The so-called “Conversation of the Century” (aka the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement’s 100th convention) is over. From media and social network reports, everybody is “fired up,” everybody is “thinking out of the box,” the Conservative movement is ready to get to work. Even though actual proposals were thin, it seems, successful rabbis of successful synagogues or independent non-synagogues were there to display their wares and invite everybody else to “follow me.”
A rather important question to ask now is the following: Can we actually train rabbis to create successful synagogues/communities? Well, it seems that we can, sort of. Three of the synagogues that are most often cited (and who exist in the large Conservative orbit) as the most successful or innovative are Bnai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, Ikar in Los Angeles, and in the up and coming category, Mishkan in Chicago. These synagogues or communities are doing wonderful things. The interesting thing about them is that they are all coming, in essence from one DNA strand. Rabbi Marshall Meyer OBM recreated BJ, taking a dying congregation and making it into a large, youthful and vibrant community. He trained Rabbis Rolly Matalon and Marcello Bronstein. Matalon and Bronstein in turn trained Rabbi Sharon Brous who founded IKAR. Brous trained Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann who founded Mishkan. Now, of course, each of these rabbis also spent years in rabbinical schools (the Seminario, JTS, and Zeigler). This training was not inconsequential, but it seems obvious that there is something essential in the wisdom that was passed on from rabbi to student rabbi.
Now, before y’all start writing checks to start more rabbinic fellowship programs, we should reflect on two things. First, many other rabbis went through BJ and didn’t found IKAR(s)—though they are probably doing very worthwhile work serving the Jewish people. (IKAR hasn’t had the fellowship for that long, but the same is true there.) Second, taken together, these three communities (and we can throw in some more just because) probably deeply touch several thousand people. While important, that is not enough by itself to save the Jewish people or the Conservative movement (if saving is what needs to happen).
Rabbi and Professor Judith Hauptman has suggested that curricular changes must be made in rabbinical schools in which students are taught to make services more meaningful and accessible. This is all well and good. However, classroom training goes only so far. What is called for, I would suggest, is intensive long term engagement by rabbinical students with the challenge of creating synagogues and communities which are spiritually moving, intellectually engaging, and socially meaningful. How do we do that in a Rabbinical School program which is already long (five or six years)? How do we do that when anything we put in means that something has to be taken out? How do we take out large chunks of the curriculum when our students are not only training to be effective, engaging rabbis, but also carriers of the textual tradition. One does not gain entrée into the depths of the tradition on a part-time basis. Just as one does not learn how to motivate the unmotivated, move the unmoved, and engage the disengaged on a part time basis.
Is this not a classic deadlock? (Of the meaningful, not Washingtonian variety.)
There is a way out. There is an elephant in the room that is lumbering about and making a lot of noise but is never spoken of. Our students spend a year of their studies in an environment which has nothing to teach them about being a rabbi in North America. We demand, for some good reasons, that all of our students spend a year in Israel. And even if we believe (something that is open to scholarly debate) that there is a problem in connecting with or distancing from Israel—there is no problem with Rabbis’ connections with Israel. On the other hand, a year spent in a majority Jewish country whose Rabbinate does not officially recognize our Rabbinical students’ right to become rabbis, does not contribute to their toolkit for saving the Conservative movement or the Jewish people in North America.
There is another possible model.
If a year in Israel were to be a threshold requirement rather than a year of their training (that is, every student would have to have spend a year in Israel in order to be accepted to the school), we would have that years’ time to utilize for the purpose of exploring new and different forms of community. This year could be a lab year in which the students would have a more relaxed academic schedule and spend most of their time creating community. There could be a storefront on Fairfax Avenue or in Silver Lake (or a building on the Lower East Side or Park Slope or wherever the appropriate target population might congregate) which would serve as a “lab-shul”. Students would have to figure out what to do to connect with the actual people who live in the actual city in which they live. They would be experimenting without a net. While they would have access to rabbis and other professionals who could serve as consultants, their success would be measured by, well, their success. And they would, of course, learn as much from their failures as from their successes. This would be an experience in real-time community making. If they decided to start a minyan—are people actually coming to the minyan? If they decide to create a beit midrash—are people showing up? And so on.
During the process they would regularly debrief and think about next steps. They would also have access to training in organizing methods, or other secondary and tertiary skills necessary. At the end of the year, they would return to the school with their experience, which could then be the “text” in a practical rabbinics course.
If we are serious about searching for new paradigms, for creating communities which will bring new folks into shul, or energize folks already there, we should be searching for new and different ways to do things. The way to do that is to have a real-world think tank populated by the people who will have to be the change we and they want.
And so, at the end of the day, the American Jewish community, and specifically the Conservative movement, has to decide whether it is really committed to revitalizing the American Jewish community. How much are we willing to sacrifice to escape the wrath of those that would deem us not pro-Israel enough for deepening our commitment to North American Jewry.