Politics, Religion

Who Will Save Conservative Judaism? How About Conservative Jews?

Haaretz asks, “Who will save Conservative Judaism?”, and does a pretty good job of pointing out some flaws in the USCJ’s biennial plenary sessions, like the rather vague criticism of the movement that the leaders offer (Conservative Judaism “failing to live up to its best ideals”), and the similarly vague statement that the movement’s “detractors” don’t recognize its importance in “Jewish life.”
Really.  The best criticism these guys can come up with is that they haven’t met their ideals and that they’re underappreciated?  Having very little existing knowledge about the prior careers and current work of the leaders in question, I definitely can’t make a judgment on whether or not it’s their “fault” that the movement is, as they seem to be describing, sputtering.  The reason I point out this article is not to blame the evil establishment for guiding Conservative Judaism off the rails.  No, it’s to point out the contradiction of having a body that wants to “centralize” its leadership, as the USCJ does through the reformation of its organizational bylaws described in the article, and accomplishing said centralization by removing “governing” power from constituent synagogues, as these reformations would effect.  In other words, if you need someone to save you, don’t suddenly take away the voice of everyone except your board of directors.  As we know, boards of directors and such executive advising or decision-making bodies are notoriously bad at providing consistent advice or policy in the interest of constituents without some kind of direct responsibility to those constituents.
I’m not calling the USCJ a corrupt organization, or one that doesn’t honestly want to help its members. But I question the judgment of revitalizing a movement by astroturfing it.  Something as large and diverse as Conservative Judaism can can’t be sustained just from the top down.  The job of an organization like the USCJ should be to provide resources and assistance to smaller Conservative organizations, be they synagogues, think tanks, or independent minyans with a focus on Conservative practices.
I was raised Conservative, but with very little connection to our synagogue, a place that never really excited me that much.  I don’t feel beholden to the Conservative movement, as apparently does Yona Schulman, quoted in the article as wanting the USCJ to  “help us get our message out.”  To me, placing your ability to reach out to constituents in the hands of a distant organization you have no control over is sort of asking for stagnation or disinterest.  The Havurah movement has taught us that when people can get involved, the’re likely to assemble an organization that exists to serve them, not to define them.  When I describe the NHC to people, I say that the essence of the Havurah concept is that it’s not centralized.  It’s not a sect, it’s a social movement.  There’s no governing body.  The NHC is the manifestation of havurahniks’ desire to connect and share.  If the USCJ has a fundamentally different mission, then that’s their right.  But I’d still say it’s a mistake.

11 thoughts on “Who Will Save Conservative Judaism? How About Conservative Jews?

  1. I don’t necessarily disagree that reducing the decision-making power of the constituent synagogues is a bad (and potentially devastating) side-effect of a very necessary reorganization. However, I think you are conflating “Conservative Judaism,” “The Conservative Movement” and “USCJ,” using the terms interchangeably when they each mean something distinct.
    Conservative Judaism is an approach to Judaism. The Conservative Movement is the constellation of interconnected institutions built up around propagating that approach to Judaism. The USCJ (aka The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) is the organization built to support Conservative synagogues in North America and represent their voice to the larger movement.
    Part of the reason it’s easy to conflate these terms is that their referents themselves sometimes do so. After all, if USCJ can convince its own constituency (or better yet, the world) that they ARE the Conservative Movement, it shifts power towards them and away from the Rabbinical Assembly, the Jewish Theological Seminary, or any of the other institutions of the movement. And if the Movement as a whole can convince its constituency (or better yet, the world) that the Movement and Conservative Judaism are the same and inseparable, it reinforces the fallacy that this approach to Judaism can only exist within (and with the support of) the institutions of the Movement.

  2. @PJ Thanks, didn’t catch that.
    @dlevy Good point. The article goes so far as to mention the lack of JTS presence, which definitely supports what you’re saying about the approach to Judaism being entirely dependent on the USCJ

  3. What the article somehow neglected to mention is that Arnie Eisen did appear at the Biennial in his own program the following morning.
    (I can’t remember if it said so in the article, but buzz around the conference was that Eisen offered to participate in the panel only if he could act as moderator.)

  4. Don’t believe everything you read in the press. The whole point of the bylaws change is to make the USCJ more responsive and flexible and it’ll still have a 75 member (!!) board representing about that many synagogues. Plus the strategic plan is working with a whole bunch of stakeholders and the Hayom and Bonim coalitions- really, these are positive changes and do not represent a power grab or anything like it.
    You can say that Boards aren’t responsible to constituents, or you can say that direct governance by a large population removes the possibility of strategic thinking and difficult choices- see the bankrupt state of California for more on that.

  5. One of their big machars said during the convention something like, – we have problems but we have the best product. It appears to me that it’s only a good product for someone like him who gets flown all over the country as a scholar in residence, cashing sweet checks from desparate Conservative synagogues, while duping laity with no real Judaic studies background who can’t seriously test his theological emptiness.

  6. Kishkeman (and others) stop portraying rabbis as money-grubbing con artists. It’s not fair to them, and its unreasonable to expect people to work for free. Nobody does it, and Torah should not be held to a lower standard than anything else.

  7. The rabbi who said that he that “we have the best product” was Brad Artson, does not, in fact, spend the greater part of his time flying around the country. There are Conservative rabbis who might be insulted with the term “theological emptiness,” but R. Artson isn’t one of them- in fact, you can download hours and hours of his theological shiurim and judge for yourself.

  8. Kishkeman, those here who know me will tell you i have nothing to do either with the united synagogue or the rabbinate.

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