Conservative Congregations Tweak Services In An Effort To Reinvent Movement


It started out five years ago as a free outdoor Kol Nidre service with a five-piece band in the nation’s capital for 150 millennials. Last year, it attracted 2,500 worshippers of all ages and had to be moved from the front patio of the synagogue to the rear parking lot to accommodate everyone.

At Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, the Saturday morning service now starts at 10:30 instead of 9 and ends at noon — including an abbreviated Torah service. Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said it is “almost a [Jewish] Renewal service — every minute is planned out. We tell people to come on time, that you will want to be there for all of it.”

And on the Upper East Side, Rabbi Scott Bolton has thrown open the doors of Congregation Or Zarua, telling congregants to come Saturday morning at whatever time they can make it. The service starts at 9 a.m.

“[Conservative Synagogues] must be willing to take risks Jewishly and spiritually to meet their congregants where they are rather than hold an idea over their heads and expect them to conform to expectations that are meted out by a religious hierarchy.”

“If you want to come at 10 to be there for the Torah reading and the Torah study, join us,” he said. “If you want to come for kiddush and be a JFK [Just for Kiddush] Jew, you can be engaged in the mitzvah of Torah study after Kiddush that is led by congregants. And when there is no [Torah study], we have a community sing.”

These congregations are just three examples of Conservative synagogues that have introduced an innovative approach to religious services as the movement struggles to adjust to shifting demographic realities; it has lost adherents to both the Reform and Orthodox movements. Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, who is assisting in the movement’s Innovation Lab, which launched last April, said Conservative synagogues today must be willing to do “out-of-the-box things” and be “willing to take risks Jewishly and spiritually to meet their congregants where they are rather than hold an idea over their heads and expect them to conform to expectations that are meted out by a religious hierarchy.”

The move towards innovative services comes as the Conservative movement begins looking for new leaders of its rabbinic and congregational arms. And many consider this as a good time for the movement to reflect on how to remain relevant and grow in the future after the 2013 Pew Report found a one-third drop in Conservative affiliation over the past 25 years. There’s an urgency to the task, especially since the millennial generation seems increasingly unmoored from institutional Jewish life.

“You are free to believe that Conservative Judaism is dying; that its best days are behind it,” Rabbi Joshua Rabin, director of the movement’s Innovation Lab, wrote in an article in which he laid out a blueprint for what he believes can be used to repair “what has been frayed.”

Among his suggestions: showcase the vitality of the successful synagogues and do outreach to LGBTQ and intermarried Jews.

But not everyone agrees with these two suggestions.

In a Commentary article last year titled “Saving Conservative Judaism,” law professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall argued against “widening the tent,” fearing it would lead only to its collapse.

She maintained that the movement’s support for transgender rights is “largely irrelevant to the movement’s religious focus,” and that the recent United Synagogue decision to allow non-Jews to become synagogue members “could severely compromise the movement’s ability to fulfill its legacy as a distinct way to follow Jewish tradition in the modern world.”

As the movement launches searches for new CEOs of its rabbinic arm, the Rabbinical Assembly, and its congregational arm, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — the current leaders of both will be leaving in June 2019 — one Conservative rabbi has suggested the two groups merge.

“Streamlining administrations would save money,” said Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, director of Rabbis without Borders at CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a think tank and resource center. “When there are disputes in synagogues, it would make sense to have one address to call because it could honestly mediate. Two organizations create unnecessary conflict.”

She added that the new CEO should be a “visionary who can think beyond the movement. The idea of movement affiliation is shifting quickly, and to be relevant the movement needs to get ahead of that; synagogues need a reason to join.”

The next rabbi who heads the Rabbinical Assembly should be “someone who has serious relationships and networks with all sorts of rabbis — well beyond the Conservative movement — and who … has demonstrated a proficiency in organizing rabbis who connect to the central and intellectual currents in America today,” according to Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue, agreed that “this is a moment of change [and] the USCJ recognizes that it has to reinvent itself to be relevant in the future. … There are big issues out there that we have to deal with, including intermarriage. For me, the most important issue is how do we engage Jews and live meaningful lives.”

The Conservative movement’s ban on the rabbinic officiation of intermarriages will remain unchanged, predicted Rabbi Daniel Horwitz of Houston.

“On this issue, I don’t think there is an enormous difference between the people in the heartland of the country and those in the major Jewish communities,” he said.

What is clear is that innovative services have largely proven a success for the Conservative movement. In interviews with rabbis and leaders of the movement, the names of several rabbis were often mentioned for their willingness to try innovative approaches. And if the movement is to grow, many of them said they believe those innovations may lead the way.

“Versions of our service can be done in Framingham, Mass., or anywhere else — everyone can do it,” said Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, spiritual leader of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. “Jews need it even if they don’t know they need it because so many of our services are dried out and uninspiring. When we do our less creative service, I am aware of a lot of dead time during which we are not touching people.”

Asked if his innovations could revive the Conservative movement, Rabbi Kligfeld replied: “I’m not a prognosticator. I’m working on Jews I can influence, not to save Conservative Judaism. I’m doing it for my own spiritual nourishment and without apologies. Some people are happy coming to the straight service where they say every word. But a lot of people want to be touched in prayer. And in our building, it’s working.”

Rabbi Steinlauf said he is convinced that “for the Conservative movement to remain nimble and relevant for the 21st century, it has to learn how to ‘speak millennial.’”

“For the previous generation, nostalgia and memory played a key role in prompting engagement in Jewish ritual and observance. This generation needs to feel their voices matter in creating a Jewish future and a Judaism that speaks to their ethics and morality.”

And that is exactly what Rabbi Rachel Kobrin is doing each month in Center City Philadelphia, where she brings together about 75 young people in their 20s and 30s for a Friday night (or Saturday night) “grass-roots” service and dinner filled with music, spirituality, Jewish learning and socializing. Rabbi Kobrin said the evening is designed to help these millennials who are “searching for meaning, a Judaism that speaks to the core of who they are and answers their big questions.”

“We arrange the seats in concentric semicircles and fill the space with energy and music,” said Rabbi Kobrin, spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa. “We attract some of our members who live in Center City and those who are not members and feel that a normative synagogue does not meet their needs and is not attractive to them.”

“For the previous generation, nostalgia and memory played a key role in prompting engagement in Jewish ritual and observance,” she added. “This generation needs to feel their voices matter in creating a Jewish future and a Judaism that speaks to their ethics and morality.”

Rabbi Robin Fryer Bodzin in Fresh Meadows, Queens, said she is using her “own station in life to bring in families like mine” to the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism.

She has a 3-year-old child and uses Facebook to create a monthly Friday morning “get ready for Shabbat event.”

“Who doesn’t like challah?” she asked rhetorically.

The success of the outdoor Kol Nidre service at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C., has led the congregation to consider replicating it during other days of the High Holy Days next year.

“That service is the largest of our four services, and 65-70 percent of those who attend are congregants,” said a source close to the synagogue.

Musical accompaniment at the service is provided by a band called Return Again that consists of a violin, drums, a guitar, keyboard and upright bass.

“I was trained at B’nai Jeshurun in New York, and the music there was so impactful that I felt we needed something like that in D.C.,” Lauren Holtzblatt, the congregation’s co-senior rabbi, explained. “We try to do the service as much in the round as possible to give a communal feel. We have a complete sound system and we do a traditional service but with a tremendous amount of music. We compose songs and do a mix of Carlebach music and some traditional piyutim [traditional Jewish liturgical poems that are usually sung].”

Since the outdoor service was introduced, the congregation as grown from 1,250 households to 1,600 and its religious school has doubled in size.

“It’s all because of the innovation and creativity,” said the synagogue source. “Other Conservative synagogues are not reporting this kind of growth, and the movement is reporting drastic declines.”

Rabbi Rabin, the movement’s director of innovation, said another innovation is the hiring of “roving rabbis for the whole community — particularly millennials.” One rabbi, for instance, flies from New York to San Francisco each month to meet with young Jews in rented spaces for such things as a Shabbat dinner or for talks in a park about social justice.

“There are great stories that are happening in Conservative synagogues around the country,” Rabbi Rabin said. “We always need to tell those stories. … They exist in synagogues of all sizes, not just urban ones.”