What does a more perfect Jewish world look like in the eyes of the Conservative Movement? And how does that world intersect with and influence the broader world?
[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]
By Rabbi Hayim Herring
The Reform and Conservative Movements are accidents of history and will disappear within 50 years.” Michael Steinhardt delivered that death sentence on September 6, 2000, before a group of about 150 people, mostly rabbis, at the formal launch of STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal). Thirteen years later, I want to assess Michael’s prediction within the shadow of the Pew study.
Individual Conservative leaders correctly note that “there are no surprises” in the Pew report. But where are their collective statements of immediate action to reverse the decline? They did not create most of the problems, but they are responsible for them. As a proud product of the Conservative Movement, I urge them to decisively resolve four existential questions:
- Who can turn around the Conservative Movement?
- What is its mission?
- What is its vision of the ideal world that it hopes to shape?
- How will it add value to constituents and to the broader Jewish world?
A Leadership Turnaround
When an organization that still has value teeters at a precipice, its board often installs an emergency turnaround team. Within three to six months, its task is to develop a unifying strategic vision with prioritized actions.
For the movement, I can envision a temporary, two-part structure: the first, a task force of leaders from major centers of Conservative Jewish life around the world, with at least a third of its members from the Millennial and Gen X cohort. This group would inventory Conservative Judaism’s global assets, crowd source ideas worldwide, prioritize evidence-based recommendations and build support for change. The second part would consist of a smaller action team, determined by talent and not title, to implement prioritized recommendations.
An Affirmative Mission and Vision
The general perception of the Jewish public continues to be that Conservative Judaism is a movement of “nots” – not Orthodox, not Reform and not clear. It needs to become a movement of affirmation and advance a single, clear mission that states why it exists and what is its desired impact on the world. The old slogan of “Tradition and Change” reflected where we came from, but was not a mission guiding us to where we needed to go.
Recently, at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference, I heard Rabbi Harold Kushner offer a simple formulation of Judaism’s essence: “Make us holy through Your commandments” (kadshenu b’mitzvotecha). This simple statement is valuable because it:
- reminds us that personal pleasure is not the ultimate reason for being,
- challenges us to realize our potential as individuals and as a Jewish community within the human family, and
- decelerates our frenzied pace.
It is a call to be a part of and apart from this world, to live within it and critique it from the outside. Rather than making its primary enterprise about setting boundaries, such a mission would enable the movement to invite people into its communities, regardless of personal or familial status, for an ongoing exploration of how to transform their lives.
So what does a more perfect Jewish world look like in the eyes of the Conservative Movement? And how does that world intersect with and influence the broader world? These are critically-needed discussions about vision.
Conservative Judaism’s Value
The Pew report confirms the findings of many earlier studies: that most self-identified Conservative Jews do not want to inhabit a full-time Conservative halachic world. Therefore, we need to raise our expectations about increasing the pool of individuals who feel a deep emotional attachment to Conservative Judaism, while tempering our expectations about the number of Jews who will embrace a total Conservative halachic lifestyle.
In a relationship, some magical transformations happen when you let go of unrealistic expectations and embrace people as they are. The majority of people who become involved with the Conservative Movement may never fully accept its demanding orientation, but they have shown a willingness to support Conservative causes with volunteerism, passion and money. When leaders accept this reality, I believe that the movement will broaden its potential audience within and outside the Jewish world.
Only Then, Money Matters
Once these issues are resolved, then financial cuts and long-term investments must be made by decreasing duplications of service, creating efficiencies of greater scale, improving and expanding offerings and extending the movement’s reach through the smart use of technology.
Following are some suggestions to consider after a turnaround team stabilizes the movement and charts a path for growth, grouped according to the four core issues that will likely determine the destiny of the Conservative Movement.
1. Creative Leadership for the Future
- Expand avenues for engagement of Jewish teens and college-age young adults through mentorships, paid internships and social networking.
- Cultivate a global leadership network of high-performing adolescents from post-b’nai mitzvah through college.
2. Spread the Mission
- Provide Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) taught by exceptional faculty.
- Create apps that provide value to Conservative Jews, such as finding minyanim, using location-based services to receive invitations to Shabbat meals when traveling, and finding talks by engaging Conservative scholars.
- Develop iPad-based Jewish educational curricula for anyone, anytime, anywhere.
- Offer free preschool education and create a pipeline between Conservative preschools, congregations, camps and day schools.
- Fund rabbis to work exclusively on college campuses and in the broader community.
3. Ease Access
- Eliminate duplication and offer a more diverse array of teen experiences.
- Create a single point of access for those interested in Conservative Jewish learning opportunities.
- Provide congregations with know-how and funding to create a “one pass” membership, so that a member of one Conservative congregation can access most of the services offered by another.
- Pilot a large number of congregations that move from mandatory dues models to other alternatives (e.g., voluntary, fee for service).
- Re-conceptualize Jewish complementary education as afterschool care and programming.
4. Refresh and Anchor the Vision
- Develop a series of incubator sites in North America, Israel, Europe and South America and provide seed funding for new ideas and approaches to Jewish living.
- Partner with organizations and networks like Mechon Hadar, the ROI Community, Moishe House, Taglit-Birthright Israel’s NEXT and Kevah.
- Fund experts in planned giving to persuade Boomer members to include Conservative causes in their testamentary gifts.
- Develop and sell educational products with broad appeal.
It is now six months since the release of the Pew study. If there is not a plan to mobilize and unify the disparate and often competing arms of the Conservative Movement within another six months at the latest, it’s likely that Michael Steinhardt’s prediction will be proven true. But it won’t be because of an absence of individual talent and spiritual relevance. It will be because of the failure of the demands of great leadership.
Rabbi Hayim Herring, Ph.D., C.E.O. of HayimHerring.com, is a national Jewish thought leader, consultant, author and organizational futurist who specializes “in preparing today’s leaders for tomorrow’s organizations™.”