Can Conservative Judaism redefine itself?
That’s the question posed by Washington sociologist Jessica Emani in Jewish Journal this week. She notes that
According to the North American Jewish Databank, the percentage of Jews that identify as Conservative has fallen from 26% in 2012 to 18% in 2018, while the percentages of Jews that identify as Reform and Orthodox have remained steady at 35% and 10%, respectively
She argues that reluctance of Conservative congregations to accept non-Jewish spouses as full members is causing young families to leave the movement for Reformed groups, which do. She adds that young liberal couples may be put off by the term Conservative, conflating it with Donald Trump and the Republicans.
While there is logic to that, I think the truth runs much deeper.
The very first of five widely accepted Principles of Marketing is called “the product concept.”
Potential customers favor products that offer quality, performance, or innovative features.
And see here.
The Second Principal of Marketing: know your customer: You cannot be successful at selling a product or service until you know who is most likely to buy it. That is why marketing professionals put so much stock in understanding the profile of the “ideal customer” of that business.
My take: Some Conservative rabbis either don’t know what they are selling, or are selling something other than Conservative Judaism. Perhaps something other than Judaism.
My senior rabbi’s sermon on Shavuot, the holiday celebrating Israel’s receipt of the Torah and the Ten Commandments, insisted that because of the Holocaust, we now live in an age of religion with no God. There is no Covenant.
Does the typical customer for traditional Jewish experience want to hear that?
Are Conservative yeshivot producing the sort of clergy which consumers of traditional Judaism want to hear? Here is Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who has spent much of her professional life teaching and in rabbinic positions on universities, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg:
Before receiving her rabbinic ordination from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, she received her B.A. in Religious Studies from Brown University and worked in San Francisco as a freelance writer. Rabbi Ruttenberg has served as Senior Jewish Educator at Tufts Hillel, Campus Rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, Director of Education for Ask Big Questions and currently serves as Rabbi-in-Residence at Avodah, an organization dedicated to creating leaders for economic justice. (http://danyaruttenberg.net/about) has
How does someone raised in a traditional Jewish congregation react to the kind of clergy who publishes things like the following tweet? How does the student’s parents, paying over $70,000 a year to send him or her to a place such as Northwestern University, react?
“Told my non-binary 7yo
We’re going to march in Pride
this year.” Kid was super excited.
Me: “If you want you can make a
sign to put on your scooter.”
Me: “What do you want it to say?”
Kid: “Every gender matters.”
Me heart, heart, heart
Anyone is free to raise a non-binary child. The question is how broad is the market in American Jewry for this way of thinking? And does it represent traditional religious observance?
Some Conservative Jewish clergy are less focused on liturgy than in years past. Each and every service, morning, afternoon or evening, contains a segment of prayers dating back well over two thousand years and known as the Amidah. It is normally read silently by those assembled, then repeated aloud by the leader or cantor. In my congregation, it has become commonplace for clergy to suggest that the silent portion be read in Hebrew or in English, or according to the prayers of your heart.
If there is no value to prayers dating to the Second Temple, if all that needs be done is to stand quietly in august surroundings, why go to a Conservative Jewish service as opposed to a Reformed one, or a Unitarian fellowship? What is the product?
Finally, even with a product that is in demand among those more observant than Reform but less so than Orthodox, the customer base is shrinking. The average native born American woman will have 1.7 children in her lifetime. Young Jewish women are studying longer, marrying later and having fewer children than that. Factor in intermarriage and we are a people and a denomination on the way to extinction.
It would be comforting to know if Conservative clergy felt as badly about this as they do conditions for illegal aliens on the Southern border. But they don’t. Many don’t even have more than two children themselves.
For several years, I belonged to a Conservative congregation in Ann Arbor, but left because it seemed more and more like attending JStreet meetings. After attending a funeral in suburban Detroit, I joined the shul where it was held.
I belong to a Conservative congregation because the prayers I learned in childhood continue to speak to me, and I enjoy associating with people who feel likewise. I am turning 71 this summer, and am among the youngest of my synagogue friends.
The senior rabbi at our shul is young enough to be my son, and the associate rabbi my grandson. They draw from Reform Judaism’s website, from The Forward, and from Haaretz. The advice from my fellow congregants: Just ignore them. Which apparently more and more people are doing.