Starting the Next Conversation

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.

12 thoughts on “Starting the Next Conversation

  1. Intriguing idea, Aryeh. My main concern is what happens to these labs. A student swoops into a community, in the best case scenario, one in which s/he has pre-existing relationships, but in many cases, probably not, and works on incubating some new project which s/he will leave at the end of the year. That seems problematic.

  2. i think Aryeh Bernstein makes an important point. the service idea can go very sour. on Aryeh Cohen’s FB, i suggested setting up an urban commune as perhaps an alternative idea. but how would that work for older students, married ones and with children. what i think A.C. gets right is the need to set up some kind of cooperative framework for the testing out of ideas, and new ways of living together.

  3. Aryeh Bernstein’s point is a good one—though a very optimistic one. If the project takes off, it can either be taken up by the next cohort or the community can decide to go online and either take it up themselves or hire somebody to keep the project going.
    Zak, you make a good point, and I think this should all be part of the conversation.

  4. Interesting question raised by a credible, deeply learned rabbi and scholar. But Aryeh obtained a grounding of Yiddishkeit and Talmud in Gush, studying with some of the greatest Orthodox rabbis. Whether or not Conservative wannabee rabbis spend a year in Israel during their training, how many of them become credible rabbis without a background similar to Aryeh’s? I am doubtful that the JTS or Ziegler has this capability. I’m biased, of course, being Orthodox, but does that invalidate my doubts?

  5. Perhaps the most useful outcome of the year in Israel is an improvement in students’ Hebrew, a key component in their rabbinical training.

  6. How about having a year in which rabbinic students have to spend 3 months living as a homeless person on the streets of NY or LA, 3 months living in Arab section of Hebron, Ramallah or Bethlehem, and 3 months working with Doctors Without Borders, and 3 months working with an activist environmentalist group like Greenpeace? That, far more than anything else, could prepare rabbis to address the greatest issues facing the Jewish people, issues whose stilted or largely formulaic responses from the existing Jewish religious world have played a major role in making Judaism feel irrelevant to our most ethically sensitive young: global poverty, environmental crisis, and insensitivity to the suffering of the Palestinian people often justified as inevitable and necessary to save Israel from extinction.

  7. First of all, I think it’s hard to demand a year in Israel as an entry prerequisite: I don’t know how I would’ve been able to afford it without student loans and grants, and as it was it cost me plenty. Second of all, I think if we are discussing time saving in rab school curricula, it would be more realistic and useful to require all students to enter with fairly complete proficiency in tefillah leadership and related skills, better Hebrew proficiency, and at least basic Mishnah competency, if not also some basic Gemara competency. Third, and most importantly, this array of problems in Conservative Judaism is not going to be solved by tweaking rabbinical school curricula, whether in favor of getting rabbis more pulpit experience, or more social justice experiences, or anything else. The movement– and Judaism as a whole– can’t be saved by getting rabbis to try to be more charismatic, better sermon givers, or able to bring in the right mix of music to suit a congregation. The real issue isn’t rabbis, it’s amcha: Jewish laypeople are, by and large, woefully Jewishly undereducated if not uneducated. And Liberal or transdenominational Jewish day schools are fabulously expensive, of highly variable educational quality, and often simply unavailable. Hebrew schools are just a joke. Real engagement, real potential to engage in any kind of sophisticated and thoughtful manner with our extensive, supremely literate, and incredibly complex tradition absolutely demands education, and not just thorough education in the classroom, but education that touches the parents also, and lets the culture of the education permeate back into the home. And right now, our de facto position is that if you want that for your kids, unless you happen to live in NYC, LA, and maybe Chicago, and can manage somehow to pay for your kid to go to one of the couple of successful Liberal schools there, you had better send your kid to an Orthodox school, which will have a far more thorough text skills and Hebrew curriculum, and will cost less, because the Orthodox community actually fund their schools, even if not as much as they might ideally like. As long as education and family involvement and continuing education through schools is not our first and top priority, we are yeiushing out future and handing anyone who might ever care about real observance an invitation to find out more about Chabad.

    • These are good points Ami. However, it seems to me that there is always money being thrown around for going to Israel, so that might be easier than to get incoming Rab students to have more proficiency coming in.
      One of the things that could be experimented with in the lab-year is schools. I agree that the current model is unsustainable. I am not sure that the Orthodox day school world is necessarily the place to look. Some Orthodox schools are good and some aren’t. There are some models of very impressive community schools such as Heschel in Toronto. However, homeschooling or collective homeschooling for Jewish Studies might be the way to go. Or not. This ought also to be part of the conversation.

  8. I’ve long said that rab school prepares one to start the ideal congregation, although few will actually have the opportunity to start brand new congregations. What students are not prepared for is how to enter the ossified world of congregations as they are now in much of the country – politics, dysfunction and change-adversity. Even with all the preparation in the world, I can’t imagine someone starting Ikar or Mechon Hadar etc in Cleveland or Birmingham or Omaha. The question is how can we bring that revitalization to the smaller communities around the country. Students need experience of changing congregations that aren’t doing creative things and they need their internships to be clinical with mentors who are trained to be mentors.

    I wonder if some class time could be freed up if the history classes could be replaced with reading some really great books.

    • I agree completely. Ideally, rab students could spend their year not only on Fairfax Ave but also in Cleveland or Omaha, or wherever, with trained mentors. That last is a good point.

  9. Thank you, Aryeh, for asking tough questions and exploring unconventional ideas. I also side with Ami Adler. There is a level of complexity here that demands a “yes-and” or “chicken AND egg” approach. Amcha need to engage with living Jewishly at all points in life, AND there need to be clergy to support and teach and lead. On a personal level, Ramah and JTS’ Prozdor prepared me with skills and inspiration to lead an engaged Jewish life, but with no desire to sit in the pews of a suburban synaplex, let alone any desire to cough up more money for a bloated building fund. Unfortunately, denominational Judaism sees this as partly a failure and only partly as a success.

  10. Instead of looking at this question from the point of view of rabbinic education, what if we look at it from the perspective of the innovative communities cited earlier? What makes those communities meaningful centers of learning, worship and community? How does praying and learning and loving in these communities make congregants feel? In other words, what makes their experiences fulfilling and nourishing and essential to them? It is quite possible to speak to the rabbis of these communities and to their members/participants and to define the qualities that get people in the door and keep them coming back. Then the question is how to duplicate or translate these core principles into communities in other towns and cities. When we define the core principles of these vibrant and innovative communities, we will understand better what types of learning and training rabbis most need in order to create thriving and relevant Jewish congregations/communities.

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