive proposition to establish an actively participating Conservative Jewish household which, in the end, creates a huge and often insurmountable disincentive for young people to get involved at a point in their life when their incomes are limited in comparison to the expenses they face.
I forwarded this article to my 29-year-old daughter who is an accomplished software engineer and manager in a small high-tech firm and her main comment was the incredible frustration that she feels with the fact that in her community, in order to live within walking distance of a Conservative synagogue and own a home in that neighborhood (never mind the costs of sending children to religious school or day school), one needed to be able to afford a home in a market whose bottom end is well above what she could reasonably afford.  So she has chosen to be a home owner over being located close to the Conservative synagogue and lives in a comfortable home in a decent working-class generally non-Jewish neighborhood that is across town from where the Conservative synagogues are located.  But it means making a significant effort to travel across town to the upper class neighborhood where the synagogue is located, and knowing that it will not be possible to honor the Sabbath by not walking to shul because of the fact that she can only afford to live in a neighborhood that is several miles away from the synagogue.  And she is a Jewishly identified young woman who celebrates Shabbat and the holidays and went to a community day school through the junior grades.
And I don’t think that her circumstances are unique.
This is a problem that really needs to be addressed in a creative way by the Conservative movement.
Wishing all a Chag Sameach and hope that your Seders were enjoyable and memorable.

Kol Tuv,

Gary

Then came this response
On Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 11:33 AM, Darcy F. wrote:  

       Thank you very much to those who opened the discussion of factors that may exclude young Jewish adults from active participation in Conservative Judaism.  I would like to add a few more observations from the perspective of someone who’s 35 and still more or less fits into the “young adult” rubric.
 
      The residential geography issue that Gary Goldberg addressed is important.  The dilemma of whether to live within walking distance of shul or buy a home in an affordable neighborhood far away from shul is a common one, but sometimes the choices are even starker than that.  When I was on the academic job market several years ago, I went to six on-campus (i.e., final-round) job interviews.  Three of the six institution were located in towns with no Conservative synagogue.  One town had a Reconstructionist synagogue, which wasn’t exactly what I wanted but probably would have sufficed; the other two institutions were each located 50-80 miles away from the nearest synagogue I would have been willing to attend, meaning that there was simply no way I could work at either of these institutions and also go to shul on a regular basis.  A close friend of mine recently took a job at a small college in a small town that is over an hour’s drive from the nearest synagogue of any stripe.  Her geographic isolation, combined with a demanding work schedule, is so acute that she wasn’t even able to attend (or host) a Passover seder this year.  She was heartbroken.  Before you judge Jews who knowingly choose to live in towns with little or no Jewish community, remember that they’re facing limited job choices within an unpredictable economic landscape.  They have spent years preparing to practice their professions, and they want to take the job offers that will allow them to serve their fellow men in the ways in which they are prepared to do so.  This, no less than shul attendance, is a form of tikkun olam.  Being obliged to choose between practicing your religion and doing the work you care about, believe in, and can do well is going to be heart-breaking, whichever choice you ultimately make.
 
      Another practical problem that some young Jews face is pressure to work on Shabbat and chag.  In recent decades, the concept of the weekend has fallen by the wayside in many professions.  Some employers simply assume that young professionals are available to work six or seven days a week; some combine the standard five-day week with an extensive program of weekend conferences, training programs, and other extras.  Getting time off for holidays that fall on weekdays can be tricky.  U.S. law requires companies with more than fifteen employees to “reasonably accommodate” their employees’ religious observances unless doing so would cause the employer “undue hardship.”  This rather vague law leaves observant Jews dependent on the good will of their employers and colleagues.  In cities with large Jewish populations and in companies and institutions that have considerable experience with observant Jewish employees, this often works out just fine.  In other settings, Jews can easily be pressured– or required– to work on major holidays.  This pressure falls most heavily on younger Jews, who are less established in their communities and careers and have less collegial good will to draw on.  Even in superficially hospitable settings, there may be friction beneath the surface.  An Ivy League Hillel rabbi once told me that he fielded multiple telephone calls every autumn from professors who wanted to know whether Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah were “real” holidays.  The professors explained that they were under the impression that certain Jewish students were simply inventing holidays in order to get out of class.  When attitudes like this are prevalent among non-Jews– even very highly educated ones– it’s not surprising that many young Jews cave to social pressure to go to school or work on Jewish holidays.  They do not wish to be cast as lazybones or liars.
 
     A third issue is diversity.  The American Jewish community is very, very white and, even at this late date, a trifle xenophobic in some quarters.  To those of us who were raised a generation after the Civil Rights Movement, who attended genuinely integrated schools and colleges, who live in racially integrated neighborhoods and spend most of our days in integrated workplaces, it can feel strange to walk into a lily-white synagogue community.  It’s less noticeable in a congregation of twenty or thirty, but when, on the High Holidays, I walk into a room of 200-300 daveners and see not a single person of color, I sometimes feel disconcerted.  Though Conservative synagogues tend to be more socially liberal than Orthodox ones, some congregants are still rather quick to comment on any sort of physical difference.  Even I (fair skin, brown hair, blue eyes) have sometimes been subjected to speculative disquistions about how I “don’t look Jewish.”  I imagine that Jews who have fairer hair or darker skin hear these comments more often than I do.  I recoil– not just because such comments make me feel uncomfortable around the particular person who made the remark, but also because they make me ashamed of the social environment that tolerates such commentary.
 
    In the long run, being appropriately welcoming towards Jews of color, prospective converts, non-Jewish spouses of Jews, and interested spectators will probably go a long way towards making not just Jews of color but also younger white Jews who are accustomed to function in “diverse” settings feel more at home in the synagogue.  I have two specific suggestions that might help.  In the last couple years, the JCC of Manhattan has run a series of programs under the banner of “Jewish multiculturalism”: an Ethiopian Shabbat dinner, an Indian Jewish Purim celebration, and so forth.  I find it tremendously moving and comforting to celebrate Shabbat with a room full of people who exhibit varied complexions and accents and who, as a bonus, are eating food that is not kugel.  I would also encourage Conservative synagogues to partner more with churches, mosques, and community organizations to conduct basic tikkun olam projects like food drives and blood drives.  The goal of this would be to establish that the synagogue is a community institution that engages and serves the surrounding community, not just the Jews.  Non-Jews should feel comfortable coming to their local synagogue for a food drive, a class, or a community event.  The more open, inclusive, and engaged with the local community a synagogue is, the more likely young Jews are to feel proud of it and to want to affiliate. 
 
    Needless to say, these issues are tricky.  It’s inevitable, I think, that living Jewishly will constrain where one can live and what work one can do to a certain extent, and that’s not all bad.  As Frasier once observed on the eponymous sitcom, tough choices can be good for us because they teach us about who we are.  But some of the choices facing young Jews today are so tough that they’re unwholesome, both for the individual and for the community.  A Jew should not have to give up hope of owning a home or of doing the work he wants to do in order to live near a synagogue and remain Shabbat and holiday-observant.  There has to be a middle way.  Part of the solution might involve reaching out in innovative ways to underserved neighborhoods and underserved towns; part of it might involve publicizing the nature of Shabbat and holiday observance and lobbying for public policies that are more respectful of such observance; part of it might involve actively encouraging conversion to Judaism in the hope of fostering a larger and more engaged population of young American Jews, who would eventually sustain a critical mass of involved Jews in a larger number of communities.  I realize that all of these suggestions are likely to be controversial.  Thank you to those who read so far!
    Respectfully,
    Darcy

My Reply:
Darcy,

You and Gary bring up some very important points about Conservative Judaism basing your remarks on the article from the Boston Globe. The issue of falling membership in our movement has a great deal to do with changes in where Jews are living. Remember, that Conservative synagogues over 50 years old, were probably founded in “inner city” settings and, as Jews moved out to affordable housing, the synagogues moved with them. Now, as cities gentrify, will we see synagogues migrate back to the city? Perhaps but I think the independent minyan movement shows us that the young Jews moving back into the renovated apartments downtown will find their own spiritual home, creating in the process their own synagogues.

It was the Conservative Movement however, that first declared (rightly or wrongly depending on who you ask) that riding to synagogue on Shabbat does not make a person a “sinner”. This “heter” may be horribly abused in the suburbs but that does not make it inoperable for those who wish to have a Shabbat in places where there is affordable housing but no synagogue. Riding to synagogue (but not other places) is only one aspect of Shabbat observance and the need to ride to synagogue and find a Shabbat Community there, does not make a Jew a “Shabbat desecrater”. We all make allowances in our Shabbat observances when there are other issues pressing on us and we work hard our whole life to increase our Shabbat observance until we are happy in balancing Shabbat and the rest of our life.

When I was in rural Connecticut, there was an old synagogue there, founded in 1909 that had only a few Jewish families left. One year, they decided to put in the local paper that they were sponsoring a “corn party” at the end of the Summer. To their surprise, over 100 local Jews showed up, Jews who had no idea that there was a synagogue nearby. I suspect that even in far flung places there are more Jews than we imagine, only waiting for someone to convene a minyan. That is how almost every synagogue has gotten its start.

It many surprise you but your parents and grandparents, when they were starting their working life, also had to make the difficult decisions between work and Shabbat/Hag. You can find a great essay on it in Hermann Wolk’s book, “This is My God” (first published in 1959) That is the lot of those of us who live in the diaspora. In Israel, Jewish holidays are national holidays. So we ask if we can have off from work/school, and we work on Sundays and late into the night to make up our lost hours. We rely on the good feelings of our supervisors and bosses to understand that if they can accommodate our religious needs, then we will be happy to help with other staffing problems, like working on Christmas or during Christian Holy Week etc.

As for the diversity issue, that is something we need to teach our congregations. Conservative synagogues have only recently decided to get into the “social action” world, and partner with other congregations and other faiths and denominations. You are correct, Darcy, we have not done very well in this area and I do believe, like  you, it is a key ingredient in attracting young members to our failing congregations. Social action, serious Jewish education (another of our failings) and, as the Boston Globe article mentions, multiple services to meet the many different kinds of Jews out there, these three will go a long way to helping you, Gary and others find their way to a meaningful, spiritual Judaism that is sponsored by the Conservative movement.

Nothing in Judaism is handed to us on a silver platter. If you really seek the kind of community you describe, then put it out there with our social network and see which friends are also looking. That is the first step to finding what you want from Judaism. You can build it  yourself, join with a group an existing congregation and work together to get it to evolve toward you needs and goals, or you can compromise your observances for a short time, sighing like Franz Rosenzweig “Not Yet!” (a quote also widely abused) If you really intend to increase your observance over your lifetime, then, like everything else in life, if you really want it, it will eventually become possible, often sooner then one might think. (“If you will it, it will not [for long] be a dream”)

Darcy, you ask all the right questions and you instinctively know the answers. But you will have to do the work needed to make your spiritual dreams come true. And that will make them all the sweeter in the end.

Randy Konigsburg,
Rabbi
Delray Beach, FL

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