I know it’s been awhile since I wrote a blog post. I guess I just haven’t had anything so say. (Real reason: discovering ‘Arrested Development” for the first time. Late, I know.) And this post will not be interesting to my legions of general interest fans. This is a little bit inside baseball, but if a Conservative rabbi can’t write a faux-insider take on the Conservative Movement, then who will do it? A note of caution before I begin: I know personally many of the people involved in the decisions I am talking about, but I know none of them very well, and I have spoken to none of them, or really anybody in any leadership capacity about this. These are my personal and uninformed musings. Also: it’s long. Consider yourself warned.
The Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism, located on some prime real estate in Jerusalem, has always been a bit of an odd and confusing institution. Although there is a Conservative Judaism in Israel (called Masorti) and although the Fuchsberg Center is “for Conservative Judaism” and in Israel, the Fuchsberg center is not affiliated with Masorti. The Fuchsberg Center, as I understand it, is the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Israel institution. The raison d’être , which is right at the top of the really bad 1990s era website that seems endemic to Conservative Movement institutions is, “Conservative Jews from all over the world visit the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for study, guidance, fellowship and hospitality and above all to be exposed to the Israel Experience.” So that’s what the Fuchsberg center is. It’s the USCJ’s arm in Jerusalem.
Part of the Fuchsberg Center is the Conservative Yeshiva, one of the very few Conservative institutions that people, and particularly people under the age of 50, feel strongly about. (Ramah, and, to a lesser extent, USY, are the others. Don’t get me started on how USY and Ramah are separate arms of the Conservative Movement’s youth program.) For over a decade, the Conservative Yeshiva’s Rosh Yeshiva was Rabbi Richie Lewis, about whom many people (myself included) have many positive feelings. Indeed, it is hard to find a person who went through the CY over the past ten years or so who did not feel that Rabbi Lewis was an essential part of the experience of studying at the Yeshiva.
Long story short: the Fuchsberg center, under whose auspices the CY operates, recently eliminated the Rosh Yeshiva position and therefore cut ties with Rabbi Lewis. From the point of view of the Yeshiva, this was a terrible decision. But, as I will endeavor to argue, there is a deeper problem here that Rabbi Lewis’ departure clarifies: this decision exposes the deep weakness of the current institutional model of the Conservative Movement. As such, I do not think blaming the professional leadership of the Fuchsberg Center of the United Synagogue really gets at the more fundamental concern: the Conservative Movement is, at this moment, set up to fail in the future. This is not the fault of an individual; it’s the fault of a system. And we need to change the system.
The core problem is this: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is funded largely through assessments on synagogues. It is a membership organization of institutions, not individuals. And what that means is that the interests of the institutions it serves are paramount in all decision making. There is a lay board of the USCJ and individual board members may have their own interests and concerns, but the primary function of the USCJ is to serve Conservative Synagogues. This inevitably leads to the following conclusion: the USCJ is far more concerned about serving its constituents in the present than it is about serving possible future members of those constituents. If you take a look at the Strategic Plan (PDF) the USCJ produced in 2011 you will note that the “core functions” of the USCJ are described in largely present-tense terms: efforts to help build and expand existing congregations (or kehillot, as the Movement now insists they be called.) Yes, there is some hand waving towards “seeding and nurturing new kehillot” but there can be no doubt from this document that the main function of the USCJ is to serve its current membership—current synagogues and their members.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the plan, not in theory, and not in practice, as least as far as Conservative synagogues are concerned. But you can see immediately how this focus leads to decisions like the one made about Rabbi Lewis: the Conservative Yeshiva is great, but it is simply not a core function of the USCJ. Therefore, the USCJ and Fuchsberg announced that they wanted to be the CY to be financially independent, which is another way of saying: we do not prioritize this program. The exact same thing happened with KOACH, the college program of the USCJ. KOACH received a funding reprieve, but the language the USCJ is using about KOACH going forward is the same: independence. Again, this is simply a question of priorities: the USCJ could shift resources away from serving current communities and into areas like KOACH and the CY, but it won’t because the institutions that pay the bills at the USCJ do not see a significant return from those sorts of investments, at least not in the short term. So, in the absence of dedicated dollars from the USCJ coffers, KOACH and CY have to raise their own funds.
This dynamic also helps explain why little or no money in the Conservative Movement goes to outreach of any sort. We don’t really do outreach: not in Israel, not on college campuses, not at all. Outreach dollars are future investments, and they require a commitment to spending on things that will not rebound soon, if at all, to the benefit of the funders—in this case, the synagogues. Because the folks served by the likes of KOACH and the CY do not immediately become members of Conservative synagogues, if they do at all, it is an entirely rational decision to downplay the importance of those efforts.
What of this means is that the USCJ, as currently constituted, is simply not institutionally capable of making investments in these sorts of outreach programs. And neither is the Rabbinical Assembly, Ramah, JTS, or any Conservative Movement institution in America. Perhaps if one these groups were awash in money there could be a runoff to these sorts of efforts, but in tight times, there simply is not going to be money in the Movement for serious outreach efforts.
Of course, in the long term, this is a disastrous situation. If we do not engage people on college campuses or in Israel, then where, pray tell, will we find them? The Conservative Movement does not, to put it mildly, enjoy wonderful a wonderful brand in the Jewish world. It is therefore important for people to have positive, meaningful, and transformative experiences with the name Conservative attached to them. Great outreach can do that. Poorly funded, poorly executed, poorly run outreach will simply have the opposite effect.
I do not know the solution, but something needs to change. Perhaps a new Conservative Institution needs to arise whose sole goal is outreach: KOACH, the CY, young Conservative rabbis going places we never go. Or maybe Ramah is the right existing address for this effort, given its extensive lists of staff and campers. But the USCJ will never be able to really take on the outreach effort, and the sad cases of KOACH and the Conservative Yeshiva have made that fact abundantly, painfully clear. The only question now is where we go from here. Because when it comes to real outreach with an eye toward the future, here is really nowhere. And if we spend too long in nowhere, then nowhere will be our fate.