Conversation Of The Century

“It’s all about relationships,” he said, driving home a major theme of the conference. “It begins with people, not programming. We have to spend resources to build relationships with our people.”

In his book “Relational Judaism,” Wolfson argues that to survive, each Jewish institution must become a “face-to-face community of relationships.”

“The fastest-growing religious groups in the U.S. understand the value of relationships,” he told his audience. One is Saddleback Church, the Evangelical megachurch led by Rick Warren. The other is Chabad.

“Within five minutes of meeting a Chabad rabbi, you’re invited into a relationship with him and his family,” Wolfson said. “They flip our model — first they get to know you, then they ask for money.”

Rabbis Aaron Weininger and Jeremy Fine have taken these lessons to heart. They are assistant rabbis at two different Minneapolis-area synagogues, but they have largely the same job description: “engaging the hearts and the souls of Jews in their 20s and 30s,” as their packed workshop was called.

“Get out of the mentality of events and programming,” Rabbi Weininger advised. “What I’m focused on is the relationship.”

He said that young adults are often burdened by what they aren’t doing Jewishly. “We’re trying to take away the guilt and shame that keeps people from coming back to Jewish life.”

Focusing on individuals and relationships is labor intensive. “It’s a huge investment in time — being attentive to what people care about,” Rabbi Weininger said.

“It can’t just be, OK, come to services and it will be meaningful for you,” Rabbi Fine said. “The product that you’re getting them to has to engage and catch them.”

“If you look at the Pew study, 94 percent are proud of the brand. But they’re not buying the product,” Rabbi Weininger added.

Audience member Sarah Notis of Annandale, Va., was skeptical. “I don’t think we’re interested in being offered a product,” she told the rabbis. “People are moving toward pluralistic spaces and minyanim.”

Just as the movement is searching for approaches to attract young adults, it continues to seek ways to include the intermarried in the Conservative
big tent.

In a session on kiruv, the movement’s outreach initiative to intermarried families, Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, said Jews have to stop being stuck on mixed marriage and look at broader issues.

“It’s important to separate intermarriage from conversion,” he said.  “They’re two different things.”

While intermarriage does not necessarily lead to conversion, it can lead to raising Jewish families. So the goal should not be to convert the non-Jewish spouse, but to raise Jewish families, however they are constituted, Rabbi Simon said.

Steve Lachter, senior kiruv trainer for the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs and a member of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, tried to get listeners to see the slights suffered by non-Jewish spouses.

He recalled one kiruv event where a Catholic woman told a group of rabbis how she was raising her children as Jews, driving them to Hebrew school, celebrating holidays at home — fulfilling the role of a Jewish parent.

“I have given you my children, why do you treat me like crap?” she said.

Jews must remember that there are non-Jews in their community and be sensitive about assuming everyone has a Jewish background, Lachter said.

“In Hebrew school, you can’t ask kids to ask their parents for a memorable Passover childhood experience, because they may not have any,” he said.

“The main point,” said Rabbi Weininger, “is to experience the joy of Judaism.”

BUCKING THE TREND?

As is often the case, Jewish Baltimore seems to somehow buck (or at least be behind) the trend. Baltimore, like only a few other communities, still has strong and vibrant Conservative synagogues.

According to the 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community study, roughly one-quarter of Baltimore’s Jews are Conservative.

“I do think that religiously in Baltimore there is a substantially engaged community,” said Rabbi Ronald Shulman of Baltimore’s Chizuk Amuno Congregation. “Certainly, there is this in the Orthodox community but also the Conservative and Reform and others. We [the Conservative synagogues] are healthy because others are healthy and vice versa.”

But Rabbi Shulman and Rabbi Schwartz said the Pew study (even if taken to have a margin of error — and both rabbis think it is greater than at first sight) does indicate a need for reflection, even in Jewish Baltimore.

Rabbi Schwartz commended the conversations between the various sects in Baltimore but said that conversations are just the beginning.

“We need to keep pushing the envelope,” said Rabbi Schwartz. “This dialogue is reminiscent of the despair in Israel. The approach of the right has not worked. The approach of the left has not worked. With the Pew study, look at the Reform approach, it has not worked real well, either. How do we find a middle ground? That is the challenge.”

“I hope people will take away the right questions to be asking in their home congregations in order to accomplish whatever their synagogue’s specific goals may be,” said Rabbi Shulman. “I hope people will take away a sense of belonging to a vibrant community of devoted and caring Jews.”

Asked Laurel Freedman, director of congregational advancement at Chizuk: “There are different flavors in every community, but we share
the same issues. What are the small baby steps we can take?”

See also:
Bringing Conservative Voices Together >>

A New Horizon: Chizuk Amuno’s new executive director will focus on Conservative Judaism 2.0 >>

David Holzel is Washington Jewish Week senior reporter. Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief. Simone Ellin, Melissa Gerr, Heather Norris and Marc Shapiro of the Baltimore Jewish Times and Meredith Jacobs of the Washington Jewish Week contributed to this article.

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