By Eitan Arom/JNS.org
Conservative Judaism has always had something akin to middle child syndrome: squeezed on both sides by the Orthodox and Reform movements. But lately, its identity crisis has become acute.
This week, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ)—an umbrella body that represents Conservative congregations across North America—is set to receive the results of an audit it commissioned that reached more than 1,000 Jews, most of them Conservative, in an effort to better understand and meet their spiritual needs. The results will not immediately be made public.
The audit is part of a rebranding that USCJ’s leadership describes as no less than a sea change in how Conservative Judaism operates.
“The current synagogue model up until this time was a 2,000-year-old experiment,” Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of USCJ, told JNS.org. “And it just no longer has the capacity to meet the challenges, and so it has to be reinvented.”
USCJ recently hired the Good Omen brand consultancy firm as part of a multi-year organizational facelift that had started back in 2011. The reasons for the ongoing branding effort are obvious, Wernick said; technological and social trends have fundamentally changed human interaction, and religion has no choice but to try to keep up.
“You can’t have Shabbat dinner on Facebook,” he said. “But anyone under 40 today figures out where they’re going for Shabbat on Facebook.”
According to the LinkedIn page for one of the consultancy’s principals, Scott Osman, Good Omen works with companies to set, articulate, and visualize their intention and then identifies the actions that bring that intention to life.
Although USCJ is a religious non-profit organization and not a private company, it is nonetheless responsible for maintaining and promoting a particular brand, Wernick said; in that sense, it is not too dissimilar from a business.
USCJ kicked off its relationship with Good Omen at its November 2015 convention in Chicago, said Alissa Pinck, USCJ’s director of marketing and communications. The consulting firm will privately present its findings to USCJ this week, and USCJ leaders will begin to form recommendations based on the data before they consider publicizing the results, she said.
The New York Post first reported Good Omen’s efforts on Jan. 3, linking the decision to retain the company to the declining number of Conservative Jews. Wernick said the thinning of the Conservative Jewish ranks is “well-documented,” but he rejects the notion that demographics alone are behind what the newspaper called a “new look” for Conservative Judaism.
“Most press [reports] that I see on this, they concentrate on the decline of numbers because that’s the story,” he said. “But I think that story is a house of cards. I think it’s disingenuous.”
Indeed, the demographics seem grim for those who hope to see a flourishing community of Conservative Jews well into the 21st Century.
A Pew Research Center study found in 2013 that 36 percent of those born into Conservative Judaism still associate with the movement, compared with 48 percent of Orthodox Jews and 55 percent of Reform Jews.
Wernick speaks in existential terms when discussing USCJ’s rebranding.
“When it comes to notions of spirituality and religion, there’s been a crumbling of centralized authority,” he said.
In 2011, USCJ adopted a strategic plan to reinvigorate itself and its member organizations. At the heart of the plan was a shift away from the idea of a “synagogue” to the more inclusive concept of a “kehilla,” or holy community.
The latter designation is meant to resonate with those “who do not necessarily belong to official Conservative congregations or feel comfortable with the ‘Conservative movement’ label,” according to an updated plan released in 2014.
Conservative Jews make up 18 percent of the American Jewish population, the Pew study found. By comparison, Reform Jews make up 35 percent and Jews of no denomination make up 30 percent.
As a sign of the times, the Jewish dating app JSwipe offers users the option to identify as “Just Jewish.” And it’s this category that’s largely the focus of USCJ’s current efforts.
“We’re living in a world in which people don’t self-identity in particular boxes, they live in more of a Venn diagram,” Wernick said.
Dr. Steven Windmueller, a professor of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, has closely watched the modern forces buffeting the Jewish world, and said “there’s a lot of basis to sort of applaud” USCJ’s efforts to rebrand.
“It’s a repositioning that needs to happen in light of all the factors: demographics, competition, and the changing sort of behaviors of millennials,” he said.
Windmueller, who has worked with a number of Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and multiple Jewish federations, said the Conservative movement is hobbled by some historical factors.
In the first place, the “core institutions of the movement” never saw much need to form close bonds, he said.
As a result, the synagogues, summer camps, leadership organizations, and institutions of higher learning that constitute Conservative Judaism lack “a natural infrastructure of communication,” he said. That scarcity of cohesion deepens the need to hedge against modern challenges.
Windmueller likened today’s rebranding to a similarly momentous change in the 1950s: the ruling by the Rabbinical Assembly, Conservative Judaism’s clergy arm, that Conservative Jews could drive on Shabbat.
Just as that decision allowed Jews to participate in the prevailing social movement of the day—the race to the suburbs—so too might changes today create a Conservative Judaism more fitting to the modern world, he said.
In particular, Conservative Judaism might benefit from broadening its tent to include liberal Jews of all sizes and stripes, Windmueller said. In that way, he said, USCJ could “allow multiple flowers to bloom, but under a new canopy.”
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