Monday, March 28, 2011

The Answer for Conservative Judaism's Rebound

Somehow, the rabbinic associations of both the Reform and Conservative movements decided to hold their conventions this week in our nation's two most notorious cities of sin -- New Orleans and Las Vegas respectively.

I'm not attending either convention in person (does Twitter count?), but I have been following the speeches at the Rabbinical Assembly Convention (Conservative) in Vegas that have been streamed live on Ustream. All of the sessions seem to focus on the future of Conservative Judaism and what the leadership thinks is currently ailing the movement.

Watching my colleagues discuss "The Paradox of Growth in the Conservative Movement," it occurred to me that to make Conservative Judaism vibrant again, we need to look at Ronald Reagan for guidance. That's right, Ronald Reagan! The former president famously explained his departure from the Democratic Party to the Republican side by saying, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party. The party left me."

In other words, the Democratic Party changed and Reagan wasn't willing to adapt. So he left. I'm not suggesting that Conservative rabbis leave the Conservative Movement en masse because it has changed. I am, however, suggesting that we -- the professional leadership -- adapt to the changing times.

The opening plenary session demonstrated this need. "The Paradox of Growth in the Conservative Movement" session began with a failed attempt at humor by Rabbi Brad Artson that underscores my point. One of the brightest rabbis today, Artson is a great speaker and well respected among his colleagues. But his joke came up empty. Riffing on the title of the session ("Paradox"), Artson referenced Allan Sherman's pun that Casey and Kildaire are a "pair a docs." Get it? Pair a docs... paradox. Nobody laughed. I had to look up the reference. Turns out that if you weren't around back in the early 60's (at least half of the room at the convention), you're not going to remember the Ben Casey television series. You also might not be up on your Allan Sherman references if you're under 55-years-old.

And that's the problem with Conservative Judaism today. It's not the 60's or even the 70's anymore when Conservative Judaism enjoyed its heyday. My grandfather of blessed memory, sitting in a synagogue thirty years ago, would have loved it had the rabbi quoted the Allan Sherman pun about the hospital drama from 1961. I don't know that Artson needed to open with the "paradox/pair-a-docs" pun, but at least he could have referenced a hospital drama on TV from the past twenty years (ER, House, Scrubs). Even a St. Elsewhere reference might have included more of the rabbis in the room who came of age in the 1980s. After all, the most recent rabbinical school graduates were born in 1985.

Artson actually has his finger on the pulse of the younger generation and keeps up with the current trends more than most rabbis of his generation. He serves as the dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School at the American Jewish University -- the West Coast's rabbinical seminary that trains Conservative rabbis. In fact, he redeemed himself after the pun FAIL last night. He even labeled his bad joke as "the old Conservative movement" and then went on to explain that rabbis need to embrace the Digital Age and exploit social media.

Artson shared a story of a mock job interview at the American Jewish University in which a rabbinical student about to graduate told the interviewers that in order to respect their time he would put his cellphone on the table in front of him. The interviewers (all older adults) looked at this student like he was crazy. Artson had to explain that for this 20-something's generation the cellphone has become the wristwatch. There was an obvious culture gap. I tell rabbis all the time that if they want to communicate with high school and college students, they need to text or use Facebook chat. Email is dead to that young generation and we have to keep up with the trends if we want to be relevant.

The Conservative Movement has changed because our culture has changed. Americans are being pulled to the extremes in all areas of society, especially religion. The institutions of the Conservative movement have grown stale by not keeping up with the times, but as the head of the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, has articulated, "The paradox of growth in the Conservative movement is that we have to separate movement from institutions." Conservative rabbis who have been out of the seminary for more than ten years haven't changed, but they need to change because the culture has changed. Conservative Judaism has long waved the banner of "Tradition and Change." If that is to continue to be the mantra of this centrist branch of modern Judaism, then there must be a response to the change. "Tradition" must continue to be at the fore, but the way in which it is packaged and sold has to change. It's a different world out there.

The borders have disappeared in the 21st century Digital Age and rabbis must come up with a new vision for how to market the product that is Conservative Judaism. And to complicate matters, the transition is ongoing. Rabbis have finally embraced the fact that they have to give out their cellphone number to their congregants who also expect a response to their email within an hour. And rabbis slowly began to see the need to upload their sermons and classes onto the Web as podcasts. But now these rabbis need to Facebook chat and blog and Skype and tweet and check-in. Will it ever end? No. We must continue to adapt and make our vision and approach fresh.

The opportunity for fifty-year-old puns is clearly over. The future of Judaism is now.


Rabbi Alan Abrams said...

Yaasher Koach, Jason. Well said.

Jonathan said...

When you ask Conservative rabbis to tweet and blog etc. you will force them to repond to criticsm in ways they are not trained to do and/or feel is beneath them. The experinces that Conservative clergy have had with the balabatim are the primary causes why the movement has shrunk. Now you want to take those experinces and magnify them through social media? It will fail.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Jonathan, I believe in honesty. I think that my colleague Rabbi Julie Schonfeld was being brutally honest when she wrote an op-ed explaining that we need to separate the "movement" from the "institutions."

What I took from that is that just because United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (the central lay institution of the movement) is ill, that doesn't mean the Conservative Movement is on its deathbed.

Once rabbis are honest and upfront about what they believe and the type of Judaism they wish to promote, it will be a healthier Conservative movement (even if it's smaller).

I consult rabbis (of all denominations) on using social media and convince them that it's a good medium on which to share their Torah.

It seems obvious to me, but if you have intelligent things to say and the folks aren't coming to your synagogue in droves to hear you say it on the bimah on Shabbat morning, then take your message (Torah, wisdom, vision, ethics, commentary, whatever you want to call it) to Cyberspace.

A rabbi may only have a dozen people come to the synagogue to hear the weekly sermon, but when the rabbi blogs that sermon or tweets the insight, the audience grows exponentially.

Oh, and by the way, I do think the majority of Conservative rabbis know how to respond to criticism.

Rabbi Seth Adelson said...

Jason, weren't you working on a list of Conservative rabbi blogs? If you were to post that so Jonathan could see how some of us have responded successfully to criticism, while airing our Torah for all to see, he might be a little more optimistic about our ability to handle new media.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Seth, good idea. Here are just some blogs by Conservative Rabbis:

Jonathan said...

By the way, I read that op-ed by Rabbi Schonfeld wrote. The quote that I focused on the most was the last one in the article, "Our task is to clarify and revitalize our vision for the future while sustaining the power of the large networks of community that still hold so much potential for bringing Judaism forward into the 21st century." Hey it's a beautiful soundbite to write in a mass newspaper that we are ready to do what it takes to clarify. In reality we don't have the guts to do what it takes to clarify. We would lose more people and their dollars faster if we did clarify For example if the goal was really clarity we could then do better than being content with the plurality of teshuvot for and against Gay Rabbis where one CJLS rabbi voted yes for both teshuvot. And if clarity was a goal then maybe proposed teshuvot that were rejected by the CJLS shouldn't be allowed to be enacted by individual rabbis for their own communities. And if clarity is a goal then perhaps when proposed teshuvot that were rejected by the CJLS but an individual Conservative rabbi wants to boast that he will go against the CJLS ruling and allow the rejected teshuvah in his community then perhaps the CJ magazine should shy away from promoting articles that prominently publicized this oppositional spectrum of the Movement...or maybe it's a lack of a movement since we chronically seem to sacrifice clarity except when we want to appear that we are relevant in the local Jewish newspaper. I won't bother for now going into depth about how silly it is to walk into my own local Conservative shul where electric music is okay on Friday night but not on Saturday morning and how one Conservative shul in my town celebrates Yom Tov Sheni but the other Conservative shul doesn't. The only thing you are right on here Rabbi Jason is the more we clarify the more we will shrink. Who is going to be the first six figure salary Conservative rabbi willing to walk the plank for the sake of movement clairty...................(read the dots as silence) we will wait a long time for volunteers for that mission.
And by the way Rabbi Jason part of the reason why I think Conservative rabbis have difficulty responding to criticism are times you either haven't posted or responded to my critiques. And their are others like you too. But thanks for the list of blogs that are out there. I will slam who needs to be slammed and I will get back to you when they don't post or don't respond to me. Is that okay with you? And I will cc you too Rabbi Adelson. I'll be in touch.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Jonathan: I have never been afraid to respond to your comments on my blog. I simply don't have the time to respond to every comment here and on my other blogs (my first published posting on Huffington Post generated 600 comments).

I do moderate comments, however, I only refrain from approving comments if they are offensive. Write something critical and I'll approve it for posting.

(But please use some paragraph breaks so your comments are easier to read... Thanks!)

Jonathan said...

It's uncanny to think about the amount of times it would appear a Conservative rabbi apparently just simply didn't have the time to respond to me on a blog or through an email.

(This also applies to the ask the rabbi component of the USCJ web site which rarely responds to my questions and most of the answers from there are "consult your local Conservative rabbi" as if I felt my local Conservative rabbi was competent why would I bother with the ask the rabbi link in the first place. )

You can call it "I don't have the time." But forgive me if the simpletons out here like me consider your and by extension other rabbi's self statements of being busy really being translated by me that whatever I have to say was unimportant in your and other rabbi's eyes. Or that perhaps your silence was better for yourself than getting slammed with a better response by me or someone like me again and again.

Now please find the time to respond to the fuller essence of what I wrote tonight.

And if it helps I would be glad to use paragraph breaks from now on.

Anonymous said...

The good rabbi may or may not be correct in his assessment of what ails Conservative Judaism, but at least he has the intellectual courage and respect for his readers to present his case clearly. We can then assess his arguments on their merits. I've read your posts several times, and I'm not at all sure what your position is with respect to the problems facing Conservative Judaism. Personal attacks are no substitute for reasoned arguments. "Slamming" rabbis with whom you disagree may be emotionally satisfying, but it won't gain you any adherents. Please, clarify for us what you think.

Unknown said...

Hey. We are the movement of *Tradition* and Change. Allen Sherman (and Tom Lehrer, for that matter) are tradition. Perhaps we need to restore the *real* core to our core curriculum for CJ rabbis, whatever their ages... ;-)

Gail Labovitz

Jonathan said...

Dear anonymous: I wish I could leave this as a side comment because it's not germain to the discussion...or lack of it as Rabbi Miller is apparently too busy to respond to me. While you disagree with me I can't agree or disagree with you because.. well... um... you are "anonymous". Create a name. Post what you believe. And then I will dialogue more with you.

goyisherebbe said...

I respect Conservative rabbis in their attempt to bring whatever measure of Judaism they can to the secular city (or suburb). But historically any religious movement, no matter how much pizzaz it possesses in its outreach work, is only as good as its natural increase. As the average age of Conservative congregations is pushing past the biological clock, I don't see what hope there is for the movement. I'm sorry and disappointed. The Conservative movement once did some good things in the days when Orthodoxy was still speaking almost entirely Yiddish and was not an alternative for a young American-born Jew. In those days Conservative Judaism kept the home fires burning with USY, Camp Ramah etc. and later havurot. I am in Israel and Orthodox today, but I am sorry about the eclipse of the Conservative movement. Plenty of money, plenty of buildings, no youth and no future.

Anonymous said...

You guys just don't get it. None of you talks TORAH! The congregations I've visited have little knowledge in its study.

Anonymous said...

what do you believe,concerning yahshua the messiah,not the christian concept of Jesus.we know there is no J in the hebrew language.what do you believe concerning the apostles writings.thank you. rocco.