Thursday, March 09, 2017

Grasping at Straws

It may not be the end of their world. But can we see it from here?
What a downfall for a movement in America that once boasted the largest membership of Jews in the country. It is no secret that their numbers are plummeting. Nor is it a secret that the rate of intermarriage is at an all time high. A lot of Jews whose parents were members of Conservative synagogues have lost all semblance of their Judaism. Even to the point where - they not only marry out… but could not care less about their own Jewishness.

If they are idealistic they might have joined the ranks of secular humanists and see the religion of their parents as irrelevant. Or even an impediment to progressive thinking. Or they might just see Judaism as a cultural identity with no inherent obligations – other than humanistic ones.  Culture is not binding. They either embrace it or reject it. And they surely have no problem marrying a person of another faith. Why should that bother them? They probably consider it racist for a Jew to be forced to marry only another Jew.

There are a variety of attempts to save their movement from extinction. Which seems to be the direction they are going.

One of them was the silly notion of re-branding themselves to make themselves more relevant and appealing to young people. As though you can sell Judaism as a different brand than what it was heretofore. That is an insult to the very nature of Judaism. The ‘brand’ of Judaism is constant and not subject to a makeover. It is what it is. If one want to ‘sell’ it – one has to sell what it is and not some sort of makeover.

Some have suggested creating a close knit Kehilla - by getting their members to live in the same neighborhoods. The way we Orthodox Jews do. We do it so that we can walk to Shul on Shabbos. They don’t have that limitation. Their rabbis have been permitted them to drive to Shul on Shabbos. They can and do live wherever they want without regard to having any Jewish neighbors at all. So… good luck with that suggestion.

The Conservative movement is also trying to get a foothold in Israel. They see its majority secular Jews as a rich target for membership – since their rabbis do not emphasize observance of Halacha at all. Most Conservative rabbis hardly ever talk about observing Halacha in their sermons or in their personal interactions with members… unless they are asked. What they seem to care about most is membership, dues, and attendance.

Another thing that seems to be gaining some traction is to - not only accept mixed marriages into the synagogue, but to actually perform them. The movement has not gone that far yet, having expelled one of its rabbis, Seymour Rosenbloom, who started doing them. But according to Rabbi Rosenbloom, there are a lot of Conservative rabbis like him in the closet about that. It won’t be long before they come out of the closet and start clamoring for it. They could eventually vote to permit it.

Another thing they have done recently is to formally allow non Jews to become members of their synagogues.

This really takes the cake. How desperate they must be to enlarge their numbers if they are inviting non Jews to be members. They are of course couching this in lofty terms: 
We celebrate the diversity among and within our kehillot and encourage the engagement of all those who seek a spiritual and communal home in an authentic and dynamic Jewish setting. We call on all of our kehillot to open their doors wide to all who want to enter.” 
Diversity? Is that what they are calling it? I call it ‘padding the pews’. Their synagogue membership has dwindled to such an extent that many of them now have long names. Long - because two or more of them have merged for lack of sufficient membership by either of them.  If they don’t pad their membership rolls - we will see less Conservative synagogues with even longer names in the not too distant future.

I have no problem with teaching the world about the beauty of Judaism. Part of our mandate is to be an Ohr LaGoyim – a light unto the nations. But you don’t do that by inviting non Jews to become members of your Shul. This is little more than a naked attempt to stop the hemorrhaging by any means necessary.

The sad thing is that the one thing that could have done to save the movement is being more serious about observance – even if only to their own standards. And the only way to have done that was through education. If they had established a religious school system the way the Orthodox Jewish community has, they would still be as strong as they were in their hey day. Maybe even stronger.  If you don’t teach your kids how to be Jewish – or what it really means to be Jewish, why would you expect them to stick around? Their attempts to do so by establishing the Solomon Schechter School system have come very late in the game and have not been all that successful.

According to Rabbi Jack Wertheimer, one of their brightest leaders, most of the rabbis in these synagogues never insisted their members follow Halacha and have tolerated their lack of observance without comment. Their sermons were filled with messages of Tikun Olam in areas like civil rights. A worthy cause to be sure, but hardly exclusive to Jews. Or about supporting Israel financially.

(Which they were pretty good at in the past. Not so sure now. Their attempts at getting official recognition by the Israeli government is running into many roadblocks. This surely has dampened their enthusiasm for the Jewish state. Not to mention the differences as mostly politically liberal Jews they have with Israel’s current right wing government. But I digress.)

I take no joy in these observations. Conservative Jews are a source of successful outreach by Orthodox organizations that seek to return as many Jews as they can to their heritage. The parents of many of the young people in organizations like NCSY are members of Conservative synagogues. Rabbis in some of those Shuls have actually encourgaed their young people to join. Conservative Judaism’s Camp Ramah has many Orthodox alumni. If the Conservative Movement dies, that potential will be gone and a lot more Jews will be lost to Judaism. And that is not something to be happy about.