This past Erev Shavuot, my 18-year old daughter and I were walking together to the Tikkun L’eyl Shavuot at a nearby Modern Orthodox synagogue. For the past five years, my rabbinic colleague at that synagogue has invited me to co-lead a midnight learning session with him, and my kids come along to join their friends at the teen programing.
As the child of a Conservative rabbi, my daughter has seen the ins and outs of the congregational rabbinate for her entire life. She also attended a Modern Orthodox day school from early elementary through high school, where she recently graduated as senior class president. We have always taught our three children to honor all Jews, particularly those who observe differently than we do. For years, I have explained that every Jew is on a unique derekh (path), and each moves along at their own pace. My role as a rabbi is to show them the very best that Judaism has to offer along the way, and to encourage their every step. Throughout the years, we have hosted Jews of all backgrounds around our Shabbat and holiday table.
My kids have learned not to look askance if someone checks their cell phone during dinner, or walks into our house without a yarmulke. Our message has consistently reinforced ahavat Yisrael, the paramount importance of genuinely loving our fellow Jews. They also have come to understand why I chose the Conservative rabbinate. My three kids appreciate my commitment to both serious, traditional observance and principled egalitarianism. They find the open-minded, non-judgmental religious space that we occupy to be refreshing. They respect the way their mother and I make ourselves available as role models of Jewish life, in marked contrast to how most of our congregants live. However, something my daughter said on Erev Shavuot really struck me.
Walking down the deserted street together at midnight she said, “If the Conservative movement actually looked like how it was meant to be, I would be all in.” I heard those words with a mixture of pride and despair. My daughter is in love with Yiddishkeit, the Jewish community, the State of Israel. By any measure, she is a successful product of a passionate Jewish home, Jewish day school education, and Zionist summer camp.
However, she also recognizes the fundamental flaw of Conservative Judaism: In the 117 years since Solomon Schechter arrived in America, the Conservative movement has been overwhelmingly incapable of creating communities of observant Jews who keep Shabbat and Yom Tov. Regardless of how the movement defines itself, most Jews who identify as “Conservative” do not feel bound by halakha, even in the more liberalized expressions that often characterize the movement’s hashkafah (religious philosophy).
The many erstwhile Conservative Jews we know who are members of Orthodox synagogues desire proximity to other observant Jews, with whom they can share meals, and for whom the synagogue is the center of their Jewish existence. Theology, and even egalitarianism is trumped by having a community of like-minded/like-practicing Jews.
There is nothing patently Orthodox about anything I just described. Indeed the founders and luminaries of Conservative Judaism: Schechter, Finkelstein, Ginsburg, Gordis, Heschel, Lieberman, etc. all lived lifestyles that resemble mine, but that most Jews would more readily identify as Orthodox rather than Conservative. The label “Conservative” mostly identifies a worship style rather than a lifestyle. And even that niche is losing ground.
My daughter came home from a bat mitzvah at a large Conservative synagogue in another part of the country, and described the instrumental music on Shabbat morning, almost as many English readings as Hebrew, and a service that was so reductive it was practically unrecognizable. She wondered how that synagogue and ours could both be “Conservative.” Many of my colleagues feel pressure from congregants to shorten services, abbreviate Torah and Haftarah readings, replace Hebrew with English, and utilize musical instruments, all of which will allegedly bring the masses back to shul. Of course, all such erroneous measures will do is alienate traditional members (i.e., the people who tend to come to shul most regularly), and make the service more of a passive, spectator experience than a participatory, prayerful one.
As the Conservative movement contemplates its dwindling numbers and diminished appeal in the Jewish world, perhaps my daughter’s incisive statement should be taken to heart: “If the Conservative movement actually looked like how it was meant to be, I would be all in.” Rather than diluting or jettisoning traditional practice in an effort to be all things to all people, Conservative Judaism should reclaim its founding principles, and refocus on conserving what is so holy, so wise, and so beautiful about living a life of traditional Jewish commitment in the modern world. I believe that many more Jews would be “all in” if they felt that Conservative Judaism inspired them, even challenged them, to grow and embrace more of the mitzvot that draw us closer to God, Torah, and the Jewish people. I know I am biased, but I think my daughter is really onto something…