Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Kaddish for Conservative Judaism

There have been many changes in the top leadership of the Conservative Movement recently. First was the commencement of the Arnie Eisen era at the Jewish Theological Seminary. With the beginning of Arnie Eisen's chancellorship also came the change in leadership at the Seminary's rabbinical school with Rabbi Daniel Nevins as the new dean. Second, came the change in leadership at the Rabbinical Assembly with Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld taking the RA's top job. Yesterday marked the confirmation of Rabbi Steven Wernick (right) as the CEO and executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the arm of the movement representing the congregations.

It seems as though all the players who have the potential to put the Conservative Movement on the right course have taken the field. It will be interesting to see what the future will bring.

The Conservative Movement has done a very good job of staying in the news recently. Unfortunately, not all news is good news. The latest round of infighting and hand wringing within the ranks of the Conservative Movement has been prompted by the emergence of two groups of movement leaders.

One group, Hayom: Coalition for the Transformation of Conservative Judaism, is made up of the rabbis and board presidents of the largest congregations in the country (here's a link to the list of group members which has recently opened up membership to the leaders of congregations of all sizes). The second group, calling itself "Bonim" is a grassroots coalition of fed-up lay-leaders from approximately forty congregations threatening to leave the Conservative Movement. Both of these groups have made headlines with their allegations toward the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Essentially, they have formalized the complaints from member congregations that have been informally articulated over the years. Add to this the Canadian congregations that have left the Conservative Movement to form a new organization in response to the decision to admit gays and lesbians into the rabbinical and cantorial schools at the movement's seminaries

But, perhaps what has produced the most headlines about the Conservative Movement in recent weeks was an interview with Rabbi Norman Lamm (left), Yeshiva University luminary and a modern Orthodox scholar.

In the interview with the Jerusalem Post which took place in Israel, Lamm prophesied that the time has come to say "Kaddish" for Conservative Judaism. He included Reform Judaism as well in his premature obituary. "With a heavy heart we will soon say kaddish on the Reform and Conservative Movements," said Lamm, head of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University. He went on to add that the "Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking."

Lamm's pronouncement prompted many responses from Conservative Movement leaders. All criticized Lamm for his inappropriate comments and most found aspects of Conservative Judaism to be proud of. Rabbinical Assembly executive vice president Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld (right) penned an articulate response in which she underscored the authenticity of Conservative Judaism and mentioned some of the recent changes she has already implemented in her new position. [I can personally vouge for her hard work and initial success by way of example. Rabbi Schoenfeld has convened a subcommittee, on which I serve, to help improve the technological resources available through the Rabbinical Assembly and in only a couple months, much has been accomplished.] She also remarked that at the recent AIPAC Policy Conference, the majority of the rabbis in attendance were members of the Conservative Movement’s rabbinic group.

Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld also underscored the popularity of the Hekhsher Tzedek initiative. She writes, "many of Rabbi Lamm’s Orthodox constituents who are in agreement with my colleague, Rabbi Morris Allen's call that we take ethical mitzvot as seriously as ritual ones in the preparation of kosher food. The message we are hearing loud and clear is that the American Jewish community is quite literally hungry to lead lives where the ritual is bound up in the ethical underpinning."

Rabbi Andrew Sacks of the Masorti Movement, Conservative Judaism's Israeli branch, fired back writing a response to Rabbi Lamm in the Jerusalem Post in which he took him on point by point. Richard Moline, the director the Conservative Movement's college outreach program Koach, wrote an op-ed piece for JTA encouraging Conservatives to look in the mirror and shoulder the responsibility rather than blaming the institution. My favorite response was by one Conservative rabbi who questioned which "Kaddish" Rabbi Lamm proposed be said for Conservative Judaism: Full Kaddish, Rabbi's Kaddish, or a Mourner's Kaddish?

The most scholarly and perhaps the most convincing rebuttal of Rabbi Lamm’s comments came from the preeminent scholar of Modern American Judaism, Prof. Jonathan Sarna (left), who reminded Lamm of the predictions in the 1950s that the demise of Orthodox Judaism was an inevitable reality. In the Forward, Professor Sarna wrote:

Lamm's triumphalistic prediction has, unsurprisingly, elicited strong and angry responses from Conservative and Reform leaders who consider their movements youthful and vibrant. For a historian, though, the prediction cannot help but call to mind earlier attempts to divine American Judaism’s future.

When Lamm was young, those who followed trends in Jewish life expected to say Kaddish for Orthodox Judaism. A careful study in 1952 found that "only twenty-three percent of the children of the Orthodox intend to remain Orthodox; a full half plan to turn Conservative." The future of American Jewry back then seemed solidly in the hands of Conservative Jews.

Years earlier, in the late 19th century, Reform Judaism expected to say Kaddish for other kinds of Jews. The great architect of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, titled his prayer book "Minhag Amerika" — the liturgical custom of American Jews — and given the number of synagogues that moved into the Reform camp in his day, his vision did not seem farfetched. Many in the mid-1870s believed, as he did, that the future of American Judaism lay in the hands of the Reformers.

Before then, of course, those with crystal balls expected to say Kaddish for Judaism as a whole in America. One of the nation's wisest leaders, its then attorney general, William Wirt, predicted in 1818 that within 150 years, Jews would be indistinguishable from the rest of mankind. Former president John Adams likewise looked to the future and thought that Jews would "possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians."

All these predictions made sense in their day. All assumed that the future would extend forward in a straight line from the present. All offered their followers the comforting reassurance that triumph lay just beyond the horizon.

And all proved utterly and wildly wrong. Lamm’s prediction is unlikely to break this depressing streak of failures.


Well, I certainly find Lamm's suggestion that it is time to say Kaddish for Conservative Judaism to be both inappropriate and narrow-minded. He was looking to be controversial. Before reacting to his comment, it is first necessary to make the distinction between Conservative Judaism (an ideology) and the Conservative Movement (an institutional denomination).

Conservative Judaism is a centrist ideology of Judaism. It promotes an understanding of Judaism that retains the authority of the Torah (tradition) while also remaining open to modern innovation (change). It leaves enough room for its adherents to choose various options with regard to the authorship of the Torah, from divine authorship with revelation at Mt. Sinai to human authorship over time, with several options in between.

Conservative Judaism is a viable ideology of Modern Judaism. It is the centrist position situated between the Reform ideology on the left and Orthodoxy on its right. It is the Conservative Movement that is in trouble. The movement found its heyday in the middle of the last century. It was growing by leaps and bounds with the largest Hebrew schools, high holiday services overflowing into social halls and school gymnasiums, and youth groups with expanding memberships. The movement took this success for granted. At the time, it was the movement that had the congregations that people found to be the perfect balance between the Orthodoxy they were raised in and the liberalism that they desired. With the rise of intermarriage, many flocked to the inviting and more tolerant Reform congregations. Others drank the Kool-Aid at Camp Ramah and moved to the right of the Conservative Movement by embracing a modern Orthodox lifestyle and joining an Orthodox shul.

Yes, there are still programs with the Conservative Movement seal for which movement members should take pride. The Ramah camping program is a clear success, but to be fair so are the Reform movement camps. Jewish summer camping in general is a success story. And I can speak of the local success of the new consolidated Hebrew High School program here in Metro Detroit. ATID (Alliance for Teens in Detroit), a weekly after-school informal Jewish high school program, is a collaborative effort by the Conservative synagogue's in town. It is a program for which the Conservative Movement should be proud.

The real complaint about the Conservative Movement is not really with the movement. It certainly isn't with Conservative Judaism as a way of practicing the Jewish faith either. It is with United Synagogue as an organization. And that's actually a good thing because it is much easier for an organization to change (and I wish Rabbi Wernick the best of luck because it will be an uphill climb). The allegations are that Conservative synagogues have been paying hefty dues to the United Synagogue (headquartered in Manhattan) without seeing much value in return. When the economy was stronger, the congregations paid their dues knowing that if they didn't they would have trouble getting a rabbi or cantor placed at their congregation and their youth would be barred from attending youth group conventions. Times have changed. Every dollar counts and congregations have begun to withhold these dues until they get more (and better) services in return. I think that's a valid demand.

Going forward, the Conservative Movement must be less concerned with numbers. It doesn't much matter how many families have left Conservative synagogues. Many of the families that have left likely shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Movement leaders also should be less concerned with how many synagogues are merging as there were likely too many shuls in the same geographic area before.

So, what should the leaders of the Conservative Movement be concerned about? For starters, they should promote the Conservative Judaism ideology and way of life. That would require a collaborative PR effort among all the arms of the movement including the seminaries, professional organizations, camps, youth groups, Schechter day schools, and the movement's Israel and overseas branches. The movement (read: United Synagogue) must do a better job of educating its members about its raison d'etre.

United Synagogue also has to do a better job of operating with less. That means taking the Reform Movement's lead and getting rid of the regional offices. (Note: this has already begun with plans to merge several USCJ regions). I would also recommend finding some less expensive office space, which might entail moving out of Manhattan.

Finally, I would recommend encouraging collaboration among member congregations. Use the ATID model if you'd like. It is what happens when a few Conservative congregations that spent decades competing with each other were able to come together collaboratively for the sake of their teenage populations and Jewish education. USCJ should urge and facilitate the merger of two struggling Conservative congregations in the same area. If handled correctly, it will benefit both parties. The movement should also merge its Israel trips for high school youth. It is redundant to send teens to Israel through both United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah.

Does the Conservative Movement need to look in the mirror more? Probably. It's a good practice for all of us. But more than anything, movement leaders should stop caring what old, retired Orthodox university scholars are saying and begin moving forward into the future together with pride. Time is of the essence.

8 comments:

TBS-President said...

I want to point out two inaccuracies in your post.

1.) Neither Bonim or HaYom are looking to change the tenets of Conservative Judaism. We are looking to change USCJ and their lack of appropriate and useful support for us, their members, who pay them to provide that support.

2.) Those who are threatening to leave if things don't change are not threatening to leave Conservative Judaism. We are threatening to leave USCJ and save the substantial amount of dues that we pay them for very little in return. I'm sure that we will all remain Conservative synagogues in practice.

Based on posts to USCJ's President's List Serv over the past 3 years, it is quite apparent that there are many more synagogues that will leave USCJ than are currently listed as members of Bonim. If USCJ doesn't turn itself into an organization whose members feel that they are getting their money's worth, there will be a mass exodus, far larger than just the membership of Bonim.

USCJ has ignored its responsiblities to its members for far too long. The only things of value that we all agree are worth paying dues for are USY and clergy searches. But there are other youth groups and there are other organizations to help find clergy, which is an infrequent need.

If you were privvy to the President's List Serv, you would have a much better understanding of the lack of support, the lack of transparency and the heavy handed and callous manner in which USCJ has dealt with its members.

Our membership has been declining for over 20 years. The demand for Conservative synagogues has declined and as our numbers shrink it directly affects our income and our ability to provide services for our congregants and, therefore, is directly related to the health of our individual synagogues. USCJ has done nothing but watch the declining numbers and taken no action to reverse the trend.

USCJ needs to market the Conservative "brand" in such a way as to make it look attractive so that more Jews will start seeking out our shuls. It needs to create a public relations campaign and it needs to make itself visible to the predominantly unaffiliated Jewish population of this country.

If McDonald's can successfully market an inferior product and still be number one in their segment, there is no reason that USCJ can't market a superior product to attract new "customers" to the movement. But so far, they have ignored this as an opportunity.

Ira Fink

Susan said...

In addition to your suggestions, the RA and USCJ both need to be responsive to ethical concerns brought to their attention by congregants.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Ira,

Thank you for your comments. With all due respect, I don't believe the two inaccuracies in my post you have alluded to are actually articulated in my post at all.

In fact, with regard to your first comment, I believe I've gone out of my way to "make the distinction between Conservative Judaism (an ideology) and the Conservative Movement (an institutional denomination)." No where did I state that either Bonim or HaYom is looking to change the tenets of Conservative Judaism. The fault here lies with USCJ qua agency, not with CJ as an ideology or denomination of modern Judaism.

Regarding your second point, we are in full agreement. While I am not privy to the USCJ President's Listserv in the same way you are not privy to Ravnet, I have been made aware of the ta'am of the discussions the congregational presidents are having on that forum.

I believe that the lay leadership in the movement's congregations are very much on the same page as the movement's rabbis. USCJ has been run inefficiently over the past decades, making itself the butt of several jokes among my colleagues. The charges levied on USCJ (substantial dues with little return, excessive overhead, solely NY/NJ focused, poor technology, 1970s operation in the 21st century, lack of PR, etc.) have been discussed for years. It is only now when times are tough and synagogues are looking at their financials through a microscope that they've formed a collective voice.

I hope that HaYom and Bonim will be effective change agents, but I also believe it's not worth the time or effort pointing fingers at USCJ headquarters trying to figure out who is to blame. Rather, we should support Rabbi Steve Wernick and the team he assembles. His success will be based on how much change he brings to the job. If he goes about it the right way, he will begin by forming the partnerships that were never formed by his predecessor (with the other arms of the movement).

Jonathan said...

I want to comment on this part of your statement: "The real complaint about the Conservative Movement is not really with the movement. It certainly isn't with Conservative Judaism as a way of practicing the Jewish faith either."
Here are a two complaints. First from two separate articles I have read, one in the New York Jewish Week and one from CJ the magazine, some Conservative rabbis are invoking mara d'atra to override halachic positions taken by the CJLS. In the Jewish Week article the Conservative rabbi has allowed Jews of patrilineal decent to be members of his shul for the past 5 years. In the CJ article the rabbi agrees with the rejected takanah of Rabbi Tucker to perform gay marriages. When Conservative rabbis don't stand up for Conservative Jewish law then why should a regular am haaretz like myself care about Conservative Jewish law either? If Conservative rabbis don't like Conservative Jewish law they should do the intellectually honest actions and resign their pulpits and/or join another movement. Or they should fight within the movement to get laws they want to enact passed by the CJLS. We are seeing individual activist rabbis who have their own agendas and causing even more schisms between synagogues in our movement.
My next complaint deals with the Hechsher Tzedek and it has to do with my observation that we do not practice what we preach about the Hechsher Tzedek. How many Conservative Jewish institutions provide affordable good health care, good pay, good leave policies and all the other benefits that the Hechser Tzedek demands of kosher food companies for employees of our own Conservative Jewish institutions? While Rabbis and Cantors have the RA and the CA to help negotiate contracts, shouldn't day school and pre school teachers, janitors and other support staff within Conservative Jewish institutions have national support as well? Who defends their rights to good working conditions and fair compensation within the Conservative movement?
Perhaps some other time I will write about the lack of adult ed classes pass the basic levels of Jewish literacy in Conservative synagogues I have been a part of. And perhaps I will write more about even when those classes happen and we discuss a law still on the books within the parameters of Conservative Judaism but basically no one in the congregation follows, that law is just frowned upon by the Conservative rabbi leading the class as he seems to be more concerned with keeping the culture of the community intact instead of publicly making a good example of those ready to take on more mitzvot.
I know nothing about the works of USCJ. I am just a regular Conservative synagogue member who has lots of seats available to me within the rows of empty pews every Shabbat.

Paul Levine said...

Nothing wrong with the koolaid at Ramah. It was strong and should have helped strengthen the future of Conservative Judaism, so let's not write these people off. I agree that the problem today is in formal affiliation and upholding the integrity of Conservative Judaism.

The problem is that affiliation:
Affiliation should be between congregations and not an affiliation to a top-down, top-heavy organization. USCJ needs reinvention to become a light and lightly taxing service organization of its member congregations - light enough to simply provide connections for collaboration (and international youth programs) among a diverse and localized coalition of congregations, indy minyamin and everyone adhering to the philosophy and authentic ritual of Conservative Judaism, including most of those who drank the koolaid at Ramah.

USCJ is not something to support as and end to itself. Without transparency, I can't comment on what USCJ does. However, if USCJ were a service entity for the localities, perhaps its grant and fundraising development would be earmarked to provide financial help to new and struggling congregations instead of where it goes now.

Integrity:

Conservative Judaism should not be sold top-down. Its historic strength in membership came from
a generation that understood why they were not reform and why they were not orthodox, with diverse expressions in each community under an uniting (not defining) umbrella organization. If there is a need for "branding" at all, there needs to be a good understanding of the product (authentic, dynamic Judaism) and target audience (future generations).

All the best.

Paul

Words of Wisdom from Wiseman said...

In my opinion, Hayom and Bonim have a different philosphy as to how to work out our problems with USCJ.

To me,USCJ is like a well situated solid old house. Bonim would like to tear it down and rebuild it from scratch, while Hayom believe in the foundation,
and looks for the interior to be brought up to modern CJ reality.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Words of Wisdom from Wiseman, you wrote: "USCJ is like a well situated solid old house."

I'm not sure I would agree with that statement. I was speaking with one of Metro Detroit's major Jewish philanthropists and community leaders the other day. He compared the Conservative Movement (meaning USCJ) to General Motors. When they started losing market share, they refused to admit it or change the way they marketed their product.

This is where we are now. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Conservative Judaism, the project. What is wrong is the corporation (United Synagogue).

Bonim seems to be blowing the whistle on this operation because the members of that group are tired of watching their congregations send funds to USCJ each year -- funds that could go to more useful areas of the congregation's operation.

HaYom is basically a group of large-shul rabbis who believe they can manage USCJ better than the current staff.

If both of these groups can get Rabbi Steve Wernick's ear, then there might be some real change ahead -- especially if Wernick at USCJ is quick to make the necessary alliances with Eisen at JTS, the key players in L.A. at AJU and Schoenfeld at the Rabbinical Assembly.

Jonathan said...

Rabbi Miller,
I'm just a member of a Conservative synagogue in Pittsburgh PA. Congregation Beth Shalom. I read the Shefa network posts often because it seems that the Shefa network is the primary online site where I can find the most updated information on what is happening in Conservative Judaism.
I am trying to ask any Conservative rabbi that cares if they would be willing to use their pull to get the Conservative Jewish journal that is published quartely to be available for free to Conservative synagogue members. I think that this journal would be helpful to committed Conservative Jews and help them understand the thoughts of major Conservative Jewish rabbis today. I think from the Shefa posts we see that lots of people simply don't know what is on the minds of Conservative Jewish rabbis. The Conservative Jewish journal does a good job of this but unfortunately it is only available by paid subscription.
I think we are at a time when the money the RA gets from the subscriptions of this journal will not outweigh the probable benefits of getting this journal out to Conservative Jewish laity for free. I am hoping you can use your influence as a Conservative rabbi to write on Ravnet and state to people in power of Conservative Jewish life that we need the Conservative Jewish journal to be available for the Conservative lay Jews who are still sticking with trying to make our institutions better despite all the recent negativitiy we have had to read and see with our own eyes. I thank you for reading this and hope you can help with this issue.

Sincerely,


Jonathan Loring
member Congregation Beth Shalom
Pittsburgh PA.