Conservative Judaism has been in the news in the past couple of months, but it hasn’t been entirely good news. The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has approved a new strategic plan intended to revive the “brand.” The Rabbinical Assembly devoted a number of sessions at their recent convention to such titles as, “Thriving Against Difficult Odds,” and “Creating a Culture of Success.” The overall picture being presented is one of a aging and dying movement trying to redefine itself.
It’s not that I believe that we shouldn’t be self-critical. On the contrary, as individuals, as an institution and as a movement, we only learn and grow by honest evaluation and mindful change. I am concerned not about the criticism but about the sense of panic surrounding the critical questions. Hysteria does not lead to useful deliberation and decision making. Panic leads to adopting program because they are successful for someone else, not because they advance our particular mission and vision. Hysteria leads to widespread cutting of programs and budget in order to balance the budget based on saving money, not based on focused attention to our raison d’être.
We need to have and express a sense of passion about our mission. If we are not sufficiently devoted the community that our synagogue has built, we will not be fully capable of making informed decisions about what is ikar and what is tafel, what is central and what is peripheral.
One of my colleagues was quoted in an article about the challenges facing the conservative movement, saying that his 1500 seat Sanctuary for his 700 household congregation averaged 100 people on a Shabbat morning. He has an enormous building built on a grand scale for a 1200-1500 household congregation sitting virtually empty during the week.
Fortunately, due to the wisdom of our board and a measure of good luck, we are not faced with such grave immediate questions. We have been able to rent out our building so that it is generating income during the times that it would have been sitting empty. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the Board and the Congregation to continue looking at a range of possibilities for what our congregation might be in the future. How might we encourage more people to affiliate? What if our membership increases – what more might we do with the additional income and people? Why do people leave the congregation (other than for the obvious reasons of death and moving out of town)? What will happen if our membership decreases? What will happen if one of our renters leaves? What will we do to replenish our building fund balance if large scale expenses, such as replacing a roof, deplete the fund?
I believe in Congregation Ahavas Israel and am committed to being a part of its long term success. I don’t share the sense of panic regarding the greying and shrinking of the Conservative movement. I believe if we stick to our core mission, of creating a vibrant egalitarian Conservative Jewish community by helping each individual follow his/her spiritual path using traditional Jewish practice; that we can address any situation that arises calmly and sensibly by remembering that we are a community which embodies Torah, making every decision and every act reflect our commitment to Torah.