Defining the middle ground

Defining the middle ground

Local consortium tries to brand Conservative
Judaism to boost day schools

Conservative Judaism in northern New Jersey is strong but stagnant, according to local movement leaders. They say that Conservative institutions in the area do not know how to work together, Conservative Jews aren’t sending enough of their children to Jewish day schools, and no one really knows how to define Conservative Judaism. These were the centerpiece issues that the movement was to address on a national platform at the movement’s biennial in Boston this week.

Local lay and professional leaders of the Conservative movement will be working ahead of the national curve to tackle those problems when they meet at the Schechter Regional High School in Teaneck on Wednesday.

This will be the second gathering of the Consortium on Revitalizing Conservative Jewish Life in Northern New Jersey, a group created to boost enrollment in the area’s three Conservative day schools — the Gerrard Berman Solomon Schechter Day School in Oakland, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County in New Milford, and Schecter Regional High School.

The three schools have approximately 500 students combined, and Schechter Regional, the newest of the three and the only high school, has 63, a number the three-year-old school wants to more than double in five years.

But when the consortium first met last month, bringing together about 15 rabbis, educators, and Conservative professionals, it became clear that boosting school enrollment was not going to be solved through typical measures such as advertising and synagogue announcements, said Schechter Regional principal Rhonda Rosenheck.

"We started asking, ‘What is day school enrollment a piece of?’" said Rosenheck, who started the consortium with a grant to hire a consultant from the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education.

When the PEJE consultant, Dr. Bennett Neiman, started interviewing local leaders last month, the root of the day school dilemma became clear.

"The rabbis told me that they all have the same problem, that Conservative Judaism has no real identity, with young people especially, and that is stifling. It is dead," said Neiman, who interviewed some ‘0 rabbis and officials from the Conservative movement.

While the Orthodox community is strong and visible in northern New Jersey, he said, "young people [and potential Schechter students] come out of eighth grade and they say Conservative Judaism is ‘Orthodox light.’ So they are either going nowhere, or they are all going to Frisch or Ramaz. Being a Conservative Jew is confusing. It doesn’t look very appealing, so why not be the real deal and be Orthodox?"

Neiman said that his interviews "clearly tapped a nerve"; it became apparent to him that Conservative Judaism needs to be branded and revised, because the only way that people will see the movement’s day schools as relevant is if they see the movement as relevant.

Rosenheck said that it is important for the movement to really embrace the middle ground and to stop defining itself by what it is not — Orthodox or Reform Judaism. Many Jews perceive Orthodoxy as archaic and irrelevant, she said, while Reform Judaism does not offer others enough in the way of observance.

But it’s not enough simply to say that Conservative Judaism is in the middle. The trouble is that, especially in this region, Conservative Judaism encompasses a broad and diverse spectrum, from ultra-liberal and fully egalitarian to traditional Conservative Judaism. "The world is complex, and if you seek simple answers to the complex, it creates despair," she said. "We have a mission to alleviate the tension between the extremes."

Neiman said that this is where the real difficulty arises. How do you define such a broad movement, which can appear on one extreme to be Reform and on the other to be Orthodox — especially when, "just like with everything else in northern New Jersey, everyone works in their own little fiefdom? They don’t know which way to go…. They call it a big tent, but every time you put a stake in the ground, there’s trouble."

The consortium, which, in its early stages, is a mass brainstorming, is designed to break down the walls between different Conservative institutions and to buck a territorialism that has risen as synagogues and schools vie for members.

"Congregations tend to look at themselves as individual entities involved in their own issues. They look at others as [being] in competition instead of in cooperation," said Rabbi Kenneth Berger of Cong. Beth Sholom in Teaneck. Berger said that the consortium’s first meeting was dedicated to working on exercises about how to work together. "We talked about how we can foster cooperation among the congregations. Could we develop some regional or sub-regional programs either in adult education or other areas that would break down those barriers? There is no coherence in the movement because we don’t act in concert in any way. Therefore, our presence is not felt in the larger community."

Rosenheck said that Wednesday’s meeting will be dedicated to visionary planning and that the consortium will divide into groups that will each work on long-term projects such as developing a unified mission statement and definition for the local Conservative movement, as well as inreach and outreach initiatives.

The professionals have been asked to invite lay leaders to the meeting who will work together with them on these projects. Each group will include members from a number of different institutions so that no one institution dominates any group.

Rabbis involved in the consortium are confident they can work together, said Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Temple Israel and Community Center in Ridgewood, who hopes to work on the committee that will write a Conservative mission statement.

"The whole energy of this endeavor is so positive, and as a point, it wants to transcend territorialism," he said. "That’s the key to growing ourselves. We have to think beyond the walls of our own institutions."

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