Friday, February 12, 2016

Learning the Lessons of a Failing Movement

The new Conservative Siddur (Forward)
Yet another attempt by the Conservative Movement at reversing the trend of diminishing numbers can be seen in the publication of its new prayer book. And a huge trend it is. There has been fully a one third drop in its membership according to a Forward article. They have published this new ‘Siddur’ with that in mind.

What it basically boils down to is how to be relevant to the masses. There has been a lot of talk about how to do that which has included things like rebranding the movement. An idea put forward by Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the Conservative movement’s organizational arm, the Rabbinic Assembly. And now there is this new Siddur. They are changing the liturgy to fit the spirit of the times. From the Forward
In the new siddur, editors made an effort to include “women and women’s experiences,” Feld said. Miriam is evoked alongside with Moses; Sarah, Rachel and Leah revered with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and not just in the Amidah, but throughout the siddur.
The Rabbinical Assembly group also sought to appeal to families with non-Jewish parents and same-sex couples, said Feld. “We take into account the various family situations that exist in the Jewish community these days.” 
As my mother used to say about the Don Quixotes of the world. “S’vet Zei Gornisht Helfin”. That is Yiddish for “It ain’t gonna help them”.  They are tilting at windmills. Most people that have any affiliation at all with the Conservative movement these days don’t really care that much about what is going on in the Shul their parents used to  take them to. 

They are mostly focused on the here and now; their careers, their relationships, the internet, and their smartphones. And raising their families if they are married and have children. We live in an era that has little patience for prayer at all, traditional or otherwise. Even if it is updated to conform with modern sensibilities. 

Having been educated in public or private schools without religion why would they have any interest is a Judaism they have no clue about? It is meaningless to them. That’s why so many of them have dropped out in recent years. Writing a new prayer book is not  going to change that. They can’t even get them into their synagogues. How are they going to get them to read a new prayer book? Even one as progressive as their new one?

There is something they can do, though. The solution is staring them right in the face. It was even alluded to in this article: 
Years ago, when Blank was teaching rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, she noticed many of them used ArtScroll prayer books—an Orthodox siddur with staunchly traditionalist commentary and explanation—rather than Siddur Sim Shalom; and this, in Conservative Judaism’s flagship seminary. The students were drawn to ArtScroll’s literal translation, expanded commentary and “halachic stage directions,” Blank said.
If the Conservative Movement has any hope of staying alive, they need to note that the truly motivated among them seek tradition. Not innovation. That is what the ArtScroll Siddur gives them.

To an extent, they have noticed it and have included an ArtScroll like commentary in their New Siddur. But while they are trying to appeal to the traditionalist mind, at the same time they are trying to appeal to the modern anti-traditionalist mind . You cannot be all things to all people. You cannot mix fire and water. Structure and tradition is what inspires the devout. But the progressive spirit of the times rejects tradition as archaic and regressive. Oppressive even!

A while ago, DePaul University Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall wrote an article that I believe to be the truth about the trajectory of Conservative Movement and what to do about it. She suggested that the only real way to survive: 
… is for the Conservative movement to narrow its audience by refining its mission. A tribute to Conservative Judaism is that it has produced a core group of Jews whose daily lives revolve around Jewish law in a way closer to modern Orthodox Jews.  
The new Siddur will not do that. What they need to do is what Professor Kwall recommended. And she is not the only one who feels that tradition is the way to go. It is what some of the Conservative Movement’s leading lights have been suggesting for some time now.

And the best (perhaps the only) way to assure that traditional practice is followed is via a good Jewish education of the type that does not water it down by mixing in fashionable trends. Tradition, like fine wine should rarely if ever be diluted. Doing so will only ruin it. Hear that, Open Orthodoxy?