Why do most Conservative Jews rarely come to shul

It isn't a complete shock to hear a rabbi lament that "synagogues are clearly not meeting the needs" of most Jews and that "we're clearly not inspiring most of the people."

But it is startling when the rabbi is the leader of the Conservative movement's congregational arm in North America.

"If synagogues were doing what they should be doing, people would be involved," Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said in an interview while marching through the streets of San Jose last week in a "Tikun Olam Walk for Homelessness and Hunger."

"Why are most of our congregants three-day-a-year Jews? We could say it's their fault, and in many cases it is. But in many cases, it's because we haven't yet found the hook to reach out and touch them."

With a deep voice that makes him sound shockingly like radio jock Howard Stern, the Conservative leader spoke extensively about his vision for his movement as it enters a new century.

"Most of our synagogues follow a model which was established 70 to 75 years ago," Epstein said, pointing to what he calls the "synagogue center" model.

"People came to the synagogue as a focal point for Jewish living, whether for cultural events or religious events. Synagogues even built gyms and pools. That was fine for the needs of that period of time."

But that model is passé, Epstein said. He is proposing that the synagogue start to look at itself as a "mentoring institution" and start making the transformation as soon as possible.

"Influence, inspire, motivate and cajole — that is what the synagogue has to do. It can no longer be satisfied with just having services. It has to figure out how those services will touch people's lives," said Epstein, who has lead the USCJ since 1986.

Epstein made similar remarks at the United Synagogue's biennial convention in November in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Likewise, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, addressed his organization's convention last month by saying that services are often "tedious, predictable and dull."

"We all have to share the blame and the responsibility," Epstein said about a half mile into the 3-mile walk. "That is something that is more important than criticizing the synagogue, or the individual."

So how does Epstein plan to enact the transformation? Part of his strategy is for what he calls making a "case for Judaism" on a "person-to-person" basis.

"Synagogues find it difficult to really impact people, because people can be anonymous in a synagogue of 400 or 500 families. You can come or not come; when the rabbi speaks, you can tune in or tune out.

"What I think is important is to find a way to communicate with individuals. For the rabbi, the cantor, the lay people to communicate on a person-to-person basis. That takes the anonymity away. Then I can have a dialogue with you. You have a chance to ask questions. You have a chance to pursue something."

In his efforts to reach out, Epstein is willing to chip away at some notions that have traditionally defined a Conservative Jew. For example, he said, people who eat shrimp are certainly welcome in Conservative synagogues.

"I think we have to be clearer in saying we're not closing our arms to anybody, we're not pushing people away," he said.

"But we want people to know that our ultimate goal is to strengthen their commitment to Jewish living. It's not just enough to say that you want to be a member of our synagogue. We want you to learn with us. We want you to pray with us."

Epstein said about 775 Conservative synagogues in North America are part of USCJ. (Some congregations that identify themselves as Conservative do not belong to the USCJ, such as Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland.)

The number of congregations and the 270,000 households on the USCJ mailing list have remained rather constant, fluctuating up and down by only about 3 percent over the past 25 years.

"What we are finding," Epstein added, "is a population shift. The significant number of our congregations 30 years ago were in the Northeast. Now, there are many more in Florida, the Southwest and on the Pacific Coast. It's changing the whole nature of not only the Conservative movement, but also congregational life and Jewish life throughout North America."

The Conservative movement, which allows women to read from the Torah and to become rabbis but prohibits those who are openly gay and lesbian from joining the rabbinate, boasts of a broad spectrum of behaviors and values.

But Epstein acknowledged that most of the congregations on the West Coast are "a little bit left of center." That pull is being felt throughout the movement, he suggested.

Asked to define what constitutes a Conservative Jew, Epstein stammered a bit and then said, "A Conservative Jew in my mind at the present time is one who identifies himself as a Conservative Jew."

He went on to say that he hopes a Conservative Jew is someone who wants to grow and learn and become more committed to Jewish law "that is ever-changing and ever-developing, but binding on the individual."

Still, if someone totally ignores Jewish law and fails to regularly observe Shabbat, she or he can still be a Conservative Jew, Epstein said. Eating a cheeseburger isn't cause for expulsion.

"Can you vote Republican and still be a Democrat? Can you be a Catholic and get an abortion? Yes, but you won't find the pope saying that abortion is OK. Same thing with us. You can be a Conservative Jew and eat shellfish, but it isn't appropriate.

"We muddy the issue when we say, 'It's OK. We accept you wherever you are' without at the same time saying 'We expect you to grow.' If you say you're a Conservative Jew and at the same time you're eating shellfish or bacon, I would say to you I understand that. But it is my goal to help you understand why that isn't appropriate."

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.