By Rabbi Joshua Rabin
“Write the vision, inscribe it clearly on tablets, so he may run who reads it.”
My entire rabbinic career, I’ve watch Conservative Judaism struggle. In fact, the conventional wisdom throughout my Jewish adulthood has been that Conservative Judaism would, at best, never return to previous heights or, more likely, disappear altogether. After the conclusion of 20/20 Judaism, the largest gathering of Conservative Jews in the world, I find myself reading depressing quotes that testify to the challenges facing Conservative Judaism, quotes that describe a dismal present and portend a horrendous future.
One sociologist argues that that Conservative Judaism “sustained a loss of morale.” A major rabbinic figure writes that, “We [Conservative Judaism] are touching only the periphery of Jewish life. We are failing in those areas that concern us most.” A prominent leader argues that Conservative Judaism “has become less identifiable” and risks “losing its force and becoming of less and less consequence on the American Jewish scene.” And finally, another rabbi bemoans the fact that “self-flagellation appears to be the order of the day for the leadership of Conservative Jewry.”
None of these quotes should surprise anyone, as we currently live in a moment where, by almost all accounts, Conservative Judaism is struggling.
But here’s the thing… The quotes are not from 2019. They are from the 1970s.
Professor Jack Wertheimer references each of these quotes in A People Divided, his outstanding account of contemporary Judaism at the end of the twentieth century. Each statement was given at the time when Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination of American Judaism, at the peak of our influence. And yet if one were to read those quotes in their context, it would be reasonable to assume that Conservative Judaism operated under the brink of disaster.
My rhetorical sleight-of-hand suggests something to me that I believe with all my heart as a Conservative rabbi, namely that pervasive, movement-wide pessimism was and remains the greatest threat to Conservative Judaism. One should never discount the role of organizational structure, the shortage of halakhically observant communities, our lack of investment in Jewish outreach, and other key areas, to explain our distress. And yet these challenges are hard enough without the collective narrative outside and inside Conservative Judaism that we are incapable of addressing any of them, let alone solving them.
I am not an innocent in this pessimistic world. On any number of occasions, I have been happy to whisper snide comments while leaders make presentations about our institutions, joked about our troubles with friends who joined the Orthodox synagogue down the street, or roll my eyes at the priorities of institutions that even I, a typically die-hard supporter, believe to be anachronistic. And because our collective is so good at critiquing ourselves, we occupy a safe space where everyone is to blame, so no one is guilty (this is a super nerdy reference to The West Wing, season three).
Of course, it may simply be the case that all of these critiques are warranted. Yet even if they were, and many eminent scholars of American Judaism suggest that reports of Conservative Judaism’s “failure” are not supported by the data, when all Conservative Jews only talk about failure, we squander any opportunity to dream. And in times of great change, all Jews must be capable of dreaming.
Every day, I go to work at USCJ, and refuse to give up on some of my dreams for Conservative Judaism:
- Make USY and Ramah “Free”: I dream that every child who becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue will get one free summer with USY or Camp Ramah, what I call a “Bnai Mitzvah Birthright.” This would be the best investment we ever made.
- Incubate One New Startup Community in Every Major Metropolitan Area: I dream that more communities will come together like my colleagues in suburban Washington D.C. to establish models like The Den Collective, outreach-focused Jewish communities outside the walls of congregations that serve Jews not currently engaged by mainstream institutions.
- Build a Vital Pipeline for Jews at Every Stage of Life: One of the things we know about unaffiliated Jews is that, under the right circumstances, they can be engaged by the Jewish Community at any time in their life. 20/20 Judaism brought together teenagers, college students, post-college students, new rabbis, families with young children, educators, cantors, presidents, empty nesters, and seniors; it is the most comprehensive gathering of the generations in our movement, yet it is the exception, and it is not sufficient. Every stage of Jewish life is an opportunity and a responsibility.
- Embrace Chabad’s Playbook: No article I wrote elicited more positive feedback and enthusiasm than “Wait, Doesn’t Chabad Do That?” Imagine how much more could be achieved if synagogues gave their leaders the financial and logistical space to take Judaism outside their walls and bring Judaism to the under-engaged.
- Stop Asking, “So, is it Conservative?”: I am proud to be a member of a Conservative synagogue and an independent minyan. I find no question less interesting than, “Is Hadar, Ikar, etc. ‘Conservative?,’” and I know I’m not the only one. It’s time we call “rabbit-hole” and drop the conversation. Great Judaism and great Jewish communities can happen in many different forms, and with many different labels, or no label at all.
Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey write in How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work that every community can make the choice between “the language of complaint” and “the language of commitment” (20). The easiest thing to do is complain; it takes much less effort than doing the work. And yet Kegan and Lahey remind us that complaint “contains a transformative element,” for “we would not complain about anything if we did not care about something. Beneath the surface torrent of our complaining lies a hidden river of our caring, that which we most prize or to which we are most committed.”
In my hardest moments as a Conservative rabbi, I remember that most of the people critiquing how we do what we do are not cynical commentators who chose to abandon that which they could transform, or who never chose this form of Judaism at all, but people who want to remain and create a new vision, a vision worthy of this moment.
After the conclusion of 20/20 Judaism, my prayer to my friends and colleagues, whether or not they were able to join us, is that we choose to exercise what Kegan and Lahey call “language leadership,” the ability to choose the words that we use to inspire people to action. Kegan and Lahey write that, “we have no choice about whether we are or are not language leaders. The only question is what kind of language leaders we will be” (8).
In a time when we can choose inspiration or despair, I choose inspiration. And I know I’m not the only one.
 Jack Wertheimer, A People Divided: Judaism in Contemporary America (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 1997), 61.