Sadly, Conservative Judaism’s lead ship is sinking fast

In February 1913, Rabbi Solomon Schechter founded the United Synagogue of America — which in 1991 became the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — to “advance the cause of traditional Judaism in America and strengthen the conservative tendency in Israel.”

Schechter’s vision of traditional Judaism lives on in communities, but the organization he founded has lost its mandate to fulfill this mission.

Last week, USCJ closed down Koach, the college outreach organization of the Conservative movement. One of many anguished Conservative Jewish college students on Facebook interpreted this as the USCJ “signing their own death warrant.”

Were this the only recent experience of the USCJ cutting off its own future, one would already worry. But Koach is not an exception to the rule. It demonstrates the pervasive reality of too few USCJ staff spread way too thinly to meet a too-meager definition of movement success.

Honestly, as a product of the Conservative movement, I am very saddened by this. In moments of budgetary woe, it is all about money. But that cuts both ways: Lack of funding demonstrates lack of resonance and vitality. The USCJ has for decades failed to actualize the vibrancy of Conservative Judaism’s founding ideas and is currently dying the slow, painful death of a thousand paper cuts.

The greatest tragedy of all this is that it need not be.

The American Conservative movement is declining numerically not because Schechter’s vision is meaningless. It is because we, as Conservative Jewish leaders, have forgotten how right he was, what a gift Conservative Judaism truly is. We have made the mistake of letting our nostalgia for the institutions of the past and personal affection for one another (not to mention a bit of ego and turf-battling) get in the way of holding our institutions accountable when they fail.

As soon-to-be-former director of Koach, Rabbi Elyse Winick, wrote in her announcement of the closure: “Tens of thousands of students and dozens of professionals have been part of this sacred endeavor. All of our lives have been transformed and elevated by the experiences we have shared. We are better people for it. We are better Jews. We have much to be grateful for.”

Though perennially underfunded, Koach (and its ancestor, the similarly barely supported Conservative movement college network Atid), “turned on” Conservative Jews during their formative years on campus. Untold numbers of Koachniks have become rabbis, educators and leaders in and out of Conservative Judaism’s orbit.

Koach was succeeding. Not enough, but more than its funding warranted. That USCJ closed down the most transformative of all its programs, while Chabad and the Orthodox campus outreach professionals are exploding with funding, is so very, very sad.

It would have been better if the USCJ had announced its own closure and presented a plan for Koach to expand its vital work under the aegis of another agency, or launched Koach as an independent organization.

Whereas denominations matter less and less to Jews (and Americans, according to recent Pew Center studies), the search for meaning and connection is on the upswing. Schechter’s vision truly defined American Judaism, transcending label and brand. The bravery of Open Orthodoxy and the assertive “re-traditioning” of Reform Judaism speak to the enduring power of his vision, which has nothing to do with denominations and institutions.

The products of Conservative Judaism include Reconstructionism, the JCC move-ment and the havurah movement. In fact, most of the post-denominational energy in the United States is also being led by leaders trained within the Conserv-ative movement.

This should make Conservative Jews very proud, and keep us very humble. A denomination is, after all, utilitarian. It serves to strengthen the particular spiritual identity of its affiliated communities in an effort to work for the betterment of the world.

Fewer and fewer synagogues are affiliated with USCJ, and few of those affiliated shuls fully pay their assessed dues. It is only a matter of time before USCJ closes its doors, or places all of itself into one of its programs (for example, USCJ’s Sulam consulting, a leadership development program that supports congregations).

USCJ is a fading national institution that has jettisoned what the Conservative movement needs most: a future.

I do hope for, and have long worked toward, a healthy Conservative Movement.  (Among other efforts, I and others are working to support #MasortiUSA, a new U.S. student-run campus network.) The idea of Conservative Judaism could live without institutions, but Conservative Judaism is a path to God, a spiritually demanding and rewarding journey that deserves better institutional support and leadership than it has received in recent memory. 

Schechter’s dream still awaits fulfillment.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is the spiritual leader of Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and founder of ShefaNetwork: The Conservative Movement Dreaming from Within.