Yesterday, I read a wonderful blog post by Ethan Weg entitled “Where should I pray now?” I wrote a comment on his blog post, and I have decided to turn that comment into my very first blog post for the Times of Israel. I write this as an open response to Ethan, but more importantly, to other young, committed, Conservative Jews who are looking for a way to keep themselves connected with the Conservative Movement, at the same time as being able to continue to meet their spiritual needs in a way similar to what they have experienced in USY in high school, and Hillel at university.
Let me start by quoting my teacher Rabbi, Dr. Joel Roth. He was speaking at the convention of the Jewish Youth Directors Association, back in 1990 or 1991. Speaking about USY, he said “our greatest successes are often our greatest failures.” What he meant by this was that USY’s successes, USYers who go on to college and become observant Jews, often find it difficult to stay within the Conservative Movement after USY because in the Conservative congregations out there, it is hard to find a place where they will be able to find the same level of ruach, spirituality, and observance in the same way that they experienced in USY.
That was close to fifteen years ago. Today, our graduating USYers have the ability to continue their spiritual growth within a Conservative framework at the amazing Hillel Conservative communities at universities across the US. Ethan was very lucky to have such an experience at his school.
So now, after graduation, where is Ethan to go. Ethan, I want to let you in on a little secret. This is the same questions I faced just over 30 years ago when I graduated from USY. I was very involved in USY. I was elected the Religious Study Vice President of Hagalil region at the end of my junior year and served my entire senior year. I served on the International USY board in 1984. USY was a major part of my life. When I started at Rutgers University the next year, I got involved with the Hillel, but although we had a small Conservative community it was not nearly the same. Many Shabbat mornings, my friends and I would walk to the next town to go to daven at the local Conservative Synagogue. I still staffed USY programs and that certainly helped keep my “spiritual gas tank” full. After Rutgers I attended JTS for graduate school, as well as continue with USY staffing. So through 1990, just like Ethan, it was as if I had never left USY.
Finally, I graduated and moved to Baltimore, and worked as the Youth Director of a large Conservative Synagogue. Although I had USY events, this was my first experience with trying to find a community. Unfortunately, I failed. I stayed in Baltimore for three years, and although financial issues caused me to move back to NJ, there was also a sense of loneliness and lack of community that helped bring me home.
Fast forward a few years, I continued to staff USY, met my wife through staffing USY, and we joined a vibrant Conservative congregation that had a small community of like minded young couples where we felt comfortable.
Enough about me. Here is my open response to Ethan:
Ethan, outside of joining an Orthodox community, I think you have two real options and I hope you will consider both of them. I totally understand your frustration. I too, was very active in USY and involved in my Conservative Minyan at Rutgers University, albeit, almost 30 years ago (yikes!). At that time, Jewish life on the college campus was a very different beast. We did not have the vibrant active Hillels like you have now, nor the spiritual services and such.
Like you, I staffed USY (which I did for almost 20 years!) where much of my spiritual needs were met. I went to JTS for grad school which certainly helped. But after all of that was over, where did I have to turn? I had the same dilemma that you now face.
So here are the two options.
Number one, BEFORE seeking a job, find yourself a community within a Conservative synagogue framework where you feel comfortable. You may not believe it, but there are dozens of congregations out there which will likely meet your spiritual needs. My synagogue, The Highland Park Conservative Temple — Congregation Anshe Emeth, in Highland Park NJ is for certain one of them. We have a very large group of post college people coming to our services and events. Some are members and some are not, but all are welcome. Our Friday night services are filled with spirited Carlebach tunes. On Shabbat morning (without a simcha) we generally have about 300 people in shul, and I would say more than 50% of them walk there. They walk, not because they happen to live close, but because they have chosen to live near a shul where they will feel comfortable. I know that there are other Synagogues similar to ours, and perhaps you will find other choices in the comments.
Number two, find a Synagogue that has a little of what you are looking for, and try to help create something bigger. Many Conservative Synagogues are learning that they need to think out of the box when it comes to millennials like yourself. Offer to help create programs for your peer group and bring them outside of the Synagogue building. Again, I will use an example in our shul. There is a young man who did just what I suggest. He brought together a bunch of his friends, and they would do Shabbat dinners, services, and other programs in their homes and sometimes in the Synagogue. This is how some of the younger crowd came to be involved in our shul. Have a Shabbat dinner and invite the Rabbi or Cantor to come and shmooze with you. See if the Rabbi would be interested in doing an education program at a local kosher restaurant or even a larger Starbucks. There are so many ideas that you could try that would help to create the community that you are looking for within the framework of our existing Synagogues.
Both of these choices are hard. No one said it would be easy. Choosing to move to a certain town for the existing Jewish life limits you to where you can look for a job (my community is halfway between NYC and Philadelphia and many people commute to both cities), On the other hand, trying to build something that does not yet exist is a lot of work, but I can say with confidence that no Conservative Synagogue would say no to you.
So Ethan, please don’t give up! You already have resources at your hand to help you search. Ask some of the older staff members in your USY region. As some of the International USY staff. As your Hillel director or the Conservative Rabbi at your Hillel if you have one. They can all help you find a community where you will feel comfortable. If you are willing to live in New York City or other larger cities, there are already groups that will probably suit your needs within a Conservative Synagogue Framework.
So again, Ethan, please, don’t give up! What you want is out there, or is waiting for you to help it come into being. T’zei u’lmad!