The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference starts this weekend. The Conservative movement’s health, particularly its synagogue arm, USCJ, is not great. My previous post focused on the suburbanization of Conservative Judaism. The rapid decline of USCJ-affiliated synagogues is partially due to the continuing decrease in the numbers of suburban Jews in the old Jewish population centers. In 2010, 659 synagogues were affiliated with USCJ. Now, there are 620. The decline isn’t surprising. When populations move, such as the current shifts away from the older suburbs, we expect synagogues to close or merge. The issue is what happens in the new Jewish population centers, whether they are in walkable suburban areas or cities. Where are the new Conservative communities? This Summer, I contacted several people within USCJ to ask about synagogues that have joined USCJ in the past few years. I was unable to get a precise number, but the communications staff with whom I corresponded could only think of three synagogues that recently joined. As best as I could tell, all three are older synagogues that changed affiliations or reaffiliated after a lapse. I don’t know of a single community that is less than 10 years old that has joined USCJ in the past 5 years. A movement that is losing synagogues due to de-suburbanization is one thing. A movement that hasn’t figured out how to get new communities to join has a serious problem.
As Jewschool readers well know, new Jewish communities are being created all the time. In theory, these communities might want to affiliate with the Conservative movement, but this hasn’t been happening. Here are three examples that hopefully highlight the movement’s gaps.
1. The decline of new USCJ-affiliated synagogues has happened along with the rise of independent minyanim and havurot. Thanks again to the shifts away from suburbia, these communities often appear in neighborhoods with large, young Jewish communities, but no nearby synagogues (or no nearby egalitarian congregations). Other times they are near or even meet at existing synagogues, but there’s nothing new about this. Breakaway communities that tap an unmet demand for something different are how many Jewish institutions got their start. Not every new community would fit in the wide Conservative tent, due to differences in theology or practice, but many would. I’ve lost count of the number of opinion pieces I’ve read that place the onus on the leaders of these communities to join a movement, but the opposite question is more useful. Why would one of these groups join USCJ? USCJ provides no services that one can’t easily find elsewhere that would help get a new community off the ground. There are already healthy online and in-person collaborations across minyanim that don’t require the expensive USCJ infrastructure. Perhaps in past decades, branding a community as Conservative was a way to attract new people, but the internet provides better ways to spread the word about a new community than USCJ ever did. USCJ has taken some steps to make it possible for these new communities to join, but they haven’t made any changes to give these communities a reason to work with USCJ.
2. I was a member of a self-labeled Conservative synagogue that wasn’t affiliated with USCJ in its early years. The synagogue grew into a vibrant community without any help from USCJ. When the congregation needed a new rabbi, Rabbinical Assembly union rules required it to affiliate with USCJ movement to be able to interview Conservative Rabbis for the position. I was part of the group evaluating whether affiliation was worthwhile. USCJ offered us useful things if we affiliated, but none of these (besides the pool of rabbis) seemed necessary. For example, affiliating with USCJ allowed the congregation to send children to USY, but the synagogue already had happy kids in BBYO. USCJ offered help in finding “replacements leaders when the rabbi went on vacation,” but the congregation already has a large pool of lay leaders. In the end, the synagogue decided to affiliate for the sake of the rabbi search and decided to get what services it could from USCJ while speaking up about the problems we saw in the organization. (This is the origin of my improveuscj at gmail address.)
3. IKAR in Los Angeles has all the trapping of a suburban Jewish Community Center style synagogue. There’s a large paid staff that leads services, pre-K child care, education programs for many age groups, and membership dues. (Yes, I know IKAR is also unique in many ways.) It has at least 15 paid staff, including 3 rabbis ordained by the Conservative movement. Nothing they do couldn’t fit within the bounds of a Conservative synagogue. They have gone from an idea to more than 500 households in less than a decade, in a town with multiple alternative synagogues of all kinds, and they did this, I assume, without any help from USCJ. IKAR seems to have a good relationship with the Conservative movement and (from their website) it looks like they participate in Conservative rabbinical school internship and other training programs. Perhaps, when Rabbi Sharon Brous decides to move on from her current role and they need to hire a replacement, USCJ might come calling, but that seems awfully late.
These cases bring home two main messages: 1. USCJ has not adapted to support communities with atypical structures or goals, particularly if they have knowledgable congregations. 2. USCJ is not useful to new communities getting off the ground.
In the past few years, USCJ has significantly reorganized. This difficult work has primarily focused on improving services and finances so that current synagogues don’t decide to leave. Not losing members is a good start, but it is not enough. USCJ and the Conservative movement as a whole needs to figure out why a new community would want to join. I’ll give some thoughts on this topic in my next post, but I have no clue if my ideas are right and no answer is easy.