The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the congregational arm of the Conservative Movement, has issued a request for proposals from existing or potential independent minyanim that “are interested in developing a relationship directly with a USCJ congregations [sic].” In return, minyanim will receive $2,500. The RFP is extremely vague about what it means to partner with a Conservative congregation, other than that it involves prayer (“or ‘davenning,'” as the RFP clarifies in a seemingly giggle-inducing attempt to speak indie minyan language) and that minyanim “may encompass a spectrum of practices that falls within the Halachic framework of Conservative Judaism.” (More on that below.) While the language of the RFP itself feels clumsy and and a tad self-serving (though no harm there, since that’s their job), it’s probably the smartest thing the USCJ has attempted to do in recent history. I don’t expect they’ll have much success with existing minyanim, but I could see it appealing to a limited set of young people with strong Conservative denominational identities who are looking for more room to do their own thing within the Conservative movement and who want to start new minyanim. Text of the RFP, commentary, and an application below:

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) recognizes that it must be a dynamic and not a static Movement.

My first reaction to the opening line was something sophisticated along the lines of “duh,” but then I realized that, in all seriousness, and snarkiness aside, this may actually be a revelation for institutional Conservative Judaism.

To that end, this initiative reaches out to engage Jewishly committed young adults. During the last 10-15 years many independent prayer or “davenning” communities of young adults have emerged,

The use of the translation, “davenning” (in quotes no less) does make me laugh. It’s really okay just to call it “prayer.” But they’re trying, they really are, and they get points for that.

often generated by those whose commitment to Jewish life grew from experiences in United Synagogue Youth(USY), Camp Ramah and Solomon Schechter Day Schools.

Ah, denominational possessiveness rears its head once again. The authors of the RFP seem not to have read the recent indie minyan survey, which concluded that “[t]he presence of alumni of the Conservative educational system… in the more visible leadership of emergent communities has prompted many observers to see the movement as drawing primarily from the Conservative demographic heartland…. However, despite these widely held impressions, the distribution of denominational upbringing among the independent minyan… is not all that different from those found in the NJPS… In short, in terms of upbringing, there is not much exceptional about the emergent communities’ denominational profile, with participants’ backgrounds spanning the denominational spectrum [sic]…” (pp.14-15).
On the other hand, the language of the RFP is at least a welcome a change from the rhetoric of former JTS chancellor Ismar Schorsch, who was famous for statements such as “[t]he Hadar movement could not be mistaken for anything but a Conservative synagogue: It’s fully egalitarian and seriously Jewish. The ritual is neither Reform nor Orthodox; it’s quintessentially Conservative… The young people at Hadar are intellectually Conservative and they are ritually Conservative except they are advanced Conservative Jews rather than entry-level Conservative Jews. They wish to distinguish themselves from the materialistic, bourgeois synagogues of suburbia.” (Did he really say that in print and still manage not get fired for either offensiveness or illogic?)

These independent minyanim are playing an important role in Jewish life. Participation in such communities has a very powerful effect on both the individuals involved and the Jewish community as a whole. Young adults with a strong commitment to leading Jewish lives are vital to the future of the Conservative Movement.

I’m not sure why this is a revelation, but it’s certainly true.

Beginning with this RFP, USCJ looks forward to the very positive and vibrant effect that such young adults will have on Conservative Judaism.

Finally! The magic bullet! Once independent minyanim start affiliating Conservative, it’s all going to be okay! And “the very positive and vibrant effect” also sounds like an attempt to atone for others in the Conservative movement who’ve said precisely the opposite for years.

The goal of this RFP is to build on the growing movement of independent minyanim. USCJ is seeking to enable and empower Jewishly committed young adults to develop within the Conservative Movement the communities, programs, and initiatives they seek.

That’s great, but the RFP has thus far failed to answer the million dollar question: Why exactly would young adults and their minyanim want to do this? It’s good news for folks out there who feel deeply tied in to the Conservative movement. I’m thrilled that there may finally be a place for young Conservative Jews where they won’t be taken to task, accused of elitism, or shunned for wanting different things from some of their elders. On the other hand, I’m curious about how many of these folks there actually are out there. If you’re one of them, let us know how you’re feeling about all this.

Such communities may encompass a spectrum of practices that falls within the Halachic framework of Conservative Judaism.

Does that mean that if this proposal had been issued 13 months ago, the minyanim in question wouldn’t have been allowed to perform or host gay weddings? Would two-table potlucks be okay? Why would any minyan agree to be bound by the Conservative take on halacha unless they were in fact actually Conservative? (And then what would remain “independent” about an independent minyan that chose to affiliate?) The indie minyanim I know exist, at least in part, because they don’t want to be bound by denominational interpretations of what’s kosher and what’s not. Most minyanim are also composed of people from the various flavors of Judaism, so it’s hard to see how or why a current independent minyan would affiliate with the Conservative movement (and not lose some significant portion of its participants if it did). So, again, this is a great idea for young adults who self-identify as Conservative, want to daven with others who specifically identify as Conservative, and who want to be bound by the Conservative interpretation of halacha, but it doesn’t feel so relevant to everyone else.

This is a first step by USCJ to address the needs identified through a series of interviews with participants in existing minyanim,

Anyone know what this is about? What interviews? With whom? And what kinds of needs does the USCJ think it can address? If it’s money, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree. Someone with access to a reasonably large living room and the internet can start an indie minyan with $50 for photocopied siddurim (and not even that, if it’s BYO siddur.) And contrary to the $25-a-plate-for-a-badly-catered-Shabbat-dinner ethic, potlucks are free, or close to it. So if not money, then what? Space? See “living room” above. And when that gets too small, see “churches that are usually cheaper to rent and more welcoming to Jewish indie communities than denominationally-affiliated shuls”. And see fundraising from participants. Skills training? See the workshops, batei midrash, and other learning opportunities offered by indie minyan participants for other indie minyan participants. And see the Conservative-style davening that many indie minyanim were trying to get away from, so why would they want skills training from the movement?
Yes, yes, I’m totally being flippant. Money (which buys space, training, etc.) is always a nice thing to have and it certainly makes running a minyan easier. But $2,500 isn’t (I don’t think) going to convince a successful indie minyan to suddenly affiliate Conservative. Either you need hundreds of thousands of dollars to open a new liberal yeshiva or buy a building where you and other indie minyanim can daven rent-free, or you’re probably doing more or less okay on whatever you’re raising from donations and/or small grants.

as well as to address the needs expressed by alumni of the various Conservative schools, camps, Israel programs, and youth and college organizations.

This makes much more sense to me as an impetus for the RFP.
So what do you think? Are you applying? Why or why not? Are you mad at the Conservative Movement for its thoroughly unabashed effort to co-opt indie minyanim, or are you cheering its new attitude toward young Jews? Or none of the above? Comment away! (And the application is below if you want it.)
PS: What does it mean about USCJ’s ability to market itself that I have yet to receive this RFP from one of the many indie minyan OR Conservative listservs that I’m on?!
Independent davening groups that are interested in developing a relationship directly with a USCJ congregations may submit a proposal. Such communities may already exist outside of USCJ or may be a group that wishes to build a new such community. The location of the davening may be within a synagogue or at a satellite location. Consideration will also be given to minyanim that are not able to partner with a USCJ congregation, but are willing to associate with a USCJ Region. The goal of these pilots is to provide some support for grassroots young adult minyanim within the Conservative framework. In addition, USCJ wishes to encourage its member congregations in areas with a critical mass of young adults to be responsive to the needs of such committed individuals, many of whom grew up in Conservative synagogues and participated in Conservative schools, camps and youth groups.
Each applicant selected will receive up to $2500 for the first year of the program. These funds may be used to offset expenses incurred by the Minyan and/or the synagogue in creating a new community or building on an existing community.
The application deadline is August 1, 2008. Applicants must describe the davening community they intend to create, including but not limited to:
The application deadline is August 1, 2008. Applicants must describe the davening community they intend to create, including but not limited to:
Partnership arrangements, if any
Demographics of target population
Leadership/organization plan
Outreach efforts
Frequency of minyan services
Part II: Other proposed activities such as shabbat or holiday communal meals, study sessions, etc.
Part III: Details of a project budget for up to $2500
Please limit response narrative to no more than two pages plus a Budget page.
Grantees will be notified by September 1, 2008 with funds available on September 15, 2008.
Please copy the application into Microsoft Word.
Name of Respondent Group_________________________
City ______________________State___________________________
Synagogue partner (if applicable)_____________________________
Location: ____In a synagogue ____ synagogue satellite______ other(Please specify)____________________________________________
Key Contact Name__________________________________________
e-mail address __________________Phone Number______________
Type of Proposal; ____Synagogue Partnership ____ Independent
_______ Existing Minyan _____ New Minyan
PART II – Narrative – no more than two typewritten pages
PART III – Budget
Responses should be e-mailed to [email protected] . The response should be in Word format.