And the children shall lead them

And the children shall lead them

In early January, METNY USY sent out an email to its members and their parents telling us that the organization was “about to receive a facelift.” This revamping would eliminate area divisions and cause the region to operate as a single unit.

While that probably doesn’t mean much to most people, it meant a great deal to the teens who make up the United Synagogue Youth membership in the area. METNY USY represents the Metropolitan Region of New York for United Synagogue Youth, the Conservative movement’s youth program. There are 17 other regions, which represent such areas as the southwest United States, the southern states, the Midwest, New England and Easter Canada, to name a few. Only METNY, however, has divisions, which break the larger region into smaller, workable units. Within those divisions are chapters that represent individual shuls.

Or as my daughter explains it again and again to her father, “METNY is the cookie. Inside the cookie are four big chocolate chips, Koach, Rakevet, Chazak and Kiryah. They are divisions. Inside the chocolate chips are small bits of candy, and those are your chapters for each shul.”

They got rid of the chocolate chips and left the little bits of candy inside the cookie, right? What’s the big deal?

Probably not much. But scratch the surface, and you will see that United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which serves as an umbrella organization for Conservative congregations across North America, acted as so many Jewish organizations do, without getting any buy-in from those whom the decision will affect most.

The decision came as a surprise not only to the teens and parents receiving the email, but also to the adult leadership of the divisions, who only heard about it shortly before it was announced to us all.

The whole thing ended up with an unpleasant sense of prescriptive Judaism. That top knows best, and you kids certainly don’t. And that was a huge mistake.

The decision may well be a necessary one, but involving the teens in the process would have gone a long way toward making it easier for them to swallow. When United Synagogue held a “town hall” meeting at Orangetown Jewish Center shortly after the email went out, the USYers noted this over and over again. In fact, we adults could learn a lot from them, their passion and how thoughtfully they presented themselves to the adults on hand.

Some expressed their concern that numerous leadership opportunities would be lost for future participants. While USYers would still be able to serve on chapter boards, directing their own kehillah, as USCJ likes to refer to congregations now, there would no longer be divisional leadership opportunities in between that and the leap to regional office. They cited the organization’s constitution, saying that USCJ ignored the very bylaws by which the youth group operates. Change on this level, according to the constitution, should be voted on by the divisional presidents. (I’m guessing USCJ didn’t think divisional presidents would vote to put themselves out of office?)

What struck me most about the young men and women who spoke, and the other USY participants and alumni, who came to support them, was how on message they were. They had it right when they told off the adults present: This was the group designed to raise a next generations of Conservative Judaism’s leadership and the grown ups who should be role models instead had just disenfranchised them from the process.

We know that liberal Judaism is suffering greatly, with decreasing numbers joining or even participating in its institutions, and those members who remain, are an aging lot. In this issue of the newspaper, for example, we have a story on how two of Rockland County’s Reform congregations are exploring merger. Contraction and consolidation have become an ever-louder drumbeat in the liberally religious streams of Judaism.

USY, along with the Ramah camping movement, is something the Conservative movement does right; it engages teenagers and hooks them on the idea that Judaism is active and fun. For those who get hooked there remains an abiding devotion. Many of the adults at the OJC town hall meeting had grown up within the USY movement and spoke proudly of what USY had given them in terms of Jewish identity and leadership training.

Yet despite the seeming success of USY for those who do join, our METNY region has seen its numbers decline from 4,000 participating youths in 1990 to 1,000 today. And clearly, not every Jewish teen who goes through their Conservative synagogue’s bar or bat mitzvah mill ends up a USYer.

Obviously, parents who are not joining or staying connected to synagogues themselves don’t have teens who will ever be in shul, much less become part of a youth movement chapter. And if we don’t reach the kids who do belong to synagogues already, then we aren’t going to reach those who could be the best potential advocates for future engagement.

The Koach division, which includes chapters from Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Rockland Counties, and Greenwich, Conn., is a still-vibrant division, able to rally nearly 250 teens to a kinnus weekend at New City Jewish Center two years ago, where teens sing, pray, debate and discuss Judaism from just prior to Shabbat through Sunday morning. Koach means strength, and the division is strong, as large as some of the regions in other parts of the country. But who knows for how long it will remain so. Unless something shifts dramatically in how people affiliate and what we do to attract them, the non-Orthodox streams of Judaism do not represent its future.

The process about what to do with the METNY region youth groups began a couple of years ago with meetings that involved the areas youth commissioners. Those meetings stopped after only a few sessions. Then suddenly members were presented with a fait accomplis.

Jewish organizations are not always the best listeners. We tend to be top heavy and dictate change from above. Perhaps we are no different than other organizations, but it has always struck me that Jewish groups often excel at a “we know what’s best for you” attitude, even when it’s clear that the top doesn’t know any better than the rest of us what the path forward for success should look like. If they did truly know better how to combat the problems we face, would our liberal streams of Judaism and the other organizations like JCCs and federations, all be struggling so much?

All processes cannot be purely democratic; it would be hard to for organizations to work well if the staffs or lay leadership had to consult all members or participants to make any decision. That would not be an effective way to operate, and of course that is why leaders are elected and staffs are hired to lead. However, in a large organizational shift such as the one METNY is about to undertake, asking both the adult and teen divisional leadership to participate would have gone a long way toward softening the feeling that the kids are losing something valuable and important. If they had been involved in the process, they might have had more buy in.

An actual process would also have given USCJ a chance to explain its reasoning. It could have voiced how eliminating the tribal nature of its youth group – which fostered friendly competition and always seemed like one of its strengths – was going to fix anything at all.

There were teens at the town hall meeting who understood this, just as they understood that the very organization that had been shaping them to lead and cultivating their independent and creative thinking, no longer wanted to hear from them. It is indeed prescriptive Judaism, but a shortsighted fix that will fail to cure what ails us in the long run.

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