Focus on the people


“I don’t care what the survey said; I’m a proud Conservative Jew.”

That was said by Jewish educator and author, Ron Wolfson during Monday’s session of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism Centennial conference, but it just as well could have been said by me. And when he began to joke about Monday, Wednesday, Sunday Hebrew school and reminisced about being in the youth choir and standing on the bima in the long, blue choir robes and singing, I was back there, in Hebrew school, on the bima, singing my solo. And when he began the USY cheer he had written so many years ago, a distant memory I had long ago forgotten, filed me with such warmth. It was the warmth of my childhood congregation.

I’ve attended many conferences during my tenure at the paper, but this one was different. This one felt like home. I must admit that I went with a highly critical attitude — just what was my beloved denomination going to do to save itself? The number of attendees was triple that of their usual conference. Yes, it was in Baltimore — a location easily accessible to the large population of East Coast Conservative Jews. Yes, it was the Centennial — a number, that as my childhood rabbi, Sidney Greenberg of Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pa., would have said is “a very important number.” But I believe attendance was up because, even before the Pew study, there are enough of us who know that we are at a critical moment in our movement’s history. At this point, it’s do or die.

But it didn’t feel like that when I was there. It felt like a reunion. A woman came up to me who had been my sister’s school friend. She now works for USCJ. People from every stage of my Jewish life were there. Every time I turned, there was a familiar face. I was connected. I was home.

And this is exactly what I heard repeated throughout the seminars — forget programming, focus on people.

There was a story, again from Wolfson, about a woman who attended countless programs at her synagogue. After years, she quit. When asked why, she replied, “I went to everything. I met no one.”

That message hit home. I remember my days as a board member of Congregation B’nai Tzedek, here in Potomac. Each month, we’d review the list of new congregants and the list of those who had left. Too many times, the reason for leaving was lack of friends. And don’t mistake me here. I am in no way calling out B’nai Tzedek. Just the opposite, many of the suggestions made directly to the rabbis at the conference — invite congregants to your home for Shabbat, call them just to have coffee, reach out to them during times of crisis and joy, my rabbi has done and continues to do. But still, it’s not enough.

I am concerned that too much of the burden of creating the change has been placed on our rabbis. Let’s be honest, there are many congregants who screen those calls, who aren’t interested in connecting with their rabbis. There are too many members of Conservative shuls who are members because that’s the way they were raised and that’s what their parents want them to do. And here is the crux of the problem — it doesn’t work if one is doing something out of guilt or because one’s parents would want them to. I truly believe that we prioritize only that which we feel ownership. This is what I have argued for years about our youth group — let the kids run it — let them feel like it’s theirs. And this is why our youth group, the one I grew up and was a leader in, is struggling.

But how do we get my generation (or perhaps it’s too late), how do we get the next generation to feel Conservative Judaism is theirs? Social action? Tikkun olam? That’s the domain of the Reform Movement. Tradition? Torah? Orthodox. We are somewhere in the middle. A little of this, a little of that. And, quite honestly, that’s what I love. For me, it’s just right. Not too hot. Not too cold.

But I also grew up in the warmth of the movement — Hebrew school Monday, Wednesday Sunday. On the bima, singing with the choir on Saturday. My friends were my fellow USYers. My parents were on the board. The tunes of the prayers are as familiar and comforting as lullabies.

Have I given my children the same connection? Have I done enough? Will my grandchildren have a USCJ conference to attend, let alone a Conservative congregation to belong to?

I don’t know. But I pray for it to be so.

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