At 100 years old, the Conservative movement feels it still has the juice to be “the vital center” of the Jewish religious world. And during its three-day Centennial conference this week, the movement’s rabbis and members, along with a large cast of idea people and performers, constructed an ideal Conservative Jewish community at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel overlooking Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Billed as the Conversation of the Century, the conference drew 1,200 people from places like North America, Israel and Britain to Charm City; roughly 85 Conservative leaders from the Baltimore area attended.
That conversation, which attendees described as plugged with creativity and dynamism, took place less than two weeks after the release of the Pew study of American Jews, which initially caused shock with its statistics on dropping affiliation and high intermarriage rates. Scarcely a speech, workshop or discussion at the Conversation of the Century finished without the word “Pew” mentioned as a reference point.
“Together, we’ll take a close, honest look at the sobering findings of the new Pew study,” promised Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, as he opened the conference on Sunday.
The Pew study, which Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation said should serve as a “wakeup call,” found that only 18 percent of American Jews identify as Conservative, down from 43 percent in 1990. And Conservative Jews are older on average than Reform or Orthodox Jews and more likely to leave their movement than Jews from either of the other two major denominations.
A few minutes after Rabbi Wernick spoke, Chancellor Arnold Eisen, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, described how his students have been “energized” rather than discouraged by the Pew report.
“They’re challenged to reach out to their cohort,” he said.
“I heard someone say, ‘poo on Pew,’” said Leslie Lloyd, president of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg, during Sunday’s lunch break. “Look at these energized people,” she said of the crowd passing by her. “Here’s where the quality is. Here’s where the engagement is.”
Eric Ellman of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac agreed about the high quality and motivation of his fellow participants. Like Lloyd, he attended the Shabbaton before the conference. With its five types of worship services, nonstop study and discussion sessions, and the enthusiastic participation of 100 members of the USY youth group, the Shabbaton and its “energy, passion and ruach [spirit]” were like a tonic for the deflating statistics, Ellman said.
But, he noted, “This is an echo chamber. The Pew report is doom and gloom. It’s just here that the future seems bright.”
THE PROPHECY OF STEVE JOBS
Increasingly, the conversation over Conservative Judaism is about a product in search of consumers. A listener couldn’t help imagining a wholesale
exodus from the synagogue and into the market square, where rabbis from the various Jewish movements stand at stalls and hawk their wares to passers-by.
“We have the institutions and the people to provide these goods,” Eisen said in his speech, and Rabbi Wernick predicted that a “turnaround” will take place for Conservative Judaism “by building a big tent, a free market of ideas, inspiration and action.”
In his opening address, Rabbi Wernick said the movement would reverse the “narrative of decline” suggested by the Pew study by “affirming three pillars of Conservative Jewish life: kehillah, tradition and renewal.”
United Synagogue was founded in 1913 by scholar Solomon Schechter to pursue a new idea at the time: a Judaism that preserved tradition and embraced modernity. Schechter’s vision was a big tent that included Modern Orthodoxy.
From the tension at the core of Schechter’s idea, the Conservative movement was born as a liberal alternative to Orthodoxy and a traditional alternative to Reform Judaism — “the vital epicenter of contemporary Jewish life,” as Rabbi Wernick called it.
Now, with the movement losing to the left, right and indifferent, it is looking for ways to compete in the new Jewish marketplace.
The movement has been moving away from the emphasis on the synagogue — a physical structure — and embracing the idea of kehillah — a community of people. “Holiness is heightened in kehillah,” Rabbi Wernick said, “in a spiritual, caring community.”
Tradition, the second pillar, is alive, he said. “Our tradition lives” because it is “renewed by us every day,” renewal being the third pillar.
Eisen said to thrive, Conservative Jews will need to stretch. In words that echoed the immigration debate and implied non-Jews, he called on the movement to “stretch our boundaries wider” by welcoming others “regardless of where they come from. They bring us gifts that we would not have without them.”
He said the movement must “stretch beyond the status quo of the synagogue” to become a Judaism that is part of the everyday world.
“There’s no surprise that more Jews say they’re without religion” Eisen said. “They think religion means rejection of the secular world — where all of them live.”
And Conservative Jews must “stretch our capacity of sacrifice, in “money, time, self-confidence and in public pride of who we are,” he said.
In her keynote address, writer and educator Erica Brown nailed Conservative Judaism firmly in the market place, when she summoned the ghost of Steve Jobs. She criticized the Jewish community for spending “a lot of time catching up and not a lot of time forecasting.”
In contrast, she quoted Jobs as saying: “Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they know it.”
“Our task is much the same,” Brown said.
Brown, who is scholar-in-residence at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, did not say how the Conservative movement might accomplish for itself what Jobs did for Apple but suggested the movement needs some “destructive innovation. The slogan has been tikkun olam” — repair of the world, she said. “I say, go out and do a little damage.”
RELATIONSHIPS IN THE BIG TENT
At some point it became an immutable Jewish tradition that on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, the synagogue will send a reminder notice with an envelope asking for a donation. One rabbi in Canada decided to try something different: He called his congregants on the yahrzeit instead of sending them mail. And he didn’t ask for money.
Attendance at his synagogue went up.
Educator and author Ron Wolfson told this story during his keynote address Monday to illustrate the importance of personal relationships.