I have been following from afar the debate about the new Strategic Plan for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Below are some thoughts about its implications for the movement's future.
“I know synagogues are important - they are the "bread and butter" of USCJ. But if you don't put adequate resources into the 18-30 age group there will be very few synagogues left to serve.” That simple wisdom was offered as a comment on one of the “message boards” currently debating the draft of the Strategic Plan for USCJ. I hope it is heeded.
About Koach, the movement’s Hillel presence, the plan says: “While the Conservative movement cannot abandon Conservative Jewish college students, it needs a more effective vehicle than the current Koach program.” What is suggested are “highly focused interventions.” About the Conservative Yeshiva at the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem, largely serving post-college young adults, the plan calls for a “an independent blue ribbon commission to undertake a complete strategic review of the Fuchsberg Center in Israel, including its relationship to USCJ.” To be fair, the plan hasn’t yet cut either program, but Koach and the Conservative Yeshiva are on the chopping block – both of their funding could be gone in a year or two. Yet college students and post-college young adults represent the future for a movement that sorely needs one.
“Conservative congregations face financial stress, declining and aging membership, narrow leadership base, weak denominational commitment,” the plan acknowledges,” and a loss of meaning for many young people.” Wouldn’t programs for college students on campus and for young adults learning in Israel be the last things you’d want to cut? Students at the Conservative Yeshiva find deep meaning in Jewish life, possess (for the time being) a strong commitment to Conservative Judaism, and, as passionate and Jewishly knowledgeable young people, represent the future leadership of Conservative synagogues. They possess the potential to serve as a powerful link to the next generation of membership.
In reconstituting USCJ’s leadership, the plan says, “the majority of the leaders of the new USCJ should be drawn from a pool of philanthropic investors who are capable of, and motivated to, making [sic] significant investments in the new USCJ.” Those funders will be less motivated by “highly focused interventions” than by big ideas that represent a vision for the future. They will give larger sums for big, innovative projects; they are unlikely to invest in leaner, “focused” versions of what has not worked before.
Why not create Koach co-ops on campus where Conservative Jews can replicate the energy and passion of Ramah summer communities by living, eating (kosher), praying and learning together? Rather than compete with Hillel, as many Chabad houses do, these co-ops can partner with Hillel on campus to strengthen Conservative minyanim and foster stronger Jewish life on campus. Similar to how Kollel and Chabad couples in the Orthodox community are dispatched to campuses and communities as role models who exemplify for college students and young adults what the next stage of engaged Jewish life can look like, graduates of the Conservative yeshiva could be paid to return to live in these co-ops. Having obtained text and prayer skills from a year or two in yeshiva, and with the availability of internet distance learning, these graduates can continue their own learning while supporting Jewish life on campus.
Similarly, why not create kollels at Conservative synagogues where groups of yeshiva alumni can receive stipends to live together in homes or apartment buildings within walking distance of existing congregations? Once rooted in the community, they can support the daily minyan, host Shabbat dinners (especially for new young members), teach texts about social action, organize service projects such as soup kitchens and community gardens, and form the backbone of a creative, young religious school staff?
The vitality of the Orthodox world today is largely due to young adults in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are products of the yeshiva—a place where participants worship together, live together, form a dynamic religious community, and most importantly, study together. Conservative yeshiva alumni represent a powerful, yet untapped resource for the movement’s future. USCJ would be wise to dream big about how to strengthen, not cut, its relationship with its yeshiva in Jerusalem. Conservative yeshiva alumni can support the movement’s college students on campus and the revitalization of its existing synagogues. Those synagogues should be USCJ’s bread and butter, but the raw ingredients must come from somewhere.