Sleight of Hand: Reflections from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Centennial

This past week I attended the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Celebration, commemorating the 100th anniversary of its founding by Solomon Schechter. The event attempted to look forward to the future of the Conservative movement, considered imperiled by many. In honor of Solomon Schechter’s belief that Judaism and Jewish knowledge should be the common possession of all Jews (not just their clergy and leadership), I’d like to share a suggestion about the way forward for Conservative Judaism.

My thoughts are focused specifically on the question of Conservative Jewish life in college, after last year’s highly publicized defunding of the movement’s college group, Koach. Let’s call it the sleight of hand theory. In magic tricks that employ sleight of hand, the goal is for the audience to look in one place, when everything is actually happening somewhere else. In the case of Koach, the conventional wisdom is that if USCJ does not devote significant funds to creating a positive Conservative college experience, then students will not be able to live Conservative lives in college and they’ll drift – either to a different movement, or away from Judaism completely.

Reflecting on my own university experience, it is clear that the Modern Orthodox community at Columbia University is stronger than the Conservative community, a phenomenon seen at many campuses across the country. If one is strong while the other is weak, and the conventional wisdom is correct, then the Modern Orthodox community must be exceptionally well-funded, right? Except the Orthodox Union, USCJ’s counterpart to the right, doesn’t spend any money on the Orthodox community at Columbia and Barnard at all. In fact, the most you’ll see at any school is the occasional Orthodox rabbi or micro-grant. So where does their power come from?  From the students themselves! From their energy, drive, passion, and excitement for Jewish life.

We’ve been looking in the wrong place all along!

The Modern Orthodox students at Columbia and Barnard exude a powerful sense of authenticity and competence in their Jewish abilities. This confidence does not come from any outside funding, and to suggest so would be disrespectful to their efforts, and to the power of their upbringing. It comes from the educational grounding they received before college – from their synagogues, rabbis, day schools, camps, and from their gap year experiences in Israel. Parallels to all of these institutions and experiences exist in the Conservative Movement, but we don’t promote them nor take advantage of them in the same way.

Can this problem be solved? Can Conservative Judaism imbue its young people with a sense of Jewish literacy and competence? I say yes! It begins with a focus on improving supplementary schools to the point where students graduate having learned not just the aleph-bet, but having acquired a sense of confidence in their Jewish abilities, and the curiosity to know more. Yes, revitalizing Hebrew school education is a huge job and would require quite the culture shift, but that is where the vast majority of Conservative youth are educated, so that is the natural place to begin.

But it doesn’t end there; we must also focus on improving the value of Schechter day schools by strategizing ways to lower tuition and improve the quality of the education. We must support United Synagogue Youth (the youth movement that is that undisputed crown jewel of USCJ) and help build ties between USY and Ramah camps so that they can truly complement each other and provide year-round Jewish experiential education. Finally, we must promote and diversify Nativ, the terrific Conservative gap-year program, so that more students get the opportunity to solidly root themselves in Conservative Judaism before getting to college.

This all will have two tremendous benefits:

First, in this new model, every Conservative college student across the country will have been exposed to the texts and traditions needed to empower them to live Jewishly. They will know what it is they want and need out of a Jewish experience in college and will either be able to satisfy that need with Orthodox, Reform, and pluralistic options (while retaining a strong sense of Conservative self for their post-graduation years), or (even better!) they will have such a strong confidence in their Jewish worldview that they will work to create their own Conservative community and provide a home for other Conservative Jews on their campus.

Second, it is my understanding that synagogues are clamoring for more services from USCJ in return for their dues payments. This new model devotes time, money, and educational resources to synagogues on both an individual and a collective basis. This would undoubtedly feel better to synagogues than the defunct Koach model. In that model, a synagogue might look at a vibrant Conservative college community – funded by USCJ – and consider it a waste of money because there are few, if any, members of their synagogue who attend that college. They would surely see improvements to their synagogue’s supplementary school, on the other hand, as a re-investment of their dues money into their own community.

How do we bring about this vision?

It begins with devising a full academic superstructure that we expect of all Jewish students. At Columbia, we call this the Core Curriculum. Students encounter the same texts – literary, philosophical, musical, and artistic – during their encounter with the Core. They wrestle with difficult ideas and debate their fellow students on the merits of one understanding or another. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if the brightest minds of the Conservative movement were convened to create a Conservative Core Curriculum? This curriculum, in alternating and complementary forms, would be embraced by all educational arms of the movement, educating and empowering each generation with the central texts, ideas, and challenges of the Jewish people.

Sound hard? Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of JTS, had this to say in his opening remarks at the Centennial: “Listen hard to Schechter’s warning that we not sacrifice our children’s Judaism in order to preserve our current notion of how things have to be.” Let’s not shy away from something simply because it is not what we have done in the past, or the easiest thing to accomplish. This compelling Core will revolutionize Jewish education, keeping students engaged and attending through the end of their high school years.

Only then, when students are graduating from our educational system – school, USY, and Ramah – confident in their synagogue skills and knowledgeable about Jewish life, and when rabbis and synagogue leaders are actively modeling passionate Jewish living and engaging their constituencies in Jewish learning, then will we be fulfilling our duty to the Conservative movement and to ourselves.

Maybe then we can make some magic of our own.

About the Author
Seffi is a Jewish professional living in New York City. He holds degrees from Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He proudly calls New Jersey home. Yes, proudly. All opinions expressed are my own.