Can the Conservative Movement Play Moneyball?

If the committed core of the Conservative Movement believes that we can make a brighter future for ourselves and the Jewish people, then we need to figure out how to separate what we know versus what we think, and use data to develop a strategy to win the future.

by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

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At the close of the 2012 presidential campaign, Nate Silver correctly predicted electoral college results in all 50 states on his election blog on the New York Times. As a news junkie, I followed Silver’s blog closely throughout the election, and became fascinated with Silver’s ability to sift through mindless political chatter and explain the trends of the campaign through a large sample of mathematical data. Several weeks ago, Silver launched FiveThirtyEight, a new website that will focus on stories about politics, sports, economics, science and other topics using what he calls “data-driven journalism.” Silver argues in his opening manifesto, entitled “What the Fox Knows,” that developing a complete understanding of a complex problem requires moving beyond personal opinions and focusing on quantifiable evidence. He writes:

“…there’s a trade-off between vividness and scalability. Narrative accounts of individual news events can be informative and pleasurable to read, and they can have a lot of intrinsic value whether or not they reveal some larger truth. But it can be extraordinarily hard to make generalizations about news events unless you stop to classify their most essential details according to some numbering or ordering system, turning anecdote into data.”

As I read Silver’s article, I could not help but think about the potential parallels between Silver’s zeal for data-driven journalism and the many attempts to explain what the Conservative Movement must do get back on track. Right now, we have a plethora of new media sources where almost anyone can publish their opinion, including Times of Israel, The Huffington Post, Kveller, jewschool, and EJewishPhilanthropy, to say nothing of hundreds of blogs from rabbis, educators, and lay leaders (in full disclosure: I’ve written articles on some of these platforms, and maintain my own professional website). When opinions are published about why the Conservative Movement has declined, the same themes inevitable emerge: our institutions are incompetent, our leaders are shortsighted, our movement is insufficiently halakhic (or too rigid, it varies), and none it matters anyway, because denominational labels do not matter and are ultimately harmful to Judaism.

I suppose any of these conclusions could be correct. However, few, if any, of the prognostications about the decline of the Conservative Movement are grounded data-driven explanations, with the author using objective evidence to try and explain the decisions of thousands, even millions, of Jews in North America. In truth, why the Conservative Movement has shrunk is a complex problem without a single cause, and complex problems cannot be solved by persuasive argument alone, as it is too easy for our own biases and assumptions to overtake the big Jewish questions today, and for the person with the loudest virtual megaphone to dominate the conversation. As a result, if the committed core of the Conservative Movement believes that we can make a brighter future for ourselves and the Jewish people, then we need to figure out how to separate what we know versus what we think, and use data to develop a strategy to win the future.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece in EJewishPhilanthropy entitled Moneyball Judaism, where I argued that the tools first made widely-known in Michael Lewis’ book about the Oakland Athletics can and should be applied to how the Jewish Community strategizes engaging or re-engaging a Jewish Community in desperate need of revitalization. Most of the reviews of my article were positive, yet a few critics rightly pointed out that a person’s religious identity is too complex to be quantified in some kind of mathematical equation. While I think that this critique was fair, the reality is that if the Conservative Movement wants to solve our wicked problems, we need to focus less on what we or others believe to be true, and use data to help us develop a movement-wide strategy based on what is actually true. Taking any other approach makes it too easy for the loudest voice, rather than the most objective answer, to drive the critical decisions we will make in the coming years that will determine whether or not Conservative Judaism has a future.

Below, I’d like to suggest three questions that can hold the key to the Conservative Movement taking ownership of its future by using data to make strategic decisions about where to invest professional and financial resources:

1. What Jewish experiences are most likely to lead to greater Jewish involvement? Each time a study comes out about what kinds of experiences leader to greater Jewish involvement, the same themes continue to emerge. The majority of engaged Jews today are ones who attended Jewish youth groups and summer camps, spent significant time in Israel, and/or attend Jewish day school. As I argued in my last post about creating A Bnai Mitzvah Birthright, if we know that certain experiences are likely to produce more engaged Jews, then the overwhelming majority of our collective efforts should go to increasing the numbers of Jewish kids participating in those experiences. Making this event is a not a theory, but a decision that would be grounded in our understanding how we get Jewish youth to develop a lifelong commitment to the Jewish People and the Conservative Movement.

2. Can we identify untapped marketplaces for growth in the Jewish Community? When Rick Warren looked for a place to start what became the Saddleback Church, he chose Orange County, California because it was the fastest growing county in the United States with the largest number of “unchurched” families, making Warren’s choice to start Saddleback in that geographic area a strategic decision driven by population data. Turning to our movement, the primary way to become affiliated with Conservative Judaism is to join a Conservative synagogue. While this can remain our primary mode of engagement, the reality is that if fewer people want to join organized religious institutions, the Conservative Movement needs to be proactive about doing outreach in areas with a lot of Jews, and not a lot of Jewish, following Warren’s playbook, where we look at where Jews will be living in the next several decades, and send our best and brightest to go and build new communities in those emerging markets. Professor Jack Wertheimer already wrote about how outreach in the Orthodox Movement dwarfs all comparative efforts of outreach by non-Orthodox movements, and Rabbi Alan Silverstein argued in response to the Pew Study that much of the Conservative Movement’s decline can be linked to our lack of seeding new congregations in areas lacking organized Jewish institutions. When we look at population studies, and see that opportunity exists to bring Jewish life that is meaningful and compelling where none exists, we have no one to blame but ourselves if we are not proactive about being the first in line to, as the Talmud says, “go and see what the people are doing” (Bavli Berakhot 45a).

3. When what we do works, can we use data to change the narrative about our movement? When the National Ramah Commission wanted to show that their camps have a measurable impact on Jewish life at the highest levels, they not assume that people would take their word for it; instead, they commissioned a study that allows supporters of Ramah to ground their passion for camp in more than just their intuition, but in something measurable. Similarly, when PEJE wanted to demonstrate the impact of Jewish day school education, they commissioned a study to achieve the same purpose. If we believe that USY, the Schechter day schools, our local synagogues and other institutions make a quantifiable difference in the lives of Jews, then we need to find a way to explain that impact using qualitative and quantitative data from participants in those institutions. If the data proves positive, then we have evidence with which to change the narrative about Conservative Judaism. If the data proves negative, then we have a clearer sense of where to target our efforts for important in the coming years, as well an idea of what kinds of institutions may no longer be working. Either way, until we can show what constitutes a measurable, rather than theoretical, difference in the lives of ordinary Jews, we will never be able to share the kind of narrative that will change people’s perceptions about the future of the Conservative Movement.

Although I know it will inevitably frustrate me, I try to read all widely disseminated critiques of Conservative Judaism, as I know that it is important to listen closely to the thoughts of our harshest critics. That being said, I also know that there is a danger in taking any one person’s critique too seriously, as most of these critiques are germane only to a small subset of the Conservative Movement as a whole. If we believe that the Conservative Movement is capable of a second renaissance, then we need to listen to those critiques, while placing them into a larger data-driven picture that will help us separate the “signal from the noise” (to use a term from Nate Silver).

Yes, the numbers today reveal a potentially bleak future for the Conservative Movement, yet if we choose to be smarter about what questions we ask, and how we gather information to be make strategic decisions as a movement, we will establish the foundation to make the Conservative Movement more optimistic, innovative and thoughtful about how we approach this critical chapter in our history.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is rabbi-in-residence at the Schechter School of Long Island.