“The Conservative movement is dying!” shouts the rabbi, teacher, and elderly congregant to their half-empty congregations. I have heard so many adults say this with concerned looks on their faces that it no longer fazes me. In fact, I’ve begun to understand why they’re worried. As I look inside Conservative synagogues today, I see a deficit of young people. Instead, I witness older generations who seem to spend most of their time arguing over the rules and regulations that should govern our congregational life. “Can Rachel’s non-Jewish boyfriend walk onto the bimah?” “Can we consider serving meat for Kiddush lunch instead of bagels?” “Should we try to include the Imahot in the Amidah one week?”
It seems like an endless cycle of fractioning committees of elders into smaller sub-committees to examine such issues, and the message appears to be that above all, we are an institution that places politics above people. Meanwhile, my generation, the people who will ideally propel this movement forward, are hardly to be found. These young people, my friends, are often found outside of institutional synagogues, striving to find their voices in places where they will truly be heard.
No longer willing to shout over the din of institutional politics, many young adults are leaving the pews of rigid and hierarchical synagogues and discovering the essence of Jewish living: community. We are seeking places where our opinions and insight are not underestimated but rather encouraged.
I have no intention of degrading the movement that raised me. Conservative day schools provided me with the core foundation of my education; its Ramah Camping movement grounded my Jewish identity in ways I needed; and its seminaries train the educators and leaders who will ultimately drive the Jewish future. But I worry that when the rising leaders from these groups assume the pulpits of Conservative institutions – rather than communities – they will become the last young people to regularly walk inside the sanctuary.
In order to strengthen the Conservative Jewish world, our synagogues must focus less on the politics and embrace the young people who want to become leaders. Our rabbis must meet their congregants halfway, taking Judaism out of the pulpits and offices and into the coffee shops, basketball courts, and homes. Our Hebrew schools must look towards Ramah and USY as successful models of Jewish learning and growth and replicate those experiences for synagogue youth. Our boards must represent our communities without isolating themselves from them. Our services and minyanim must emphasize the enduring beauty of communal voice, rather than the authority of the rabbinic voice. Our parents must encourage us teens to see our synagogues as second homes rather than weekly chores.
Most importantly, we, as an evolving multi-generational Jewish world, must open our synagogue doors to the teens who feel excluded. We must transform synagogues from mere houses of worship to outlets for community building. Teens my age should not need to look outside their synagogues for social action opportunities, tutoring programs, inclusive youth groups, interfaith and Israel groups, or Saturday night movies. We should see our synagogues and the people in them as the rock that upholds our busy, volatile lives; we should see Jewish values being echoed in every aspect of our lives with the synagogue at the core.
Today, I hold the Conservative movement to this standard; I believe whole heartedly that we can create these sacred moments and places once again.