“Unless this is done, I declare unhesitatingly that traditional Judaism will not survive another generation in this country.”
The “this” in the quote above refers to change, and the words come from Solomon Schechter’s address at the founding of the United Synagogue in 1913. What were Schechter’s radical reforms, integral to the survival of Judaism? Sermons in English, “scientific” methods of rabbinic training, and “order and decorum” in the synagogue. These, on the whole, have been addressed over the last century. Yet Schechter’s sentiment that our institutions must change if they are to survive is, once again, exactly right.
The builders of the Conservative Movement in America (though they would not have called it that) were trying to create a form of Judaism that would work for immigrants and their children: one that combined the traditional Judaism they brought with them from Europe with something their children could connect with and not feel embarrassment about. Ultimately, they succeeded.
In later years, their children and grandchildren moved to the suburbs and Conservative Judaism went with them. American Jewish life was undergoing a transformation and the institutions followed suit. No longer was it contentious to give a sermon in English.
Synagogues were building swimming pools and basketball courts and striving to be places that served young couples and their 2.5 children. To stay relevant, the movement realized that synagogues needed to be places of gathering, not just places of prayer and education.
Many current Conservative Jews remember this period as the heyday of Conservative Judaism. Synagogues flourished for decades and the Conservative Movement was dominant in American life. In 1951, Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
But it’s been clear for a while now that American demographic and cultural tides are shifting once again. And the needs and expectations of American Jews are in transition as well. It can no longer be assumed that even people who move to a new area with a nearby Jewish congregation will automatically join the synagogue out of a sense of obligation, as their parents did.
What do synagogues and other institutions of our movement need to do more consistently in order to embrace this new generation? What do we imagine might be on Schechter’s list of innovations if he was giving his speech today?
Meet Jews where they are. We need to engage Jews at home, in parks, in coffee shops (when that’s possible again), and online. Though we have poured love and thought into our buildings, we must not allow property lines to be the boundaries of organized Jewish life.
Focus on relationships. We need to use an engagement model that builds relationships and networks one person at a time, first discovering what people want and need, and then empowering them to create meaningful experiences. Instead of providing ready-made programs, we must first facilitate the connection and community that our people are seeking.
Provide individualized services. Many newly successful companies tailor their products for each customer, using data to anticipate trends and individual expectations. From eyeglasses to clothing to vacations, there is no longer a need to settle for something generic when you can have something made exactly to your personal specifications. Clearly, our institutions must catch up by refocusing on our values, honestly assessing our strengths, and then developing a comprehensive range of customized experiences beyond traditional lifecycle rituals.
Invest in technology. While many organizations have recently transitioned to online prayer services and classes, to meet the expectations of potential participants, we must embrace truly up-to-date technological tools to facilitate communication, connection, and logistical tasks. This will require ongoing training for our leadership and staff (who may not be as technologically adept as the people we are trying to reach).
Embrace diversity. The Jewish community is diverse, and we must adjust our self-conception – and our planning – accordingly. We are a people of different racial backgrounds, sexual and gender identities, family compositions, physical and cognitive abilities, economic statuses, and more. Our members also express their Judaism in a variety of ways. If our communities are to be successful, we must do more than acknowledge this: we must think expansively about our community as a whole and ensure that we are engaging everyone where they are and as they are.
This list, of course, is hardly comprehensive and none of these trends are particularly new. In fact, there are already examples of each of these being done successfully here and there. Now it is time to muster our strength to fully reshape our institutions, and then equip ourselves to change again in and for the future.
One complicating factor is that the people who feel our movement already meets their needs are the ones paying dues and serving in leadership. When something is working for us, it’s hardest to see what is not working for those on the outside. This can make initiating change very difficult.
In his remarks, Schechter cautioned his audience about “selfish salvation.” That is, “salvation which is bought at the expense of sacrificing your children and the whole future of Judaism for the imaginary welfare of your own little soul.” For Schechter, the future of Conservative Judaism was at stake and he was not timid about calling upon those for whom the system was already working, to go outside their comfort zone in order to ensure its continuity. While Schechter’s language may have been harsh, his message is still applicable: Many of us still benefit from the current structures and must find the courage to embrace transformation even if that means sacrificing what we have come to love. If we are able to acknowledge that demographics, technology, and the expectations of our people have shifted, we can then rise to meet the moment and shape or reshape our movement’s future accordingly.
Fortunately, the Conservative Movement has shifted before; we can do it again. Our movement has always stood for maintaining tradition while embracing change. THAT is the essence of Conservative Judaism. Now, if we want our values to endure, we must, once again, change our structures to meet the needs of today’s – and tomorrow’s – American Jews.
Let’s get to work. PJC
Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg is Chief Operating Officer of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional international association of some 1700 Conservative and Masorti movement rabbis around the world. This piece first appeared on The Times of Israel.