The recently released study of the American Jewish community by the prestigious Pew Research Center points to some serious problems in the Conservative movement. The survey reveals declining membership and the inability of the movement to retain its young people. As a rabbi who has been leading free, walk-in High Holy Day services for young Jews for the last 10 years, and as a Talmud professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I want to make some suggestions to keep the movement robust.
Those people who show up in our synagogues only on the High Holy Days, who used to be vilified as “three-day-a-year Jews,” are actually our greatest asset for future revival. They still feel the need to recharge their Jewish souls a few times a year. That means we have a chance to get them to show up more often, even to become Jewishly active on a monthly or, better yet, weekly basis. How can we do that?
Many people avoid our synagogues because they find our services long and boring. Since we recite many prayers in Hebrew, and since most rabbis do not interrupt the ongoing chanting with intellectual and spiritual commentary, people feel shut out. It is not a good sign that many show up at 11 a.m. for a service that began at 9 a.m., and that even more don’t make an appearance at all.
To draw people back into the synagogue, we at JTS need to train rabbis in the art of running engaging services, certainly on the High Holy Days but also all year round. We responsibly fill our students with great Jewish texts and ideas, but we irresponsibly pay scant attention to teaching them how to use those texts and ideas to enliven services. We place great emphasis on the Saturday morning sermon, but ignore the rest of the service. Since people are looking for meaning, we need to unlock the liturgy for them. Therefore, instead of making the “senior sermon” the rite of passage for future rabbis, we should instead ask them to run a complete Shabbat morning service. They would pass only if the assembled participants found it intellectually engaging and spiritually uplifting.
What also draws people to services is the presence of other people. One explanation for why the Ramah camps are so successful is that each camper sees herself as part of a larger community all “doing Jewish” together. That makes Shabbat at camp, for instance, a far more powerful experience than Shabbat at home. We need to rethink the structure of the movement to make it possible for large numbers of people, in particular young ones, to “do Jewish” together.
I am therefore suggesting that in addition to synagogues serving local communities, there should be, in the metropolitan areas where young Jews tend to congregate, a Conservative super-organization that offers religious activities for all, but focuses on young Jews in particular. Every such area should have a Conservative-sponsored, free, walk-in High Holy Days service for 20s/30s. This same super-organization should offer classes on Jewish subjects for young people and everyone else. It should run holiday events for young Jews, such as a Megillah reading at Purim and a seder at Passover. “Footloose” young Jews would attend such events if they knew there would be a good number of other young Jews there. There are many Jews — young and old — whom we could reach if we stepped outside our synagogue confines.
When I was a student at Barnard in the 1960s, JTS was open seven days a week. It was where my friends and I went to study Judaica, pray, eat, and “meet guys.” JTS is now closed on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Given its superb Manhattan location and magnificent physical plant, it could and should become a Conservative super-organization. True, JTS already offers a rich array of nighttime lectures. But there is so much more it could do. Why not open JTS, the flagship of the Conservative movement, on weekends? Why not start a new Conservative synagogue at JTS and ask rabbis and cantors-in-training to think of ways to make Shabbat morning services engaging and then try out their ideas on the local Morningside Heights community? Why not run Friday night services and meals for Jews in their 20s/30s? Why not offer ongoing courses on great texts with great teachers — already on JTS faculty — for young people and also for people of all ages? Why not, assuming such a model succeeds, help other metropolitan areas to do the same?
Of course synagogues should continue to create communities on a local basis. But if we can establish Conservative super-organizations, and train rabbis who know how to bring people in, we could attract a critical mass of currently unaffiliated Jews who are eager and pleased to live Jewishly together. Therein lies a bright future for Conservative Judaism.
Rabbi Judith Hauptman is the E. Billi Ivry Professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the founder of Ohel Ayalah, a free, walk-in High Holy Days service for Jews in their 20s and 30s.