Friday, March 15, 2013

"Conservative Movement Examines Its Future" by Ron Snyder

3/14/13 Baltimore Jewish Times- The problem facing many Conservative Jews today is that they are waiting for respect and approval from the Orthodox community —  respect and approval that never comes —  while remaining envious of Reform Jewry’s ability to embrace modernity.
That was one point made during a seminar last week on the current state and future of the Conservative Jewish movement in Baltimore. The discussion was part of the annual North American Association of Synagogue Executives conference, which was held in Baltimore for the first time in 20 years.
Rabbi Joshua Kalev of Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, Pa., said Conservative Jews often have a difficult time identifying who they are and what they believe. In many cases, he added, Conservatives describe themselves as “not Orthodox” or “not Reform” instead of trying to express who they are in the Jewish landscape.
“That is the key difficulty of being the midpoint between two polarities,” Rabbi Kalev said. “When trying to embrace tradition and change, you may represent neither well enough to compel others to agree.”
Conservative Judaism’s roots date to the 1850s in Germany and developed as a response to the more liberal Reform Jewish movement. The name “Conservative” was designed to mean to conserve Jewish traditions rather than reform or change them.
The Conservative movement continued to grow in the United States throughout the 20th century. By 1990, 43 percent of Jewish households affiliated with a synagogue identified as Conservative, compared to 35 percent for Reform and 16 percent for Orthodox, according to the National Jewish Population Survey at that time.
However, the same survey showed that by 2000, the Conservative percentage had shrunk to 33 percent, compared to 39 percent Reform and 21 percent Orthodox. Though no new National Jewish Population Survey has been conducted since 2000, many local surveys show the Conservative movement has continued to wane. In Baltimore’s 2010 Jewish Community Study, only 25 percent of local Jews said they identified as Conservative, compared to 27 percent Reform and 32 percent Orthodox; 5 percent identified as “traditional.”
The reasons cited for the movement’s decline include everything from its name — there is no political ideological basis in its identification — to how shuls address interfaith families and don’t attract younger congregants, many of whom now consider themselves “just Jewish” and don’t affiliate with any particular movement.
Rabbi Kalev said change is needed if the Conservative movement is to grow.
Many within the Conservative movement say its biggest strength is its ability to change with the times without losing touch with traditional Jewish values. This includes allowing for women rabbis and being more open toward same-sex couples. 
“One of the strengths of our movement is that it changes with time,” Rabbi Kalev said. “We have a lot to learn from each other.”

Changing with the Times

Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation in Pikesville said Conservative synagogues that are vibrant and thriving 10 years from now will look very different from what synagogues look like today. Those not willing to change, he said, will be in trouble.
“I think we’re at a time of dramatic change for liberal Judaism in general, and the Conservative movement is a part of that,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “I think the change will happen rapidly, [and] it will increase in its pace, and I think what it means to be a synagogue will mean something very different. If not, I think that synagogue will be in trouble.”
Rabbi Schwartz said among the changes he would like to see happen are shortening the Shabbat services from three hours to about 80 minutes, making them more casual and allowing for more participation when possible.
“We ask people to come into our services and say to them, ‘This is what you’re going to do,’” he said. “‘For the next three hours you’re going to sit quietly, listen to a language you don’t understand and that many of you can’t read. Then, a large section of the service will be in that language and sung by a single person, and at the end of it we hope you feel good.’ …  How can we change services to make them more accessible? It’s going to be a challenge.”
Adath Israel is among the synagogues in the region trying to think outside the box. Adath Israel’s executive director, Lori Dafilou, said her congregation is trying many new ideas, such as offering “Sunday” school sessions following Saturday services so as to not conflict with children’s sports schedules.
Dafilou noted that her congregation also offers a “Shabbat a la carte” program, at which children can meet one another and smaller study groups can form while others participate in traditional services. The whole congregation comes together in the end for a Kiddush to reinforce the solidarity of the community.
“The Conservative movement as a whole is questioning where it fits in the Jewish landscape,” Dafilou said. “People are not flocking to synagogues like they did in the past. We need to reach out to them rather than wait for them to come to us.”
NAASE Executive Director Harry Hauser expressed similar ideas. He said it is important for synagogues to develop accurate data that they can use to best evolve and best fit the needs of their specific community.
“All too often congregations make decisions based on anecdotal evidence and realize in the long term it wasn’t in the best interest of the synagogue,” he said.

A la Carte Judaism?

Rabbi Schwartz also said he could envision a time when many congregation members would forsake traditional dues for a more “a la carte” approach, where they would pay for services such high holiday seats, bar or bat mitzvahs and/or funerals.
He said he sees this as a possibility with more and more families opting against joining a synagogue and instead utilizing other avenues to provide a Jewish education and upbringing for their families. To combat this, Rabbi Schwartz said, congregations need to find ways to be more flexible and re-imagine what it means to educate children.
“The b’nai mitzvah has been the bread and butter of liberal synagogue life and what everything else is predicated on. That’s how we’ve done it for 50-plus years. You have to join a shul. Why? Because you need to educate your children in Hebrew school so they can have a bar or bat mitzvah,” Rabbi Schwartz said. “That’s not the case anymore. People know they can have a bar or bat mitzvah in any place they choose. In Baltimore, people are having b’nai mitzvahs in hotels, country clubs and even Chinese restaurants. We don’t need a shul for bar mitzvah. [They] also have people that will train your child, which begins just eight to nine months before, so you don’t have to have your child enrolled in Hebrew school for six or seven years prior to the simcha.”
Rabbi Eric Yanoff, of Adath Israel in Marion Station, Pa., said a la carte Judaism is not the way to strengthen Conservative synagogues in the long term.
“[The idea of a la carte Judaism] breaks my heart because it not only changes how we do dues or define members, but it actually removes the label of membership and turns everyone into customers,” he said. “And the second we are just seeking customers we are not just radically transforming Conservative Judaism, we are radically transforming what it means to be Jewish. I’m not so sure that is in a good way. You can’t say you’re a member of the tribe if you’re just a one-time customer.”

Baltimore’s Conservative Future Unclear

What approach needs to be taken in Baltimore to strengthen Conservative synagogues remains to be seen.
Rabbi Daniel Burg of Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill said his congregation has recognized this shift and has taken proactive approaches to reach out to younger congregants.
“People are looking for their fellow Jews,” Rabbi Burg said. “We’re all looking for communities of purpose with people with whom we want to identify. If we can’t create that at our shuls, then they should be going elsewhere.”
Among the events Beth Am has developed is off-premise lunch-and-learn sessions at places such as bars and coffee shops, Also, the synagogue is reaching out to 25 to 35 year olds through Beth Am’s Young Adult Initiative, BAYIT. The latter initiative seeks to form a community through Jewish religious, social, volunteer and educational programs. BAYIT events include happy hours, softball games, book clubs and study sessions and have attracted as many as 50 people per event.
Beth Am Executive Director Henry Feller said the key to strengthening Conservative Judaism is to be flexible without losing the Jewish sense of spirituality. He noted that his congregation tries to expand traditional synagogue gatherings such as offering a weekly Kiddush after Shabbat services, which has attracted 140 to 170 congregants.
“We need to understand that times are changing, and people are conflicted when it comes to religion and how to balance that spiritual part of their lives with their constantly busy lives outside the synagogue. That is the only way we are going to be able to grow in the future,” he said.
Rabbi Jay Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills said he is trying to take a “brick-and-click” approach to introducing Conservative Judaism to a younger audience. This means trying to make the physical synagogue a desirable place to worship and reaching out to the community through social media and smartphones, among other avenues.
“So many people today believe that living a Jewish life is difficult,” he said. “It’s our job to show them that it isn’t.”

The Numbers

In 1999: Baltimore
Percentage of population who considered themselves ...*
Conservative: 33 percent
Reform: 36 percent
Orthodox: 17 percent
Other: 6 percent
In 1991: New York
Percentage of population who considered themselves …
Conservative: 34 percent
Reform: 36 percent
Orthodox: 13 percent
In 2010: Baltimore
Percentage of population who considered themselves …
Conservative: 26 percent
Reform: 23 percent
Orthodox: 32 percent
Other: 19 percent
In 2011: New York
Percentage of population who considered themselves …
Conservative: 19 percent
Reform: 23 percent
Orthodox: 20 percent
Other: 37 percent
*Based on percentage of respondents versus total population; conservative in 1999 study
includes “traditional” Jews.
Sources: 1999 and 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Studies; UJA-Federation of New York’s 1991 and 2011 Jewish Community Studies of New York

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