I spend a lot of time with Conservatives in the South. Conservative Jews, in this case (probably not what most people picture when you say “Southern and Conservative”).
With all of the information about the downfall and slow death of the Conservative/Masorti movement flying around the Internet (check out some examples here and here), there have been many responses from rabbis and lay leaders all over to the contrary (like this one and this one). One perspective that’s been missing, however, is that of Conservative Judaism in the South.
We here at the ISJL are trans-denominational – which means we value and teach those things that most all Jews share – the importance of Torah and Jewish knowledge, acts of loving-kindness, and meaningful relationships with God, other Jews, and the rest of the world. It also means that we partner with any Southern Jewish congregation, regardless of its denomination.
As an Education Fellow traveling throughout the South, I manage to intimately interact with many different synagogues throughout our region, including many Conservative synagogues from Waco, Texas to Greensboro, North Carolina, and many others in between. Based on my observations, I can say that some of the concern is true – the Conservative movement is shrinking in numbers and that membership and religious school rolls are down throughout our region. However, I am not convinced that it is “dying.” In fact, I’m convinced that in many ways it’s stronger than ever.
After visiting these synagogues on the ground, seeing and talking to real, involved Conservative Jews, I see a much different picture than the one conjured up by the variety of commentators out there. I see a larger community that is being reborn. I see things like:
Able, involved, knowledgeable and inspired laypeople. I’ve seen many laypeople able and willing to lead Shabbat evening and morning services, entirely in Hebrew, without the assistance of a rabbi or cantor: a 13 year old boy leading the entire Musaf service – with repetition, a man in his mid-60s leading all of Shacharit. I’ve witnessed laypeople go out of their way to make sure that services happen.
New innovations all over the place. One rabbi hands out a source sheet to go along with his short Friday night d’rash, so people can follow along. Another one leads Kabbalat Shabbat with the assistance of an MP3 player, for some variety – and since it’s before sunset – there’s no violation of the Sabbath in using electronic devices. I can’t forget to mention the rabbi who plays the accordion as little children dance around and learn how much fun it can be to be Jewish. Several educators have instituted Shabbat School, to bring kids and parents to both participate in services and learn at the same time.
Passion for Judaism and an involved Jewish life. In every congregation, even before I’ve been introduced, people have gone out of their way to meet me and tell me about the congregation and ask me about myself. I’ve been surprised to see packed houses at almost all of the Shabbat services I’ve attended at these congregations.
Engaged and interested youth. Through the work of amazing, talented educators and rabbis, the youth I’ve worked with care immensely about being Jewish. They are proud to be Jewish. They’re willing to sample any wild lesson I might bring with me that weekend, and they’re able and interested in having conversations about important issues.
Based on the Southern and Conservative communities I work with down here, I’m excited about the future of Conservative/Masorti Judaism. I see transformation, growing meaning and vibrancy, and true innovation. Traveling through the South, I see congregations ready to adapt to the changing face of Conservative Judaism, and the changing face of the Jewish world head on. They’re revitalizing Judaism for the future. Likewise, I’ve seen the same characteristics in the Jewish congregations of other denominations I’ve visited throughout the South.
I’m excited for the future of Southern Conservative Jewish life, and truly that of Southern Judaism overall – whether Conservative, Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, or unaffiliated. If you ever get a chance to check out one of these Southern Conservative congregations, or really any Southern Jewish community, check it out. I guarantee you won’t regret it!