Steven Gotlib
Steven Gotlib

A Conservative Judaism for the next generation?

Rabbi Ashira Konigsburg, COO of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly recently wrote a Times of Israel blog post asking a very important question: “What do synagogues and other institutions of our [Conservative] movement need to do more consistently in order to embrace this new generation?” R. Konigsburg answered with the following suggestions: 

  1. Meet Jews where they are. 
  2. Focus on relationships. 
  3. Provide individualized services. 
  4. Invest in technology. 
  5. Embrace diversity.

While I personally agree with everything on this list, I can’t help but notice the omission of a uniquely Jewish language. There is no mention at all of the concepts such as Torah, Avodah, Chesed, Mitzvot, or Tikun Olam. The Conservative synagogue in which I had both my bar-mitzvah and my wedding, the Ramah camp I attended, the USY program I traveled across the United States with, and the MASORTI on Campus Shabbatons I participated in were radically accepting of people who chose to practice Judaism in their own unique ways, but they all stressed these essential concepts and imbued in me a love for them that has stuck with me across multiple denominational lines throughout my life thus far. 

Although I have not found myself in Conservative spaces for quite some time, I cannot help but feel distressed at the direction I have seen my former religious home move in. Such pain is only made worse by the fact that a look at the big picture reveals today’s situation to be entirely avoidable with the right priorities. 

In the concluding chapter of The New American Judaism, JTS professor Jack Wertheimer quoted several assumptions currently being made about where American synagogues go wrong. “Synagogues need to start seeing themselves as businesses,” “synagogues don’t provide sufficient room for individual spirituality,” “synagogues are irrelevant for young people,” and “synagogues need to learn how to cater to today’s busy and distracted generation.”

However, noting the success of Orthodox outreach (did you know there are twice as many Orthodox outreach workers in America as there are rabbis serving all non-Orthodox denominations combined?) as well as new initiatives within Liberal Judaism such as independent minyanim and pop-up spiritual communities, he moved on to suggest a set of six guiding emphases that would “have a more lasting impact on religious participants” than the suggestions he encountered. 

  1. Frequency of participation in religious life matters. 
  2. Judaism is a religion that can and should be observed in all settings, not just in a synagogue on certain days. 
  3. It takes a synagogue community to create and strengthen a social support system for broader Jewish religious life. 
  4. Those who contend that the ethnic (and particularistic) dimension of Jewishness is not only passe but also unnecessary ignore the power of Jewish peoplehood to provide religious meaning. 
  5. Judaism is sustained by religious (lingual and traditional) literacy. 
  6. In our age, it is more important than ever for Jewish religious expression to be guided by intentionality.

Based on these six emphases, Wertheimer concluded  The New American Judaism with the following lines:

In our current age when hyper-individualism reigns and so many Jews imagine it necessary to recast their distinctive religion in “universal” terms, the rebuilding of Judaism will require a renewed appreciation for Jewish memory, community, and particularistic content. American Jews might well find sustenance and inspiration in these old/new commitments as they create the next iteration of new/old Judaism.

Others have noticed this too. For example, in Remix Judaism Professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall wrote that “it is highly likely that both the individuals and the communities of which they are a part will be successful in transmitting meaningful, specific elements of Jewish tradition” only if those elements are specifically selected, brought into their lives consistently, and imbued with a sense of deep personal meaning. 

This realization has come to prominent members of the conservative clergy as well. Take, for instance, the 2019 Yom Kippur sermon delivered by Park Avenue Synagogue’s Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove in which he stressed the importance of doing mitzvot: 

The positive and open expression of your Jewish self: that is the argument for a mitzvah… It is an offer, an invitation, perhaps even a challenge. Would you, by way of performing this distinctly Jewish act, this mitzvah, please self-identify as a Jew? Performing a mitzvah is a proud transformation of the universal self into a Jewish self, making manifest one’s particular identity by way of the decision of what to eat, how to structure one’s time, and how to present oneself to the world. Why should you observe mitzvot? Because doing so is the means by which you express pride in who you are and in where you came from and your hope that those who come after you will feel and do the same. There is no greater act of Jewish self-assertion, empowerment, and hope than the performance of a mitzvah. To do a mitzvah is to take agency for your spiritual life.

In another, earlier sermon, Cosgrove wrote that “Jews will or won’t grow Jewishly, but they are far more likely to do so if they believe that the religion being proclaimed is authentic, not some watered-down virtual reality… Judaism has been set back on its heels for far too long. It is passion, not accommodation, that Jews want, ritual not reason, authenticity not excuses.”

I may no longer identify as a Conservative Jew, but I find myself in tremendous pain watching the movement I once so happily called my religious home to suffer. The writing on the wall is clear: even the best business model in the world is destined to fail if it eliminates the unique language of Judaism. If there is to be a North American Conservative Judaism for the next generation, it must be one that makes good on its name and actually conserves the aspects of our religious tradition and language that have successfully inspired so many within its ranks to proudly identify as Jews in camp, on summer programs, and in high schools and universities around the country with a sense of passion, purpose, and authenticity. If it continues to fail in that regard, one can only hope that other spaces can pick up the pieces in healthy and productive ways. 

About the Author
Steven Gotlib is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University's Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, where he recently earned a certificate in mental health counseling in partnership with the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology. He previously studied Communication and Jewish Studies at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
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