Over the past 15 years, we have witnessed the phenomenal growth of independent minyanim. Today there are more than 80 that are not affiliated with any movement. But many of their members grew up in the Conservative movement, went to Camp Ramah, were active in USY, and studied at Solomon Schechter day schools. Some of the minyanim, in fact, are led by Conservative rabbis.
Although some of their religious services may seem to be different from those in United Synagogue congregations, they generally are Conservative Jewish services attended by Conservative Jews — outside a Conservative synagogue.
To compound the challenge, many of the more committed people who were inspired by our movement have chosen to identify with Orthodox congregations, not because of the ideology but because they seek others who share their commitment to the very ideals that we say we hold dear. They bought into what we said we stand for — but they do not find it in our synagogues. So they seek elsewhere.
This movement did not happen by chance. As Rabbi Jack Shechter discussed in “From Conservative to Orthodox — and Back?” (CJ Winter 2008/2009), these people made concrete decisions to live the Judaism that we inspired them to live — outside Conservative Judaism. They live precisely as we told them to, but paradoxically they practice their Judaism outside our movement.
They perceive that there is no place for them and their Judaism in the Conservative synagogue.
If we want to grow in numbers and strength, if we want to inspire passion and commitment, we have to welcome those Jews who live our values and ideology outside of our synagogues to do it inside our synagogues instead.
We often juxtapose the words “congregation” and “synagogue” as if they were synonymous, but they are not. A synagogue is a building. In Jewish life, a congregation is a community of people that uses the synagogue for prayer, study and social engagement. Usually the synagogue is home to only one congregation. But what would happen if we were to expand our thinking to inspire synagogue leaders to accept alternative congregations that live within Conservative values and halachah to share a single synagogue home and in so doing enhance themselves and Conservative Judaism?
Let us invite individuals or groups of whatever size who want to practice Conservative Judaism differently than we do (as long as it is done within the fences of halachah) to do it in our synagogues.
Let us convey this message: We invite you to be part of our synagogue. We understand that there are aspects of our approach with which you don’t feel comfortable. We welcome you to our community and we’ll find a way for us to live together, under one roof.
And then we have to be willing to engage in dialogue. We must be open to the conversation, and perhaps to necessary compromise. Yes, there are financial implications. Yes, there may be a diversity of style. But discussion, compromise, and openness can help not only our partners but also us to grow.
The time has come to realize our potential to influence and inspire Jews with our meaningful approach to Judaism. But to do that, the pluralism bound by halachah that engages us must exist not only between synagogues and congregations but within them as well.
(Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.)