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Op-Ed: Conservatives must look in the mirror

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NORTHBROOK, Ill. (JTA) – I can confidently say that I am one of the first Jewish professionals to have used e-mail.

At one of the first college student conferences I ever ran, a student approached me on the last day to suggest that on the following year’s application, we also ask for e-mail addresses.

“Sure,” I replied. “What’s e-mail?”

That was the start of my encounter with the joys, frustrations and dangers of this medium. And since the day I first started by dialing a number, hearing a long tone, waiting several minutes to connect and waiting even longer to have e-mail pop up on the monitor, I have been receiving e-mails predicting the imminent demise of the Conservative movement.

That was about 18 years ago, and the e-mails keep coming.

Now, of course, the predictions also appear in listservs, on Web sites, in podcasts and blogs, in news releases and notably in the Jewish press. They come from sociologists, demographers, professors, clergy, synagogue presidents and people at the Kiddush table and in the parking lot. It is not unusual for many Jewish reporters to “objectively” refer to the movement as “beleaguered” or “under siege.”

So first, here’s the bad news. Our numbers are shrinking. Our members are getting older. We’re being battered in the press. Our institutions are faltering under the weight of old governance systems and the global economic crisis. We’re fighting among ourselves. [Add your own critique here.]

Now for some good news. More people are learning and studying Jewish texts, Jewish history and Jewish culture. Kids are still going to Israel with USY and Ramah. Our day schools and camps are experiencing what we hope is a temporary decline, but it is clear that they are no longer just for the rabbi’s children. Women are not only in leadership positions, they’re also on the bimah. Laypeople – not just the younger ones (and yes, there are younger ones) – are reading Torah. Conservative Jews are involved not only in their congregations, they comprise much of the leadership of federations and other Jewish organizations. A large number of student Hillel leaders come from Conservative backgrounds. And no matter what they call themselves, many of the independent minyanim are Conservative – they use Conservative siddurim and chumashim and approach text using methods championed by the Conservative movement. [Add your own good news here – I know you have some.]

So if things are good, why are they bad?

Our problems are real, for sure, and we must approach them seriously. The Conservative movement has contributed much to American Jewish life. I do not consider it a failure if one of our own becomes involved in another denomination or organization. It means we’re doing our job –  it’s the natural outgrowth of Schechter’s klal Yisrael.

But it does trouble me that we have not successfully created Shabbat communities in most of our congregations. It troubles me that most students do not find the level of commitment in their home communities that they do in USY or Ramah or Koach. It does trouble me that if they do find it, it’s likely not in the Conservative movement, so they may become involved in other communities not by design but by default. And it does trouble me that our clergy and laity become more concerned about institutional viability than about motivating themselves and others to live fully Jewish lives.

What can we do about it? It’s easy to assign responsibility, but it’s courageous to shoulder it. If I were speaking to the key leaders of the movement, professional and lay, I would start by handing each of them a mirror and asking them to take a long, hard look.

It’s easy to blame the institutions – and there is plenty of blame to be assigned to them all. But how many rabbis tell their president that in order to be a more effective leader, the two must study together for an hour every other week? How many presidents tell their rabbi the same thing? How much time do we spend teaching and encouraging people to observe Shabbat or to keep kosher, compared to the amount of time we spend making the bar or bat mitzvah schedule or collecting membership dues?

The business side is important, to be sure, but your shul should be more than a business. Yes, I know your congregation is different. But really it’s not.
If our institutions are out of touch with our members, know that this didn’t happen yesterday. And if you’ve only complained about it, then stop complaining because complaining alone won’t help.

I know people might suggest that because I am employed by one of these institutions, perhaps I am naive, perhaps apologetic, perhaps defensive. Certainly our life experiences color everything, including our opinions. I accept and understand that. I also have to look in that mirror because there are times when I, too, get lost in the politics. So let this serve not only as an admonishment to others but as self-indictment as well.

We all have a lot of work to do. United Synagogue, Women’s League, Men’s Club, Ziegler, JTS, the RA, CA, JEA, JYDA, NAASE, Masorti, Mercaz, Schechter – all of us. We can form coalitions, make demands, threaten, cajole and continue to fight it out in the press. It’s all a smokescreen and doesn’t confront the real issues.

Those e-mails have been coming for 18 years. I predict they will come for another 18 years and beyond – until the technology becomes ancient and something takes its place.

The bottom line is, we can all get along. I’m looking in the mirror and I invite you to join me. We have a lot of work to do.

(Richard S. Moline is the director of Koach, United Synagogue’s program for college students.)

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