A Movement in Crisis
From the Detroit Jewish News
By Robert Sklar, Editor
Monday, March 13, 2006
The Conservative movement on campus must reach out to students who share its religious philosophy if it has any hope of retaining them after graduation. Students raised Conservative won’t automatically embrace the movement on campus, where too many other allures await.
You would think the movement would ingratiate itself with Jewish students grounded in Conservative beliefs. It doesn’t, says Rabbi Jason Miller, a 2004 graduate of the movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and now associate director of the University of Michigan Hillel in Ann Arbor.
I was absorbed by a recent essay of his posted on Shma.com, a Web site of Jewish Family & Life!
Working from the premise that older teenagers and 20-somethings tend toward the extremes, he argues that Conservative Judaism “prides itself on striking a balance somewhere between the extremes, harmonizing the tradition with modernity.”
The movement in general and its synagogues in particular are guilty of overlooking this highly impressionable and crucial post-high school demographic. If you don’t grab young people when they are shaping their life’s course, you’ll find it harder to do so when they are ready to settle down. The explosive attraction of Reform Judaism and Orthodox Judaism among young adults has further challenged the Conservative movement and heightened its need to change.
“In the Conservative movement, where so much is invested in these young people before college, it is a mistake not to nurture that commitment beyond high school,” writes Rabbi Miller, 29, in his probing essay, “Is Their Conservative Judaism on Campus?”
It’s an essay every Conservative rabbi and leader should ponder.
In the essay, Rabbi Miller repeats the familiar theme that the movement must engage congregants “from the time they leave for college until the time they enroll their own children in the shul’s nursery school.” While applying to rabbinical school, he acknowledged the initiatives of Koach On Campus, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism’s college outreach project, but he vowed as a rabbi to go beyond care packages on major holidays and annual visits to state campuses.
Certainly, many Conservative congregations, including several in Metro Detroit, know the urgency of connecting with recent college graduates. Special programming includes separate prayer services, young adult social events, networking for young professionals, and reduced membership dues and fees.
“While these programs are all beneficial,” Rabbi Miller says, “more must be done on campus before these young people graduate because it is on campus where Conservative Judaism is hurting the most.”
Even the name “Conservative” can be a turnoff. As an example, Rabbi Miller cites declining Conservative minyan participation at U-M. That “stigma” prompted a minyan name change to Dor Chadash — Hebrew for New Generation. But the rabbi is astute enough to know that a new name may pique new interest but won’t solve the underlying problem.
In an especially revealing passage, Rabbi Miller explains how many observant students reared in the Conservative movement over time gravitate to the Orthodox community on campus. “Students lament that the Conservative minyan lacks a strong sense of community,” he says.
That should send shock waves through a movement desperate for re-calibrating its position between the growing and easier-to-define Reform and Orthodox movements. Growth of the Orthodox movement is one of the great success stories of American Judaism, which has been humbled by rising intermarriage, deepening assimilation and strident apathy. Reform Judaism, meanwhile, has leapfrogged over Conservative Judaism as the dominant movement.
Conservative Judaism has been a steppingstone for young Jews choosing a more committed Jewish life within the Orthodox community. And it has followed the Reform movement’s successful pursuit of interfaith and gay Jews. But Rabbi Miller is right: Conservative Judaism cannot stand pat as the college experience contributes to a staggering loss of future Conservative leaders.
He suggests more Conservative Judaism role models on campus to raise the energy and excitement — and to create a strong Conservative community. Synagogues must tell high school students in concrete, engaging terms, not abstractions, why a committed Conservative life can thrive on campus. Rabbis must tap into the language of young people to keep connections: e-mail, Web sites, blogs and podcasts.
“On college campuses where scholarship and progressivism are privileged,” Rabbi Miller says, “one would think that Conservative Judaism would be the popular choice among Jewish students, especially those who grew up in the movement.”
Why it is not is the most profound question confronting the movement today. Finding the answer and correcting the problem are vital.
The Conservative movement’s leadership together must market the message on campus that there is, as Rabbi Miller says, “much in Conservative Judaism to be excited about.”
“Our Conservative movement’s future greatly depends upon it,” he says.
It sure does.
© 2006 Detroit Jewish News
© Rabbi Jason Miller 1996-2007