The Optimistic Movement

Rabbi Joshua Rabin refuses to believe that a movement with some of the most vibrant synagogues, rabbis, hazzanim, and educators in the Jewish world is incapable of inspiring Jews in the 21st century.

by Rabbi Joshua Rabin


I am a born-and-bred Conservative Jew, raised in a suburban congregation, active in USY, president of my Conservative Minyan in college, graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, served as rabbi in a Solomon Schechter Day School, and now working as the Director of Kehilla Enrichment for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Since I was elected as a USY international officer almost 13 years ago, I had innumerable opportunities to say l’hitraot (good bye) to the Conservative movement. At times, the option was almost too easy: my Orthodox friends criticized our approach to halachah, too many of my friends expressed open disdain for the movement’s inability to translate theory into practice, and I read article after article in the Jewish press about what went wrong with a brand of Judaism that to me always felt so right.

Yet here I am today, still believing that the Conservative movement’s best chapters have yet to be written. I refuse to believe that a movement with some of the most vibrant synagogues, rabbis, hazzanim, and educators in the Jewish world, that produced some of the most important Jewish scholarship in modern history, and developed the best youth movement, camping movement, and day school system in North America, is incapable of inspiring Jews in the 21st century. The Conservative movement will survive and thrive because a Judaism that embraces a progressive understanding of halachah, egalitarianism and a worldview grounded in intellectual honesty is exactly the kind of Judaism that we need to engage the Jewish community of today.

You are free to call me a Pollyanna; I prefer to call myself an optimist, and I believe that our movement-wide pessimism keeps us from addressing the big, scary challenges before us. Yes, we face demographic, institutional, and financial challenges, and oftentimes disagree with one another about core halakhic and religious questions. Any number of factors will determine whether or not we overcome these challenges, but if we do not believe we can find a way to overcome them, we might as well not even try.

A year ago, in a post I wrote on the USCJ Centennial blog entitled “Where Are Our Cheerleaders?,” I argued that movement-wide pessimism is one of the greatest obstacles to revitalizing Conservative Judaism. While the reviews were mostly positive, a fair criticism was made that no one should confuse a positive attitude with a concrete strategy. Here I would like to explore how optimism can provide the beginnings of a strategy to retool and reshape the Conservative movement.

Optimism and Explanatory Style

Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the leaders of the positive psychology movement, argues that the difference between optimists and pessimists is rooted in how people explain their successes and failures, what Seligman calls one’s “explanatory style.” He writes:

How do you think about the causes of the misfortunes, small and large, that befall you? Some people, the ones who give up easily, habitually say of their misfortunes: “It’s me, it’s going to last forever, it’s going to undermine everything I do.” Others, those who resist giving in to misfortune, say: “It was just circumstances, it’s going away quickly anyway and, besides, there’s much more in life.”

According to Seligman, the hardship is the same for the optimist as for the pessimist, yet one’s explanation determines whether or not a person will overcome the misfortune. In addition, Seligman argues that optimists explain good events in terms of “permanent causes,” such as traits or abilities, while pessimists explain good events as a result of “transient causes,” preferring to say that they were lucky rather than smart, momentarily fortunate rather than hardworking. In each case, the same event can look very different when seen through the eyes of either the optimist or the pessimist.

How does this relate to the Conservative movement? Over the past year, particularly after the Pew Forum’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, a plethora of articles analyzed why the Conservative movement’s affiliation rates declined so precipitously over the past several decades. Based on my admittedly unscientific analysis, two primary narratives emerged:

Narrative 1: The Conservative movement continues to shrink because it is a flawed enterprise. Even when it was the largest Jewish denomination in North America, the movement failed to develop a coherent religious message, build communities committed to traditional Jewish practice, or create institutions capable of executing whatever strategies were needed. Once the Jewish community woke up to the fact that Conservative Judaism was yesterday’s news, the movement began its inevitable and inexorable decline.

Narrative 2: The Conservative movement continues to shrink because its institutions are struggling to reshape themselves in a rapidly changing religious landscape. With the overall decline of Main Line Protestant denominations, the decreasing appeal of membership in communal institutions generally, and the emergence of disruptive innovators such as Chabad and independent minyanim, institutions founded in a different religious and social context are struggling to adapt. The central question is whether, and how, the Conservative movement will meet these adaptive challenges in a rapidly changing religious landscape.

Two different narratives, each of which offers a decidedly different perspective on the same demographic reality. Narrative 1 assumes that our challenges were predictable at best, deserved at worst. In contrast, Narrative 2 does not deny that we are facing struggles, but argues that understanding the struggles in context provides a pathway to meet the adaptive challenges of the present. The former narrative is the explanatory style of the pessimist, the latter, that of the optimist. I will choose the latter over the former any day of the week, and I’m guessing most readers of this article will do the same. The challenges we face are real, but how we interpret them, and whether we believe we can overcome them, is up to us alone.

Change Our Mindset, Change Our Movement

I’d like to suggest five ways that we can become the optimistic movement. In each case, challenges can be seen as irreparable – or fixable. We will not change our reality unless we believe that the reality can be changed, and at a time of widespread pessimism and even fatalism in the Jewish community at-large, our future rests on our willingness to develop solutions based on a  collective belief that we can make our future better.

Stop Scapegoating: We’re All in This Together

The growth and decline of any religious movement depends on many interrelated and complex factors; no one factor can be identified as “the” source of decline. At various times and by various people, the Conservative movement has been accused of being too indifferent to halakhic observance, too conservative, too liberal, too organizationally deficient, too risk-averse, and on and on. We spent the last decade publicly scapegoating whichever person or institution we thought was the cause of our decline. Yet can we honestly say that we are any better off? The more we show that we are ready to let the past be in the past, the more we will show that we are ready to formulate productive solutions to address the challenges of today.

Learn from Disruptive Innovators

Right now, institutions such as Chabad, Hebrew charter schools and independent minyanim pose challenges to our core institutions. The pessimist looks at Chabad or an independent minyan and complains that these institutions are “stealing” our families. However, an optimist looks at these innovators and sees opportunities to similarly adapt our own institutions to better engage today’s Jewish population. Among other things, Chabad provides an example of rethinking how we engage with the unengaged, while independent minyamim challenge us to think about how we structure tefillah (prayer) experiences. In each case, we can either bemoan the existence of institutions that disrupt our standard operating procedure, or we can engage in what Clayton Christensen, of Harvard Business School, calls “discovery-driven planning” to meet the challenge of disruption, empowering individuals to experiment with models with the potential to radically transform how we create Jewish community.

Bet the House on Immersive Jewish Education

Jonathan Sarna, the eminent historian of American Jewry, remarked that Orthodox Judaism recovered from its mid-20th century malaise because it “bet the house” on educating rank-and- file Jews in day schools, gap year Israel programs, and on college campuses. Right now, we know that USY, the Schechter day schools, and Camp Ramah produce our most committed Conservative Jews, yet there is an enormous gap between what we could be doing and what we are doing. If we know that Jewish education pays enormous dividends, then we need to lower the barriers to participation. I propose creating a Bnai Mitzvah Birthright, a fund through which any child who becomes a bar or bat mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue has the opportunity to participate in a one-month program with USY or Camp Ramah, or receive a tuition voucher to attend a local Schechter day school. Making this investment sends a movement-wide message that if your child becomes involved in our educational institutions, their Jewish identity will be forever changed, a profound statement about the lifelong impact of Conservative Judaism.

Don’t Leave Young and Emerging Adults Behind

In spite of the fact that emerging adulthood is critical in the formation of social networks, value systems and spiritual communities, Robert Wuthnow writes in After the Baby Boomers, religious institutions “provide almost nothing for the developmental tasks that are accomplished when people are in their twenties and thirties.” While the Conservative movement is not alone in providing too few resources to engage this age group, we can either argue that their lack of participation is due to a lack of commitment to the community, or a lack of resources being devoted to helping them find a home in the Conservative movement. If we allow Chabad, independent minyanim, and alternative spiritual communities to fill the spiritual niche people in their 20s and 30s crave, we have no one to blame but ourselves if they never return to us. In contrast, devoting sizable resources to doing outreach to college and post-college Jews sends a clear signal that the Conservative movement wants to bet the future on the next generation, and is willing to empower them to lead us into unknown terrain.

Be OK with 360-Degree Feedback

In a New York Times profile of departing Ford Motor Company CEO Alan Mullaly, it was reported that when Mullaly was introduced to his first audience of Ford employees, he was asked what kind of car he drove. His response: “A Lexus. It’s the finest car in the world.” (Lexus is manufactured by Toyota.) Mullaly’s willingness to share his unvarnished opinion about the quality of Ford’s products at that time is one of the reasons he is credited with Ford’s dramatic turnaround. Today, we know that plenty of people are willing to share their misgivings about Conservative Judaism, including interfaith families, the unaffiliated, young adults, formerly identified Conservative Jews, and others. The only way to address a challenge is to listen to our customers, because the optimist does not shy from criticism, but knows that feedback is the first critical step in a long process of improvement and growth.

See the World for the First Time

Each Rosh Hashanah, I find myself most inspired by the words of Hayom Harat Olam, the passage from the Musaf Amidah where we are told that “Today is the birthday of the world.” Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes that the message of Hayom Harat Olam is that “you are not fixed by your past,” for on this day each of us can feel a newness that only comes when you believe that possibility exists. I believe that the best days of the Conservative movement are yet to come if, and only if, we are willing to visualize a world where we meet the challenges we face and then go out and do something about it. This Rosh Hashanah, let’s collectively turn a corner, and envision a world that is better than we could ever imagine, and then go out and fix it.

Shanah tovah umetukah.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Director of Kehilla Enrichment at United Synagogue.