Having grown up in the Conservative movement in the US, and now living an essentially Orthodox life in Israel, I have had mixed feelings about the recent articles focusing on the demise of the Conservative movement. Regarding both the reality of the disintegration of the movement and the various reasons for it, everything has already been articulated better by others. What I am left with though, are mirror messages for the Conservative movement and Orthodoxy respectively, and one for both.
To the Conservative movement I would like to say: stop counting me as a failure of the movement simply because I no longer wear a Conservative sign around my neck. It is because of you, especially Camp Ramah, that I became a Jew committed to mitzvot, living in Israel, and am continually inspired by the tradition and the role I can play in it. You are the source of my yiddishkeit, and the space where I learned to nurture, strengthen, and explore it.
To Orthodoxy I would like to say: stop counting me as a success, you haven’t earned it. The fact that I am effectively Orthodox today is despite you, not because of you. On a movement-level, as much as we can look at Orthodoxy as a movement, most things you do are anywhere on the spectrum from uninteresting to offensive. My yiddishkeit found a home in Orthodoxy because of specific people, minyans, rabbis, classes, books and ideas I met on an individual level. Where grand statements, institutions, and general trends in Orthodoxy are concerned, you have done next to nothing to keep me excited about being Jewish.
And to both of you: stop being so distressed about the concept of a movement and trying to controls its borders. Rather, think seriously about whether or not your efforts are doing good for the Jewish people, society, and state, or not. If they are helping Jewish civilization grow and become stronger, or if they are splitting us apart and wasting our time constantly looking over our shoulder to the past, instead of finding inspiration for the future.
The irony is that in the shift from Conservative to Orthodox, part of why I shed my Conservative identity was out of loneliness, only to find that I am lonely in Orthodoxy too. There I was too frum and here I’m too progressive. Why does one have a monopoly on religious observance, and one have a monopoly on openness to changing social realities? I reject that.
But here’s the good news – it turns out that there are lots of other people rejecting that as well. The more closely I look, the more I find kindred souls, trying to live lives of mitzvot and aching to be in serious religious conversation with modernity and the challenges ahead of us of which there are many. These friends do not have a label, they are not organized in a movement, and they certainly do not wear it on their sleeve (or kippah/head covering). But they are there and they are grappling with their disappointment in Orthodoxy in productive ways. And perhaps that is just the point, there is real and important work being done but it is happening within Orthodoxy, quietly and slowly, and within the system. They are working in everything from minyans, to learning initiatives, to forums to meet people with different religious sensibilities than theirs, to one-on-one conversations which are dealing honestly with the big questions of our day.
And so, before Orthodoxy goes throwing any we’re-the-only-surviving-stream-of-Judaism-in-America parties, keep in mind that the reason you will survive is because you too are evolving (let’s not forget you’re not exactly winning the retention Olympics either). I might even dare say, that part of the reason you are evolving is because we have joined your ranks. We who grew up in a movement that taught us to stare modern life in the face and authentically ask what Judaism has to say about it. We who carry a slightly less heavy burden of it’s just not done that way, which might free us up to find creative ways to contribute to the conversation with the tradition.
Looking at my own Jewish life as an example might be of some use. I daven most often in a partnership minyan, I learn Gemara two days a week in a women’s program, I attend shiurim on everything from Hassidut to women’s issues in Judaism, I just completed a year-long Heschel chevruta, I am part of a forum to suggest policy ideas for reforming the Rabbinate, and I have been privileged to participate in a Think/Feel Tank with Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo about issues related to modern halachic Jewish living. In between things I listen to one of my favorite podcasts “God, Torah and Israel” by Conservative Rabbi, Brad Artson, oh, and later this evening I’m going to a performance of a religious men’s dance ensemble (yes, it’s real). Would anyone in the Conservative movement a few decades ago have been able to imagine this? Would they have called me Conservative? Orthodox? Does it matter?
I believe the real question today is why more young Jews are not finding answers in Judaism to the questions plucking at their hearts and minds. In my opinion, our tradition is overflowing with reasons to stay Jewish, with answers to the big questions in life, and a framework within which to live a life of meaning and connection with God and the others around us. Granted, I have the luxury of living in the center of the Jewish world, and so perhaps my options for engagement are more varied and deep. Still, it is my contention that the young Jews who are opting out of the tradition altogether – no matter which box they check when surveyed – are tragically mistaken if they think Judaism has nothing to offer them. The question is how to make their access points more available and more authentic. I get excited when I envision a world where every Jew is active about his or her Judaism – thinking about it, challenging it, experimenting, learning, growing – in whatever way that manifests for them.
I am of course aware that much thought and money have been poured into myriad attempts, and I am not sure what the exact answer is, but I suspect that movements are not it. Instead, maybe it’s time for some cheshbon nefesh and reflection on what the movements were trying to achieve in the first place. Maybe we need to stop counting and start accounting. Perhaps we can come together to think and pray for ways to move toward a relevant and textured conversation about Jewish life now and in the future. I, for one, think that could be really nice.