Thursday, March 10, 2011

On the Demise of Conservative Judaism... Maybe

A few weeks ago, after the publishing of the post Hemorrhaging Orthodoxy, a Conservative Jewish woman sent me a long, fascinating message after mentioning the parallels the post had with Conservative Judaism. The message was a letter she had written to her brother, a Conservative Rabbi whom she describes as "but/and observant - not the uber liberal sort", a couple of days earlier. In her introduction to the message, she notes while she used to fit into a traditional form of old-school Conservadoxy, in her city "'s either join the liberal crowd or try to fit in with the far-right crowd. I'm neither. So I wrote to my brother asking about the future...and with the same concerns about hemorrhaging... In case you're interested, I pasted my note below...and hope you don't find it too harsh."

The message led to an excellent discussion back and forth, and I asked for and received full permission to post the discussion on this blog. I plan on discussing various relevant excerpts, though truth be told the entire conversation has been fascinating as have the parallels to Orthodoxy. Below is the woman's original message (Ezzie's note: Please be aware that I've slightly edited the letter, mostly for reading ease), and please feel free to comment on any aspect of it. I'm presenting this initial message without my response so as not to take away from what I believe is a great letter.
The demise of Conservative Judaism... okay, maybe an overstatement :)

So, I've been reading the USCJ's strategic plan (PDF) and the associated documents. I have a serious question that's rattling around my head. Aside from the question as to what you think and where you stand on the proposed document (which to my reading was just dull and not overtly strategic... just a lot of words), my question is this: Is there really a place any longer for liberal Judaism?

I am not trying to be a provocateur. It's a real question.

On the one hand it feels as if assimilation and intermarriage has "won." It's no longer a shonda and people don't hush when they say their son or sister married out. It's just "that's who they fell in love with..." and then maybe some line about raising the kids Jewish or celebrating both sets of holidays.

Support of and for Israel is no longer a given. The little blue boxes. The connection to am yisrael... it feels like there's pockets of connection but only within groups and not between them.

It feels on the other hand that the more right-wing elements in Judaism have taken on an even more right-wing tone. The old YU model of Torah u'mesorah feels like it's lost ground to the black hat chumrah of the month club. It was always hard to be "a Jew at home and a man in the street" as the old saying went... to keep closely tied to tradition and balance modernity. But now it feels as if the man standing just off stage with the old crook is trying to use it to yank everyone away from the precipice that is the modern day Gemorrah.

What I'm seriously wondering after reading this is: Is Conservative (and engaged Reform) an anachronism? Both Conservative and engaged Reform have lost ground (and members) in recent years. It used to be (in the 1940s-50s) that Conservative Judaism was the shining star. It was certainly able to hold the line in the middle of the last century when much in society was changing. But has that time come and gone? What worked then may not be tenable now.

In the 1950s people moved out to the suburbs and built these palatial synagogue centers -- country clubs that let in our kind of people. But the kids grew up and moved away and not just geographically. Fast forward to the 2000s and yes those shuls may be full on Yom Kippur, but bringing in the numbers a couple of times a year doesn't necessarily mean these movements are healthy. Plus these synagogues have lent themselves to some of the things I think are wrong about where we're going... lackluster supplemental education programs (and how can it be otherwise when you have kids "trapped" into going, people teaching who can't necessarily inspire, carpool Judaism, difficulty retaining post-b'nai mitzvah youth), in some communities changing demographics -- aging populations that don't step up for sisterhood or men's clubs, etc.

I will say that what I think is working is camp and programs like Birthright or Nesiya or Nativ (although that presupposes a strong connection beforehand...and ditto for USY/NFTY... you're already dealing with the "in" crowd). I'd like to say day school, too. In a few years I guess I'll see how well the lessons have "stuck" but as a concept, I'd say it's (hopefully) one way we can encourage the next generation to remain within the fold.

So I go back to my question: Is there really -- for the long-long-l-o-n-g term -- a place for liberal Judaism or will we ultimately have a few people who cling to an ideal that once was the middle and see a swell on either side... those who want to remain tied to Judaism and find their option is frumkeit and the others who have fond memories of pastrami on rye (mustard no mayo... they haven't assimilated that much) and maybe an early-era Woody Allen film?

I agree there needs to be a strategic plan and some serious soul searching in the USCJ (and the URJ) -- cheshbon ha nefesh in this case. I'm not advocating that people throw off their talleisim, discard Judaism and run out for a ham and cheese on white on a Saturday. And, I'm not advocating that people should cast off their multicolored knit kippot or lace head coverings in favor of a spodek, streimel or spitzel peeking out from a pillbox.

We can (and some congregations do) have inspired leaders. We can have engaged kehillot. We can have non-Orthodox Jews who are learned, connected, striving, practicing... but often these leaders, kehillot and yidden are few and far between.

What I am is questioning. Ultimately, I really do wonder: Is there sustainability in non-Orthodox Judaism as a movement? And if so, how can an East-coast centric, old school institution reinvent itself in such as way that it produces a ground swell of enthusiasm to reignite people from where they are (in the geographic sense as well as in their lives, hearts and minds)? Leaving aside the issue of conversion and bringing people into Judaism through that door, I wonder how this strategic plan will really inspire people to come back, recommit and go forward as an integral part of the Jewish people?