Friday, January 08, 2016

Rebranding Conservative Judaism – Will it Work?

Conservative Rabbi Steven Wernick
I can’t emphasize enough how misguided the approach of Conservative Movement is in trying to retain their members. The New York Post tells us that Rabbi Steven Wernick - head of the Conservative’s organizational arm, the United Synagogue - has ordered a makeover for the movement. Having lost one third of its adherents over the last 25 years he has hired a marketing firm to give them a now look. He wants to rebrand Conservative Judaism. From the Post
New York’s Good Omen agency is interviewing hundreds of Conservative Jews to get their views on the movement in order to develop a new “position statement” for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. 
That they are going this route truly speaks to the desperation of the movement. They are in essence saying that they will change their identity in order to attract new people. They will find out what the modern Jew is looking for and morph into it.

That approach misses the entire point of Judaism. Judaism is not a religion of wants and desires. It is a religion – a way of life really – that requires things of us. Judaism is not a theme park where people go to have fun. And when they get tired of it, change it into something they are not tired of. 
The Conservative Movement caters to the spirit of the times. Not the will of God as expressed in His Torah. Back in the old days it was the melting pot. In recent times it was feminism.  More recently it was LGBT concerns.

Apparently that isn’t working out too well for them. Female and gay rabbis have obviously not increased their numbers. 

There has been a lot of discussion by them about this problem. Both internal and public. There have even been some decent suggestions about how to change things. But they are now going to Madison Avenue to rebrand themselves. This will not help them.

The things they have done in the past haven’t worked for them because those things do not require religion. Catering to the melting pot causes assimilation. Which leads away from religion. Same thing with feminism. You don’t need religion for that. either. Even a positive Torah value they advocate like Tikun Olam  can be pursued without belonging to any religion.

So what is it they can do? At this point it might very well be too late. The one thing that had any chance at all of working was providing a strong formal Jewish education for their children. It is Jewish education that explains the success of Orthodox Judaism.  A phenomenon that had not gone unnoticed by some of their brighter lights. Mimicking Orthodoxy’s emphasis on Jewish education that may have saved them. Had they been determined to make it succeed.

But they tried it and failed. There are many reasons why it failed,some of it having to do with the enormous cost to parents. If I understand correctly Their religious school system is far more expensive on the average that Orthodox schools.  But it isn’t only about the expense.It is about the parents being motivated enough to care. 

My guess is that most Conservative Jews do care about their children having some religion in their lives. But not enough to spend exorbitant amounts of money on it. They would just as soon send their children to a public school and teach them about Judaism at home. 

But that hasn’t worked out too well. How much does the average Conservative Jew even know about his own Judaism to teach it to their children? And now those kids are dropping out of Judaism like flies. They are intermarrying at record numbers without giving a thought to their Judaism. They just don’t care. Which is why the Conservative movement is scrambling to do something about it.

I can’t predict the future. But rebranding is a waste of time, in my view. If you are trying to make yourself into something people want instead of teaching them the value of what you actually are, you are doomed to the continuing failure you experience now. Even if you turn the Conservative Movement into Disneyland. It won't work. People will get tired of that too.

This doesn’t mean you can’t make yourself more attractive. You should. But being attractive can’t be what you are all about. Once you attract people - then what? Judaism is a religion of substance. It is about doing the will of God. Not about rebranding yourself.

I agree with Steven M. Cohen, professor of Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.  Form the Post: 
Cohen calls the rebranding “helpful,” but isn’t sure it’s enough to attract new congregants — or stop current ones from defecting.  “The real cause of [community] shrinkage is intermarriage and the decline of ethnic attachment among American Jews,” he says. 
My sincere message to the Conservative movement is the following. If you want your members to retain their Judaism there is only one real way to do that. It is through Jewish education. And there is only one system that is currently successful at doing it. Need I say which one? I also know that many Conservative rabbis consider it a success when one of their congregants becomes Orthodox. Need I say more?