This year I was lucky enough to attend and present at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference. It was truly an amazing experience and a Yasher Koach to all those who put it together. On the heels of the craziness (and some would say depression) of the Pew Research, I experienced a room full of over 1,200 participants excited to learn, over a hundred teenagers welcoming in the conference by singing with Jewish pride, and an authentic reflection of 100 years of the USCJ and the future of Conservative Judaism.
There was much more to be excited about. The session I conducted with colleague and classmate Rabbi Aaron Weininger was so packed that we heard screams from the hallway of not being loud enough. We celebrated with some of the best Jewish musicians, informal educators, and teachers in the world. And finally, rabbis were sharing ideas to invigorate a crucial mass of Jews. It proved to me once again that Conservative Judaism is the most powerful pathway that Jews have to live in a modern world and practice Judaism seriously.
My biggest concern was that I would leave without a revelation or action, but I was not disappointed. The announcement of a new rabbinical school in Berlin left me impressed and intrigued. The honesty and vibrancy with which Jewish Theological Seminary Chancellor Arnold Eisen, keynote speaker Harold Kushner, and author Ron Wolfson addressed pressing issues was nothing short of extraordinary. And yet, with all the positive vibes and the immediacy in which the USCJ expressed, I remained concerned about tangible actions going forward. Conservative Judaism has long been ready for the battle ahead. The call of this conference now needs actions from the leaders inside the Movement; its Rabbis, professionals, and laity. And here are four ways we can get it done.
Since the conference the Conservative Movement has been getting good press. Articles have appeared in the Jerusalem Post, The Jewish Week, and several blogs. But we need more of this. We need rabbis to stop challenging the Movement’s decisions and to start fixing what they find wrong. We need our scholars to research our issues, propose real solutions, and act on them. We need to stop mentioning the notion of post-denominational Judaism, which only hurts our brand (not sure the last time Coca-Cola said to Pepsi, lets merge for one great cola taste). That does not suggest building competition but rather believing in what one is “selling.” Let us write, speak, and preach to the Jewish world about the good in Conservative Judaism and how it is able to connect so many Jews to community, meaning, and God.
Entrepreneurship does not just come from our arms and branches of the Movement but from within our synagogues, summer camps, and schools. Reward bold thinking and allow people to grow ideas and relationships. We often look at Chabad and get upset at their success. The fact is that their higher ups have dedicated themselves to their cause and to their leaders. It is time for us to re-invest in ourselves. We need to find ideas and ways to fund them. We need to allow for rabbis and staff to try, fail, and try again.
Rabbis & Leaders Need to Get Out There
The game of Judaism has drastically changed and rabbis can no longer be stale. Every rabbi, and his/her synagogue, needs an online presence. If they do not know how, that synagogue and Jewish organization should train their leaders. Every rabbi should be meeting with one organization or congregant per day (and ideally a potential member as well). Not because they want to meet with us but because we want to meet with them. The professionalization of the rabbinate has brutalized our rabbis because many synagogues have made their clergy expendable. Rabbis need to stop fearing for their jobs and start fearing for their people. We need to get rid of Keruv committees and just be welcoming. Welcoming is not a guy standing by the door handing out flyers, it is going up to people and saying hello. It is also about looking at everyone who walks into your office as if they were family.
Conservative Judaism should be doing outreach. Every synagogue should have a Starbucks budget line and another for their rabbi to host Shabbat dinners. It should be our major focus, to reach Jews of all ages and embrace them for who they are while explaining to them what we offer. We need to be out in our communities and calling random people to grab coffee. Not everyone wants us to be bound by Halacha (Jewish law) but we need to show them the advantages of a God-centric, meaningful life.
Cling to Something
In a recent blog post, my dear colleague and friend Rabbi Jesse Olitzky called for the Conservative Movement to “stand for something.” This is not a new idea, and I believe it was Rabbi David Wolpe who said we need a new bumper sticker, because “Tradition and Change” doesn’t work anymore. I do not know if it is us standing for something or needing a new bumper sticker but Conservative Jews need to cling to something (or someone). Some of the most dynamic Conservative Rabbis are working outside of the Movement. We need them back inside. It is time to find that “it factor.” And we have amazing leaders like Eisen and USCJ Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Wernick to lean on to help get us there.
A few years ago I was invited to speak at the New York University Hillel and I said “the Movement isn’t dying; it is remodeling.” I still stand behind that statement. Nowhere else could I have kept a non-egalitarian minyan alive while at the same time be accepted in and proudly serve a very liberal Jewish community. We have bad press problems, modern workplace problems, and leadership buy-in problems. I am reminded that not in Solomon Schechter’s wildest dreams would there be this many Conservative Jews, working in the modern world and living practical and committed Jewish lives. And the Centennial, and even the Pew Research study, should not just be regarded as highs and lows but rather wake up calls to Conservative Jews everywhere. We need to do this together and make realistic goals and accomplish them. Otherwise these conferences and articles are unattached words that wind up as unattached failures.
So today I will attempt to be a part of the solution. I hope some of you will take this pledge with me and others can make their own pledge. This year, in honor of the 100 years of the USCJ, I will do three things:
1) I will have coffee/drinks/lunch with 100 people in my community. My only objective will be to help improve their Jewish lives, hear their stories, and show them the beauty of Conservative Judaism.
2) I will make 100 phone calls to families in my community to say hello or wish them a Shabbat Shalom hopefully leaving them with a feeling of connection and warmth.
3) I will invite 100 people into my home to celebrate Shabbat or a holiday. This will allow them to experience conversations with their rabbi outside of the synagogue.
I am going to begin tracking my progress on my website www.RabbiJeremyFine.com (I apologize for the self-promotion) and will write about this experience a year from now. My call to Jews everywhere is to reach out and make sure there is another 100 years of growth for the Jewish people. Together let us have confidence in Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Jeremy Fine