Friday, December 24, 2004

More Trouble for the Conservative Movement

The lead story last week in The Jewish Week told of the financial problems faced by the Jewish Theological Seminary, the central institution of the Conservative movement. This is one more piece of bad news for what not long ago was the largest of our denominations, a sector of American Jewry that seemed to be in good condition. There was a second item pointing in the same direction, it being an ad announcing the formation of the New Jewish Academy in Worcester, Massachusetts. NJA will be a K-8 pluralistic day school that is being advertised as the successor to the local Solomon Schechter School. Put otherwise, one more Conservative day school will soon be gone, adding to the roster of those that have closed.

There is a double loss in this. From every Jewish perspective - curriculum, ambiance and religious outcomes - Solomon Schechter schools are superior to Community day schools. There are Community schools that have maintained a high degree of tradition but they are under siege and their character is changing, as is evident in Florida at one of the largest of such schools where, as elsewhere, local community leaders have exerted pressure to go easy on the Judaics and to re-market the institution as Jewish lite.

The decline in traditional belief and practice among most of the half of American Jews who maintain a sense of identity - the other half have walked away entirely - is a major feature of contemporary American Jewish life. We have come to believe that the best strategy for preventing further losses is to tailor Judaism to meet the lowered commitment of most of those who remain in the fold.

Inevitably, day schools and the Conservative movement, as well as other mainstays in our communal life, are affected by the changing character of American Jewry. We are witness to a dynamic process in which the Jewish character of non-Orthodox schools and the Conservative movement has diminishing appeal for those whose Judaism is being defined downwards. Therefore we have fewer Solomon Schechter schools, Conservative synagogues are merging or closing down altogether, and there is a decline in the number who identify with the movement. Worse yet, it appears certain that more bad news lies ahead. All of this is demoralizing and adversely affecting the capacity of Conservative leaders to turn things around.

What is happening is a serious problem for all of us - specifically including the Orthodox - because those who are defecting are overwhelmingly moving toward weaker commitment and less involvement. This does not bode well for Israel and will further complicate the challenges facing those who are engaged in kiruv or outreach.

The Conservative movement needs leadership and vision, which means that it needs people at the top who can inspire others to give and to act. It has gotten by on organizational arrangements that are inherently weak because its ranks were greatly swelled by Orthodox defections. This membership source has mostly - but not entirely - dried up, with the children and grandchildren of the ex-Orthodox themselves becoming ex-Conservative.

Demographic realities suggest that there is scant prospect that the outflow can be reversed, that even if the movement adjusts its standards to conform to the lower Judaic commitment of the remnants of our people, there will be few in the near term who will embrace Conservatism as a consequence. The Reform movement and our secular organizations have successfully staked their claims to the territory of low-expectation Judaism, a landscape that they have shaped.

What the Conservatives need to do and quickly is to become a movement, rather than a collection of semi-autonomous baronies that are short on cooperation and inspiration. The titular or perhaps de facto head is the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary whose primary day job is to lead that institution. The arrangement may be good enough for JTS, although reports of a financial crisis raise questions about this, but it certainly leaves the movement short-changed and short-handed.

Conservative congregational and rabbinical bodies have enormous autonomy, at times without paying heed to what is transpiring in the larger movement. This is true of the functional agencies, including the Solomon Schechter School Association, Ramah Camps and United Synagogue Youth.

The absence of central authority works well for Orthodoxy, although it generates much agita and problems, because what emerges are multiple points of vitality. This isn't true at all of the Conservative agencies. The Solomon Schechter Association is terribly underfunded and understaffed and plays a miniscule role in advocating for the expansion or strengthening of the movement's day schools. What vitality there is exists at the local level, as in Bergen County and Westchester. Local schools that are in trouble must fend for themselves, without even the benefit of a morale boost from outside.
Ramah Camps, long the pride of more traditional Conservatives, have for too long been beset by complacency and by exaggerated claims of Judaic benefits. If the Conservative movement had centralized energetic leadership, there would be more camps than the relatively small number in operation. But Ramah functions as a mostly independent organization where camp directors earn substantial salaries for easy work (while counselors are exploited) and where the attitude too often is that going to Ramah obviates the need to send the children to a Jewish day school.

Conservatives must believe more in their product and they must be prepared to invest far more than they have, both emotionally and financially. If the present drift continues, the movement's shrinkage is likely to accelerate. Are there Conservatives who are willing to step up to the plate to lead, to give, to inspire and to create?