As Rabbi Steven Wernick presided over his first United Synagogue Conservative Judaism biennial, held earlier this month, there was a sense of an unprecedented opportunity to discuss the history and future of Conservative Judaism.
As a young rabbi who believes in the idea of religious movements, I note that Conservative Judaism is a grass-roots coalition that has lost two of its primary organizing principles: one was that Conservative Judaism and Conservative synagogues serve the need for Eastern European Jewish immigrants to become Americanized while holding on to their religious roots.
The other is the recognition that the scholastic trend to study ancient and medieval Jewish texts scientifically, known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, has not yielded a sufficiently sacred orientation for Jewish life.
Jews in my generation, that is, Jews whose great-grandparents or grandparents came to this country looking for the promise of the American dream and needed a connection to what was familiar, are no longer motivated by the same sorts of organizing principles that our ancestors were. For generations Conservative synagogues thrived on the complicity that Jews will, more or less, seek out a synagogue when they move to a town, and that they will join that synagogue and continue to give to that synagogue because that is what Jews simply do.
Today, younger Jews see affiliation as a choice among competing choices for their time and money. Precisely because Jews in my generation are already Americanized, we seek above all an exciting and meaningful expression of living a richly textured life. Judaism can be, in its best incarnations, one outlet for such an expression that is equal to (if we’re lucky) everything else. If Judaism is to thrive in the 21st century, the religious leadership, be it clergy or otherwise, must overcome any assumptions about what Jews do or don’t do.
Moreover, the scientific study of Jewish texts through the project of Wissenschaft, while intellectually stimulating, has yet to pay dividends when it comes to Conservative Jews living a moral, spiritual life. How does learning the stratified nature of the Torah’s authorship teach my congregants to be good Jewish spouses, parents, or community members?
What I am saying here is not new. For years rabbis in the field have complained about the disconnect between the elite study of Judaism through its institutions of higher learning and the practical application of that learning from the pulpit. But with the new leadership at the Jewish Theological Seminary and the new leadership at USCJ, the time is now to move beyond Wissenschaft as the ideology that distinguishes Conservative Judaism.
It is precisely because both of these ideas have run their course that they have deadened the mandates of institutions like the USCJ and JTS, and to some extent the Ziegler School at the American Jewish University, to be leaders of Conservative Judaism. As the world continues to grow flatter, the leaders of Conservative Judaism must realize that our movement cannot be led from out front, where policies are decided because the central office “knows best.” Instead, these leaders must acknowledge that our movement, at its core, is a grass-roots coalition of institutions who have similar, but sometimes competing goals.
What Conservative Judaism needs, more than anything else, is a re-founding. To USCJ’s credit, a strategic plan is in the works with a select group of rabbis and lay leaders. But this planning process must re-energize not only these grass-tops, but its root constituency as well. That means the movement should be training its clergy, its lay professionals, and its lay volunteers how to engage at the most fundamental levels of community building through the art of community organizing.
I saw this need emerge five years ago as a student at JTS. In response I co-founded along with a Reform student, now Rabbi Stephanie Kolin and a spirited organizer named Jeannie Appleman, the Rabbinic Fellowship for Public Life, which is now part of the Jewish Funds for Justice. We then invited Just Congregations and the Industrial Areas Foundation to collaborate with us in selecting cities and seminaries. With the visionary financial help of Jennie Rosenn of the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Just Congregations, and other funders, we have graduated, to date, over 140 rabbis and cantors from the four major movements and administered nearly $100,000 last year in paid internships to teach these emerging clergy how to transform synagogues from the ground up. Our continued success proves that these new leaders are thirsting for the tools of communal engagement.
Credit is definitely due to both JTS and Zeigler for exploring the organizing model with its students. I believe that it is precisely this kind of training that all of our professionals need to make Conservative Judaism successful. Using organizing principles like one-to-one relationships, leadership development and coalition-building, our movement can stimulate a new sense of purpose where individuals and institutions can publicly commit to an emergent vision of Conservative Judaism.
What will be the new vision of Conservative Judaism? It’s impossible to say, and that’s the beauty of community organizing. It begins with the open-ended question to every individual: What makes you passionate about being a Conservative Jew? Unless we undertake a campaign that reaches into the homes of our Conservative constituency, we run the risk of simply changing policies without renewing the mandate to lead. I am not sure that is a risk we can afford. n
Noah Zvi Farkas serves as a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino, Calif. He is the co-founder of both the Rabbinic Fellowship for Public Life and Netiya: The Southern California Jewish Coalition for Food, Environment, and Justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org