The Future of Conservative Judaism

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs has a comprehensive action plan

by Myles Simpson

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In his July 2012 article , “A Game Plan for Renewal: The Demise of National Movements and Their Rebirth,” Dr. Steven Windmueller, of the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College, reports the decline of many religious, political, fraternal, and social movements in North America. Windmueller offers several reasons including increasing membership costs, multiple competing causes and interests, the replacement of traditional memberships with social networks, and the lesser interest and loyalty of younger adults to their parents’ institutions. He suggests that “an increasing secularization of American postmodern society” intensifies this trend for liberal religious groups, and cites as an example the substantial decline in membership of Conservative synagogues over the past decade.

When I read this article I was a short year away from beginning my term as FJMC president; it impacted my thinking and helped me formulate my vision for FJMC and the types of activities that we could pursue to accomplish that vision. For some time, I had been concerned about the decline of our movement and its ramifications for the future of Judaism in North America, but I had not realized that what was happening in Conservative Judaism was also a reflection of what was happening throughout our society. To an extent, this was a bit liberating. The literature is filled with articles that attempt to describe the problems and defects in our movement that are supposed to be the root cause of declining synagogue affiliation. Now, it seems, that while there are many areas in our movement that can be improved, the fault is not exclusively internal. On the other hand, with such major social and cultural shifts occurring in virtually every area of life, what could we do to counter these global trends in order to revitalize Conservative Judaism?

Over the next several months FJMC held several think tanks to identify or create new concepts that we could develop and provide to our men’s clubs and their communities in an attempt to turn the tide and attract men (especially younger men) and their families back to their synagogues. We developed some exciting preliminary ideas and began to develop them for implementation.

Then, in October 2013 the now infamous Pew Report was published. This was a wakeup call to refocus our attention onto the issues and challenges facing us, and to seek solutions. For me, the Pew Report reemphasized concerns about the future of Judaism in America, as well as the future of our movement. It also reinforced the notion that the same social and cultural trends affecting many other organizations are impacting Conservative Judaism. More importantly, it provided the motivation for FJMC to work more aggressively on the concepts that we had begun to develop, and it suggested that we might be proceeding in the right direction.

We’ve now begun implementing an action plan designed to impact our movement positively while adding value to our clubs. The plan is based on three major elements: membership growth, innovative programming initiatives, and Keruv/outreach to interfaith families.

Membership Growth

Last year, FJMC experienced a small but significant growth in membership (5 percent), and the attendance at our last international convention in July 2013 was at an all-time high by more than 25 percent. We realized that if we could accomplish this at a time when synagogue membership was declining, there’s no reason that we couldn’t grow even more. So we launched a major membership campaign, which is still in progress, to grow the number of men who belong to each of our clubs, as well as to affiliate new clubs. Despite social and cultural trends, we believe that men will join and be active in their men’s club if they perceive that their clubs bring meaning to their lives – and this meaning usually derives from the strong relationships that are built within a men’s club. We think that this is the key to growth and retention, and it reflects the lessons that we learned from Dr. Ron Wolfson when he spoke about his latest book, Relational Judaism. Men (and women) are hungry for meaningful relationships, and if we can foster these in our clubs then certainly our clubs will grow.

We also know that new members add strength to existing clubs, and new clubs add strength to our regions. Further, as clubs get stronger their synagogues grow stronger. How? For many men, involvement in synagogue life is not a priority, but men’s clubs serve as gateways to enhanced participation. As a man sees the value of active participation in his club, he starts to see the value of volunteering more in his synagogue, attending services, participating in mitzvah projects, taking adult education classes, etc. He sees that he can be a role model for his children, and he embraces that new role. Further, we are encouraging active club members to invite their friends, from within the synagogue or not, to programs, activities and events. As their friends begin to see the value of being a men’s club member, they begin to see the value of synagogue membership, as well. Growth begets growth, and everyone wins – the club, the synagogue and certainly the new member.

Programming

We’re developing six new programmatic initiatives that clubs can pursue with their clergy to further our mission of “involving Jewish men in Jewish life.” We know that a major obstacle to synagogue participation is the discomfort that many feel during services due to a lack of knowledge of the prayers, unfamiliarity with the services, and little or no ability to read Hebrew. To address these issues, we’re developing three types of services (in partnership with the Cantors Assembly) to provide a meaningful Shabbat morning experience and we’re revamping our highly successful Hebrew literacy program, as follows:

  • Learner’s Service: six sessions about the basic structure, meaning and choreography of the Shabbat service
  • Experiential Service: a weekly service that integrates discussion, study and prayer
  • Meditation Service: an alternative spiritual experience
  • Hebrew Literacy program: online training to teach basic Hebrew with an emphasis on the words used during Shabbat services

Our fifth initiative provides guidelines and models for celebrating Shabbat at home on Friday evening. (Please see my article in last September’s CJ, “Shabbat has kept the Jews” for background on this initiative.) This is an update to our popular The Shabbat Seder, which was published nearly 30 years ago. Finally, we’re developing (also with the CA) “Creating a Minyan of Comfort,” a two-hour course and guidebook to teach men to lead a shiva minyan.

These initiatives will be piloted in selected synagogues across North America. Assuming that they meet their objectives they will be officially launched and modeled to our clubs at our convention next July in Miami.

Keruv

As documented in the Pew Report, intermarriage is a fact of life. FJMC began working with interfaith couples and their families more than a dozen years ago in our pioneering Keruv (literally, “to draw near”) initiative. Our approach has been to provide guidance and information to synagogues promoting the welcoming of interfaith families, with the goal of encouraging the raising of Jewish children. We have trained several dozen Keruv consultants who are engaged with the clergy and leadership in their synagogues and in neighboring communities to implement Keruv programming, and we’ve conducted think tanks with over 150 pulpit rabbis to delve into the various issues associated with interfaith families and to sensitize them to the needs of these families. This initiative continues to grow. As the rate of intermarriage increases, there is a growing opportunity to draw additional families nearer to Judaism, and specifically into Conservative synagogues.

We’re hopeful that this action plan will help to strengthen Conservative Judaism, and we’re optimistic that the future of our movement is bright!