United Synagogue Youth (USY) is one of the best programs that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism runs. USY engages young Jews in their religion, connects them to Israel, and instills in them the value of caring for their community. Most importantly, it makes Conservative Judaism fun.
Recently at USY’s International Convention, regional and international leaders discussed proposed changes to the Shomer Shabbat Standard and the Interdating Standard they are required to observe. I was pleased to see the media attention focused on the issues since my personal experience motivated me to propose the amendment about the Shomer Shabbat Standard. I want to set the record straight about why I wrote the amendment, and share my thoughts about the events of the past few weeks, as my proposal was defeated.
I want to preface this all by saying that I love Shabbat- it is a highlight of my week. Singing on Shabbat, and being Shomer Shabbat, were integral to my experience at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. I learned to lead Shabbat services in part because I served for two years as the Religion/Education VP at BEANS USY (at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL) and I served on a Religion/Education committee of the CHUSY Regional General Board. On Saturday mornings, when I’m not at New Trier High School practicing with the swim team or the water polo team, odds are I’m at Shabbat services. Being Shomer Shabbat is one of my favorite parts of USY conventions. Nevertheless, I proposed amending the Shomer Shabbat Standard because I view its modernization as vital to the future of USY.
I am not aware of any other Conservative organization with comparable Shabbat observance requirements. No Shomer Shabbat Standard is imposed on the leaders of the Mens Club, the Sisterhood, the board of my synagogue, instructors in religious schools, or even the Executive Committee of USCJ. Conservative clergy are the only leaders who have to be Shomer Shabbat. Rabbi Dan Dorsch wrote an article that was published in Haaretz on December 29 where he corroborated this, and he also said that most groups of religious lay leaders across America don’t have standards like those required of USY’s leaders. USY’s Shomer Shabbat Standard does a disservice to the organization by preventing some of the best leaders in USY from helping it where it needs to improve the most- at the regional and international levels.
The requirement that USY leaders be Shomer Shabbat unfairly penalizes USYers who attend secular schools and those whose familes are not Shomer Shabbat. While a student at a Jewish high school can play on the school basketball team or take a leading role in the school musical without breaking the laws of Shabbat, students at public schools or at secular private schools are forced to choose between their school-sponsored sports, performing arts, and clubs– which often run on Shabbat– and their ability to be a regional or international leader in USY. This is fundamentally wrong on two levels. First, it’s wrong that young Jewish teens who attend secular schools are essentially being discriminated against. Second, USY is approaching the situation in precisely the wrong way, given its current membership woes. USY is currently undergoing a major membership crisis, and the most straightforward way to address it would be to recruit heavily among public school students. To increase USY’s appeal to these potential members, all leadership positions should be opened to them, regardless of whether they participate in school-related activities that require attendance on Shabbat.
I was faced with this choice when I had to decide between running for my region’s executive board, which would have required becoming Shomer Shabbat, and remaining on my public school’s swim team, which has meets on Friday evenings and Saturdays. I chose to swim, and I think many peers in my situation would make a similar choice. For USY to be able to select the best leaders, it must expand the leadership pool by allowing its leaders to pursue school-related extracurricular activities even if they sometimes meet on Shabbat. From my experience as a public school student, and as a student who’s completed seven years of hebrew school and four years of hebrew high school, when religious extracurricular activities conflict with secular extracurriculars forcing teenagers to choose, most teenagers will choose to be involved in the secular activity. They will often abandon the religious activity completely. USY itself is an example of this trend, as it is undergoing a significant decrease in its membership. One way to address this problem is to change the paradigm that forces teens to choose- let them participate in both activities! This is the reason I proposed the change in the USY Constitution with my amendment to the Shomer Shabbat Standard. Last year’s International Executive Board had the same goal- they said that a specific section of their amendment should be interpreted as allowing student athletes, artists, and club members to participate in their school-based activities on Shabbat, even if they held a position that would otherwise require them to be Shomer Shabbat. Unfortunately, that part of their amendment was not passed.
It’s unreasonable to expect a teenager to become Shomer Shabbat in a household that isn’t Shomer Shabbat, which is the case in many USYers’ homes. If one argues that the entire family should become Shomer Shabbat for the sake of this teen in USY, then they restrict the leadership pool of the organization even more by adding as a prerequisite that the leaders’ families must be willing to tolerate USY’s version of Shomer Shabbat.
Although it is unquestionably a worthy goal to aspire to uphold the Shomer Shabbat Standard, the unfortunate reality is that it is widely known that some leaders in USY make a mockery of the standard, and sometimes even make a game of wantonly violating it, as reported by Amanda Borschel-Dan in The Times of Israel on December 25, 2014. When this happens, the Shomer Shabbat Standard becomes counterproductive- instead of encouraging people to become Shomer Shabbat, it causes them to make a game and derive pleasure from violating the laws of Shabbat.
In addition, the Shomer Shabbat Standard is enforced unevenly across the seventeen regions of USY. In my region, CHUSY, which runs from northwest Indiana, through Chicagoland, up to Madison, I was told that I had to sign an contract to observe standards if I wanted to run for Regional Executive Board, and apparently the regional staff take the contract quite seriously. In many other regions, a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy has become the norm, where as long as the regional staff, international staff, and regional president don’t hear about what you’re doing, it is perfectly fine to break Shabbat. In other regions, the standard is stricter- USYers who have violated the Shomer Shabbat Standard have been asked to resign from their positions. The result of this is that some USYers are essentially penalized for living in a region that cares about standards by being prohibited from running for their Regional Executive Board. The general trend that I’ve noticed is that regions with a smaller geographical area tend to care more about their officers being Shomer Shabbat than do regions that cover extremely large areas. That should not be happening- USY standards should be enforced uniformly in every region.
On December 30, The Times of Israel published an Op-Ed piece in which Rabbi Jason Miller argued that USY is the only mainstream progressive youth group that requires its members to be observant. But he took the argument even farther- why is it such a big deal if the leaders are observant, yet nobody cares about the extent to which regular members are ritually observant? Since nobody seems to care whether average USYers are Shomer Shabbat or not, Shmirat Shabbat isn’t a core value of USY.
The only people who voted on any of the amendments at IC were USY leaders who, as a result of the positions they held, already had agreed to and were required to be Shomer Shabbat. Rabbi Dorsch, whose article I already mentioned, expressed surprise that the leaders voted to retain the Shomer Shabbat Standard, and thought that it was particularly significant. Why is he surprised? All of the USYers who voted had been conditioned through their experience as leaders to think that the leadership should be Shomer Shabbat! The results of the voting at International Convention reflect what the leadership of USY wants, not what USY’s members want.
USY should have communicated with its regular members about the amendments. While the proposed change to the Shomer Shabbat Standard would only have an immediate impact on the leadership, the current wording of the Shomer Shabbat Standard forces anybody who’s considering running for high office in USY to really think about whether being Shomer Shabbat is something they want to do, and therefore the entire membership should have been consulted more on the issue. When USY formed a task force of USYers and other people involved in Conservative organizations to study the amendments’ potential impacts, the only USYers on the task force were in positions that required them to be Shomer Shabbat. The USY Constitution provides a mechanism for amending itself that would have allowed the delegates at International Convention this winter to vote on the amendment. Had the amendments been considered using this mechanism, the results of the vote would have much more closely represented what USY’s members want their officers to be doing, as opposed to what forty-two people who are at the height of their ‘careers’ as leaders in USY want their successors to be doing.
There are many Jewish teens who want to strengthen their religious connections and commitments, continue their Jewish education, and work toward becoming the leaders of tomorrow’s Jewish community. Many of us also have other important commitments at our schools. USY should embrace every single committed Jewish teen, encourage and motivate us, and provide inspirational programming that naturally facilitates our desire to increase our their observance of the rituals and laws of Shabbat. But forcing Jewish teens to choose between upholding the Shomer Shabat Standard and taking a major leadership role in USY, on the one hand, or participating in high school extracurricular activities, on the other hand, will make teens feel that they are giving up something important no matter what they choose. This is unlikely to inspire the next generation of Jewish leaders that our community needs. My amendment challenges USY to find a way to inspire Jewish teenagers to create a life where the secular and the sacred can coexist.
Ultimately, an amendment encouraging Shabbat observance without penalizing teens for participating in school-sponsored activities needs to pass for USY to remain relevant in the lives of Jewish teenagers. I will end my time in USY knowing that I did my best to serve the organization and to make USY better.