Lately, I have come across many articles and lectures regarding the future of the Jewish Conservative movement. Rabbis in the community have recently felt the need to address the issues of tradition vs. change in our religion, how to maintain our and preserve our faith while staying aware of the many faiths around us, and how to gather all the generations to their synagogues. While these issues are evident in the Orthodox, Reform, and Reconstructionist communities, they appear the most problematic in the Conservative movement. Among all the branches of Judaism, the Conservative denomination is definitely one of the weakest in regards to membership enrollment, financial stability, and assertive decisions on the future of faith.
I am not here to denounce my own denomination of Judaism, but rather to focus on the roots of the main issues of the Conservative movement. I am an active member at my synagogue where I experience the modern issues brought before my congregation and watch my rabbi handle and address them. The ritualistic peeves, or in my opinion, the positive changes such as musical Shabbat services and triennial Torah readings do not determine the future of Conservative Judaism, but merely benefit the goals and intentions of these changes.
For the typical synagogue president, the main, unavoidable problem in the Conservative movement is the lack of young, active members. Once students enter college, they are exposed to the various spiritual and ethnic groups on campus and visit their synagogues at home less and less frequently. By the time they graduate college and start working lives of their own where financial stability is the largest concern, paying synagogue dues does not override meals and apartment bills. In fact, even if there was enough money for a young single to pay for synagogue membership, would the thought of paying so much money toward a facility where s/he feels no connection whatsoever motivate that person to belong to a Conservative synagogue? You’ll sooner find that single at the local thriving Chabad house instead, where s/he can feel a connection to Judaism while enjoying the meals (and liquor) that are free of charge.
Another aspect that prevents young members from committing to synagogues is the lack of warmth and spirituality. While unaffiliated Jews understand that the Orthodox movement is religious and definite in the unbreakable ritual laws and the Reform movement is far more liberal, the Conservative movement is left somewhere in the middle. The average Conservative commentators and rabbis have grown indecisive over the years in regards to what laws we can and cannot abide by, what ritual practices to emphasize and which changes to succumb to, and how to make synagogue services more enjoyable without losing the traditions of Shabbat. For the average unaffiliated Jew, the atmosphere of a Saturday morning service is rather cold and filled with “No, your non-Jewish boyfriend cannot step onto the bimah,” or “Sorry, here we do not host interfaith music ceremonies.” While no two conservative synagogues are identical, both exude the vibe that the Conservative movement may be open to new ideas, but the answer to any severe changes is “no”.
We, as faithful people, must understand that the only gateway to gathering the younger Jews of the community, the future of Judaism, is promoting spirituality over ritualistic practice. While both rituals and community should be valued, it is pivotal to recognize that a sense of community is more necessary for the single Jew. The average unaffiliated Jewish single with a jaded connection to religious procedures needs to know that in the Conservative movement, it’s ok to not immediately understand every little detail. It’s ok to be confused at first, for everyone in that sanctuary is still learning and will continue to learn for the rest of their lives. It’s ok to find your sense of spirituality while keeping traditions alive. It’s also ok to face the inexorable modern world and all of its advantages in order to take your sense of spirituality with you. Most importantly, it’s ok to not understand the rituals but even better to learn the meanings of them from the synagogue experience. The Conservative movement revolves around teaching, evolving, and learning, three things that could easily be improved in our synagogues. No one truly knows that it’s ok to be confused at first because no one really ends up teaching the ones who are. The Chabad rabbi’s walk up to visitors individually and light-heartedly encourage them to be involved in the services, while at Conservative synagogues, visitors watch the services pass them, due to the lack of warmth around them.
I am still an active Conservative Jew and see hope for this particular denomination. The hearts of all the faithful Conservative Jews are in the right places; we just need to cater our hearts to those who may not have been born into the ritualistic practice that we consider second nature to us. Compared to the other denominations, the Conservative movement is still considered caught somewhere in the middle traditionally, but has the potential to thrive spiritually. As an Egalitarian movement, we have come a long way in regards to modernization, but the road leading to full synagogue membership has not ended quite yet. To gather all the Jews, young and old, affiliated or unaffiliated, spiritually connected or lost, we must open our doors and our hearts before placing the walls of rituals and traditions before us. We must create a warmer atmosphere and welcome all kinds of people with open arms. We must ensure those who feel uncomfortable that having faith is not a talent that only the experienced worshippers can obtain. While we should definitely value our Halachic bonds, the priceless effect of a “kehillah” or community, must take precedence. In the Conservative movement, along with every movement actually, spirituality should not be a devalued aspect of every community, but rather a primary factor among all the generations that choose to dwell together in search of the connections to their faiths. Only then will we see a true impact for the future of Judaism.