Conservative Judaism was born out of the desire to conserve authentic traditional living Judaism. That’s where its name comes from.
It was not born as a reaction to Orthodoxy but as a response to the widespread disregard for Jewish living and the lack of Jewish practice prevalent in the late 19th century, when the term first was used. The initial premise of Conservative Judaism was that its ideology and approach to Jewish living would conserve authentic Judaism. That remains our mission today.
Disaffected Conservative Jews often claim they don’t live as Conservative Jews because we are not clear about what we stand for.
What we stand for — Jewish living, observing Shabbat and holidays, maintaining kashrut, at the least — is abundantly clear. What we need is a commitment to it by Conservative Jews. We have been too timid in declaring our vision. Because we have been reluctant to educate congregants about the real message of Conservative Judaism, we should not be surprised by their lack of commitment.
Resources on how to live a Jewish life are readily available. United Synagogue has produced a wealth of materials and programs. Too few congregations, however, actively promote serious Jewish living; they fear being perceived as irrelevant or intrusive by those for whom regular Jewish behaviors and values are not yet important.
Until people join our congregations, our ability to influence them is limited. Even after they have joined, unless we consciously seize the opportunity we will have squandered the gift that their affiliation has given us. No longer can we be satisfied with simply affiliating members. We must measure our congregations by the lives they change.
We are confronted by a unique challenge. Because we quite properly perceive it to be our mission to engage the not yet committed, we tend to develop our programs solely to that end — but in doing so we often sacrifice our ideals.
Paradoxically, often we are so intent on reaching out to the uncommitted that we ignore those people who are most interested in what we stand for, and most committed to our vision and values. Dissatisfied with what we offer them, some who have been inspired to live as Conservative Jews drift to Orthodox or Chabad institutions, not out of belief or ideology but because they find there much that we could and should offer but do not. They find much that reflects the essence of Conservative Judaism.
What they are seeking in principle we should have — joyous, inspiring religious experiences in which the community seeks God together. But there is a gap between our principles and the way we implement them. Our principles are right. Our implementation must be improved.
We will not conserve Judaism without making our mission and our values the fabric of our congregations. That will require us to refocus our agenda in order to create a powerful intensity of Jewish living and learning communities within our congregations.
If we will it, we can do it. But it will require a commitment to sharpen our focus. The synagogue agenda must be dedicated to enriching those who want what Conservative Judaism has promised: an authentically rich Jewish living experience infused by Jewish texts that are interpreted by creative rabbinic scholars committed to evolutionary but binding halacha.
At the same time, if we do not reach out and inspire those who are not yet committed, we will be shirking our responsibility to the largest number of those who identify as Conservative Jews. They, too, must be engaged — not with shallow religious services, ephemeral gimmicks, or superficial educational experiences, but with rich services and education that will help them connect to God.
Our task is not to dilute Judaism by reducing quality but to conserve Judaism through heightening intensity.
To be successful will require new ways of thinking about congregational life. It will demand creative partnerships among lay leadership, clergy, and professional staff.
Congregational leaders often view their role as making congregants comfortable and responding to their requests and desires. These are important responsibilities. But Conservative congregational leaders must not follow their members as they ignore the call to grow Jewishly. Leaders must motivate congregants toward personal transformation, leading to Jewish growth.
Too few congregants today have regular contact with their synagogues. Most come for an occasional religious service, a social or cultural program, or to drop off children for religious school. We engage them too rarely to have an impact on their lives.
What would happen if a team of congregational leaders were to visit each member at home once a year? Such a home visit would provide an opportunity to communicate and directly inspire personal and tailor-made Jewish growth.
We are challenged by our congregants, who provide us with great opportunity. We must be sensitive to what they think they want, but we also must respond to their deeper needs.
Rather than merely informing congregants of the joys of Jewish life without making it clear that we expect them to experience those joys, let us develop synagogue initiatives that will inspire them. That way, as Conservative Jews we will continue to live rich, authentic, joyous Jewish lives.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein is the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.