Conservative Judaism, Still at the Crossroads

Three years ago the Forward published a forum entitled “Conservative Judaism at a Crossroads,” just before Dr. Arnold Eisen was inaugurated as chancellor of the movement’s flagship institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Thirteen opinion-leaders offered their advice about the future of the movement, including prescriptions to be more spiritual, more charismatic, more intellectual; to have better worship services and better communication; to be more pluralist, more balanced, more differentiated; to bring more confrontation and more healing.

Chancellor Eisen, a leading scholar of Jewish communal life, is of course deeply conversant with these questions, and he might have been tempted to tackle them as his first order of business. Instead he wisely turned to the less glamorous but more urgent work of building the JTS board, conducting a strategic-planning process, restructuring the faculty and administration, and raising money. Thanks to those successes the institution is entering its new fiscal year with a balanced budget after years of severe financial challenges.

A combination of structural and environmental factors makes it impossible to turn around the whole of Conservative Judaism in quite the same way. Structurally, the movement is an agglomeration of independently governed institutions that can be brought together only through persuasion. That kind of “soft power” is typically exerted through a consultative process that builds consensus around past achievements and perceived opportunities. That can be especially desirable when there is new leadership in multiple organizations, as there now is at the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue as well as at the Seminary.

It can be problematic, however, to rely an institution-centered, top-down process in an era when large institutions are widely mistrusted as distant and out of touch, and when grassroots solutions hold more appeal. And in times of flux like these, reconsidering fundamental issues often leads to division rather than agreement (even if the visible outcome creates the appearance of consensus, such releasing a vision statement or designing a new logo).

The Conservative movement’s issues truly are fundamental. It dominated American Judaism for most of the twentieth century by articulating a centrist, history-based philosophy that mediated between Jewish tradition and American assimilation. For younger Jews that sort of centrism has become untenable, especially in relation to hot-button issues like egalitarianism and the role of minorities like gays and lesbians.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue, speaking with an interviewer this past spring remarked that “it is possible to have both egalitarian and non-egalitarian in the same movement.” That is accurate, but to many younger Jews it sounds no more desirable than welcoming both racists and non-racists in the same movement.

There was a similar disconnect when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards voted on questions of homosexuality in 2006. Although the majority voted in favor of ordaining openly gay rabbis, six of the rabbis on the Committee supported a responsum that declared homosexuality to be curable and urging gay Jews to seek treatment. That latter opinion aligns with haredi views and, again, offends young liberal Jews.

The practical outcome is that Conservative Judaism in philosophy and practice offers a very imperfect value proposition to younger Jews. What’s more, compared to emerging minyanim (many of which are led by Conservative rabbis), Conservative synagogues are much more expensive and the services are less appealing. Meanwhile, the halakhically minded often respond more favorably to modern Orthodoxy. And intermarried families may find Reform more welcoming. No movement-wide declaration of values, outreach project, or education initiative will change these behaviors any time soon.

What remains is to strengthen the individual links in the chain. Adults mostly encounter Conservative Judaism through local synagogues, not as an ideology. Synagogues thrive not because of some philosophical statement of what they collectively stand for, but because of the experiences the rabbis and members create. Instead of struggling to find a general message to characterize a diverse group of institutions, the movement would be better served by embracing the diversity of its individual communities and helping their leaders and members succeed at what they do best.

That could take the form of creating a Center for Congregational Renewal within the USCJ to help rabbis and executive directors keep their synagogues viable with best practices in institutional management – including techniques for downsizing, when necessary. It would provide resources and consulting on strategic planning, marketing, fund-raising, and budgeting. Such a step would express the movement’s confidence in the potential of the leadership in each community by offering them the tools they need to sustain their institutions, each in their own way.

If it is looking to rebrand itself, a newly decentralized movement could call itself Independent Judaism. The word “independent” would honor the movement’s historic spirit of intellectual inquiry, and resonate with younger Jews who are looking to express their Jewishness in new and more individual ways, as well as acknowledging the autonomy of individual synagogues.

Whatever the name, focusing on the leadership in local communities rather than at 3080 Broadway would give the movement a strong new identity and purpose, one that addresses the needs of Jews where they live, and that embraces the movement’s diversity without forcing it into a generic mold. At the same time it would reassert and reinforce JTS’s distinctive mission as a preeminent institution of Jewish higher education. The outcome for the movement could be transformative.

Bob Goldfarb, a media executive and consultant for 30 years, earned his MBA at Harvard Business School. A regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, Bob is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and lives in Jerusalem.