Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The real problem with the Conservative movement

May not be its ideological basis, but rather in the sociology of its organization.

In response to my crack at "rabbi" Jack Wethieber at JTS, who thinks that Conservative Jews need to become fundamentalist sheep if they expect to preserve Conservative Judaism, Ben Sorer Moreh Makes the follwoing comment:



As an ex-Ortho, I see the liberal movements' inability to remain relevant or (perceptibly) accessible to a larger population to be a serious challenge to their future. The Os, to their "credit" have a sense of mission. Chabad sees a (existing or emerging) community where there are some Jews (e.g., North Williamsburg or Hoboken) and decides that they're gonna weave themselves into the fabric, make themselves visible, relevant and (raise enough funds elsewhere to be) affordable. The liberal movements take years to build expensive synagogue centers (Meir Kahane called them "mausoleums") for "themselves." Now that all sorts of people (Jews included) are buying homes in Harlem, wanna bet who's gonna be first to open the "next" shul there?



I think Ben's money quote is toward the end whe he talks about the expensive synagogues. I know some folks who have a C shul with 100 families that they run on a budget of less than $200,000 a year. Rented space, part-time rabbi, members do all the work, including leading most of the service. They get a crowd 50-100 almost every Shabbos, higher than average shabbos and kashrus observance than most C shuls, and one friend who goes there, who, alas, recently lost a family member, was astounded that they had no trouble rounding up a shiva minyan for him.

He also says that the lcoal USCJ office doesn't know what to do with a congregation like them and is alwys trying to get them to expand, start a building fund and a religious school and become another "typical" C-nagogue. But why should they? They are providing the religious life their members need at a fraction of the cost of a conventional syangogue. Dues are still <$1,000 per family (lower for individual members), and non-members can buy High Holiday tickets for <$100. A Conservative community with 10 C-nagogues like that one would be 10 times more vital than one with a single 1,000 family monstrosity, in which the shul management has to suck up to the big donors just to raise enough money to maintain the property. Of course, with such smaller shuls, it would be harder for the C rabbis to get their 6-figure salaries.

As for Jewish education, the community would do fine with independent Jewish schools that would have combined day school and afternoon school programs. It might ensure higher quality teachers for the supplementary schoo, becuase a community school would be a larger school with more resoruces. Let the large donors contribute to the schools, rather than to congregations. In fact, the little liberal "shtieblach" could rent space in the school buildings.

Ben is right. C needs to reach out to the unafilliated, and do so in a way that doesn't require the unafilliated to start having to spend a lot of money to be part of a Jewish community.

15 Comments:

Anonymous J said...

On the whole I agree with you.

For many years I davenned at a small, traditional synagogue, closer to Conservative than anything else but officially un-affiliated. Dues were low, participation was high (no full-time rabbi, chazzan or ritual director). Tons of young people (under 35).

I moved cities, and now sometimes attend an absolutely huge Conservative shul (one of the biggest in the country). There are functionally ~4-5 separate minyanim on any given Shabbos. There doesn't seem to be a lot of "cross-talk" between the minyanim. They are effectively "separate shuls" within the same building. The one I go to is small, highly participatory, without a lot of rabbinic oversight. Very comfortable.

This may be the future of C Judaism -- small (unaffiliated?) shuls, or small minyans within larger shuls. I can't see a lot of young people (under 35, say) going to the huge sanctuary services anymore.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Dikduk said...

Your point about day schools and afternoon schools sharing facilities and teachers is a good one. Unfortunately, many Schechters do not support supplemental education at all, and will not allow any joint ventures. This is certainly the case in my community.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Robbie said...

I think a large part of the problem is the USCJ, rather than Conservative Judaism on the whole -the USCJ doesn't, as you said, know how to handle the small, active congregations - if they concentrated more on the up and coming minyanim, many more people would feel that connection. It's much harder to be a part of it all in a huge congregation.

(and this coming from a person who works in a 700-family Conservative shul)

9:41 AM  
Blogger Conservative Apikoris said...

Good comments. Yes, the main problem with the CJ establishment is that they are more concerned about the health of the institutions of Conservative Judaism to the detriment of supporting the growth of communities guided by the ideals of Conservative Judaism:

Some practices that demonstrate this:

* The relatively high price of Conservative Jewish siddurim, chumashim, halachic material, etc. (Price check the Stone Chumash ~$45 vs. Etz Chayim ~$75)

* The restrictive "union rules" for hiring RA rabbis. I'm not sure of the employment consequences if an RA rabbi avoids the Placement committee and opts to lead an unafilliated congregation. I do know that a congregation looking for a rabbi cannot comparison-shop an RA rabbi vs. a non-RA rabbi. And I know (from my friend, who was on the search committee) that a small congregation looking for a part-time RA rabbi has pretty slim pickings, indeed.

3:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I attend an unaffiliated Conservative shul that is quite healthy both in size and congregant participation. I was just speaking to our rabbi about this topic. Our general feeling is that Conservative Judasism is quite healthy and probably gaining strength. UCSJ and the structures that support the movement as a whole are dying. This might be an issue in the long term since there is a purpose for national leadership, but I'm not too worried about the short-term health of Conservative Judaism.

To answer some of your questions, UCSJ really has no membership structure for non-traditional organizations. It wants a fixed amount of dues per member and rarely compromises. Rabbinic leadership is one of the tenents of USCJ membership so I don't know what they'd do with a congregation that didn't want a full time rabbi.

If an RA rabbi even talks to an unaffiliated congregation about a job opening without getting a waiver (fairly hard to get), they can get kicked out of the RA. A monopoly of rabbis is one of the main incentives to join USCJ so they are using this more and more harshly to get congregations to join.

11:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To answer some of your questions, UCSJ really has no membership structure for non-traditional organizations. It wants a fixed amount of dues per member and rarely compromises. Rabbinic leadership is one of the tenents of USCJ membership so I don't know what they'd do with a congregation that didn't want a full time rabbi.

The experience of our congregation (USCJ-affiliated, part-time rabbi, no building) is that this issue might be more with the RA than the USCJ. The USCJ dues are a (small) fixed amount per member, which represnets a minor portion of out (already modest) dues. On the other hand, pickings were slim when we went out and looked for a part-time rabbi. So I think that the problem is more with the RA, who sets a model of full-time rabbinic leadership, and sets a sort of monopoly with a pretty high minimum wage. (After all, the RA is expecting starting salaries in the 60's for young guys right out of the seminary. Yeah, I now make a good salary, but when I was out of grad school, I was happy to work for $15K a year (~30K in today's money).

I would say that rabbinic leadership isn't necessary, but we were without a rabbi for a year, and we've lost some members. So while the public may be turned off by the large congregatiobn model, a lot fo people still think that a "real" shul needs a rabbi in a leadership role of some sort.

3:53 PM  
Blogger Ben Sorer Moreh said...

OMG! I disappear for a few weeks and get cited! (Blush) My point was also that the liberal movements' central leaderships do not appear to do any planning or investment in communities for "the future". I get the impression that they're not the "first ones in" and if a community abdicates the creation of day care or kindergarten or the provision of affordable Jewish education to Chabad, (who'd frankly prefer that the liberal movements disappear from the planets) that's fine. Then they wonder about theirfuture.

6:29 PM  
Blogger bec said...

i agree, however, i think that this is only a small part of the problem.
i have to wonder about the relevance of conservative judaism, or rather, any form of liberal judaism. is it a feel good thing? we are told to build a fence around the torah, but what happens when we decide that the fence doesn't need to be built as high, or as wide, or at all? that's when our numbers decrease.
i am currently involved in a conservative synagogue, and am looking to lubavitch for something more relevant and meaningful, and something where halacha isn't sacrificed to make people happy.
in order for the liberal shul movement to succeed, it has to not be so wishy-washy. it can't say, look, you're not happy? then, hey! we'll get women up on the bimah! what? still not happy? okay, women, don tefillin! you're an interfaith couple? COME ON IN!
liberal judaism is losing numbers also due to an increased amount of permissiveness on issues that shouldn't be permissable. i know i'm probably offending a lot of you, and that is not my intention. having spent several years living an orthodox lifestyle in an orthodox community, after having grown up attending traditional conservative services, and now back to the conservative side, i'm seeing hypocrisy and failure to thrive and influence the next generation. this cannot be good.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Ben Sorer Moreh said...

in order for the liberal shul movement to succeed, it has to not be so wishy-washy. it can't say, look, you're not happy? then, hey! we'll get women up on the bimah! what? still not happy? okay, women, don tefillin! you're an interfaith couple? COME ON IN!

Bec, if liberal Judaism wasn't flexible, it wouldn't be liberal.

There's an old fable about the wind and sun betting over who's more powerful. Wind says "see that man walking down there? I can blow his coat off." Wind blows and blows, man holds his coat tight and it stays on. Sun's turn: "Watch me." Sun shines bright and warm, man removes coat. This was taught to me by my O rebbis as a parable for Jewish observance. In difficult times, we hold tight to our coat, when things get warm we take it off. The flaw in this story is why should the man not take his coat off when it gets warm. If he leaves it on, he'll get overheated and will be unable to walk further. The answer is a coat that's adaptable or removable or different coats for different weather. Liberal Judaism is an attempt to create that "different coat".

Best of luck to you as you seek a Judaism that's relevant and right for you. You may have convinced yourself that "frum" is the only true way, but many, if not most American Jews have found meaning and relevance in the liberal way.

Shabbat shalom.

7:44 AM  
Blogger bec said...

"if liberal Judaism wasn't flexible, it wouldn't be liberal."

excellent point.
:D

3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If C needs to reach out to the unafilliated, then you're contradicting what you said about your misreading of Zero Judaism re: Rabbi Rank and apparently Dr. Wertheimer, since you think they're the same person.

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