Parashat Vayishlach 5780
Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Earlier this week I was in Boston, along with our president, Shirley Davidoff, and our Chief Operating Officer, Kim West, for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Rabbinical Assembly’s joint “20/20 Judaism” conference, a conference for the lay and rabbinic arms of the Conservative Movement. As an aside, when I found out that the Reform Movement’s conference this week was being held in Chicago, I couldn’t help but wonder: note to conference organizers, would it be too much trouble for you to plan winter conferences in WARMER PLACES? I’m just sayin’…
In any case, heavy jackets aside, the convention was bustling and lively, with about 1400 people in attendance, including some staff, volunteers, and exhibitors. I’m not sure if it’s the largest convention USCJ and the RA have ever had, but it certainly was the largest in some time, and there was a great deal of energy in the building from convention-goers. As you might expect, we had a series of large group, full-convention plenaries, including the opening session on the topic of “Why Are We Dreaming Together?” featuring a keynote address by NY Times columnist Bari Weiss; a session on “Why Be a Conservative Movement” featuring a dialogue with the leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Rabbinical Assembly, USCJ, and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies; and a session on “Will We Serve the Jews of Today and Tomorrow?”, looking at research regarding Jewish youth today and where they’re at. In addition to thought-provoking presentations to the entire convention body that fed our minds, we also gathered together to listen to, and sing along with, the engaging and inviting styles of contemporary liturgical singers like Joey Weisenberg from Machon Hadar and Rabbi Josh Warshawsky, feeding our Jewish souls with the uplifting ruach, spirit, of these moving encounters. We also had ample opportunities over meals and coffees to network, idea share, and brainstorm, with colleagues and friends from all over the Conservative Movement—keep in mind the Movement spans not just the U.S., but also Canada, Latin America, Israel, and Western and Central Europe, not to mention in places as far away as Melbourne, Australia! And of course, there were a number of slots in the convention schedule for breakout sessions where we could select topics that were of most interest and relevance to individual convention-goers.
In one such session I attended, entitled “Who are Today’s Conservative Jews?”, we were presented with combined data from surveys conducted of the Jewish communities in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC, in 2015, 2017, and 2017, respectively. That data was also compared at various points in the session to findings from the 2013 Pew Research Center study of the American Jewish community and framed to offer us some potential takeaways from the available data. Here are a few interesting stats: when asked in these surveys what denomination Jews identified with, the Pew Study had 35% identify Reform, 18% Conservative, 10% Orthodox, 6% Other, and 30% No Denomination; and the merged data of the other three studies came up with 32% Reform, 19% Conservative, 6% Orthodox, 2% Other, and 41% None (which included Secular/Cultural and “Just Jewish”). Another stat: for those who, when asked, identify denominationally as Conservative Jews, 57% of them are members of synagogues, with 32% belonging to Conservative synagogues specifically and 25% belonging to other types of synagogues; whereas 85% of those who identified Orthodox are members of any synagogue, and 41% of those who identified Reform are members of any synagogue. When it comes to age groups, one might be surprised to find out that the percentage of those who identify denominationally as Conservative barely varies whether the person asked is 18 or over 80 or anywhere in between—the percentages hold steady in a very narrow band at 18-21% throughout that timeline. Unsurprisingly, where the numbers vary more are in the synagogue affiliation rate itself, with only 25% affiliation between ages 18-34, moving up to 36% affiliation from ages 35-49, peaking at 41% between ages 50-64 and then trending slightly downward to 37% from ages 65-79 as well as age 80+. A few other stats about behaviors and attitudes in these 3 Jewish communities that were surveyed: of those who identify Conservative--
Among the takeaways presented from this data, our session leader, a researcher at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, noted that the data complicates our understanding of the label “Conservative” in that there are Conservative Jews who are not synagogue members and there are also members of Conservative synagogues who don’t actually identify as Conservative Jews denominationally. It certainly raises important questions about who we’re currently serving, and who we might yet serve. The fact that Millennials and the Gen Z generation are still affiliating at lower rates than Gen X and Baby Boomers is one that has been consistently noted in recent survey data and challenges us as modern Jewish institutions to continue to create more entry points and lower bars to participation into synagogue life and Jewish life in general. I was pleased to learn that, in the communities studied, 57% of Jews who identify as Conservative Jews are members of at least one synagogue, whether the synagogue itself is Conservative or an independent minyan or affiliated with another movement—that number seemed higher than I would have expected. And I was likewise encouraged to see some of the behavioral and attitudinal data that I shared with you a couple of minutes ago, which suggests, as the Pew Study data suggested as well, that Jews who are identifying as Conservative on balance are relatively engaged Jewishly, both in ritual practices as well as in supporting Jewish community here and in Israel.
So where does all of this leave us? At the outset of today’s parasha, when Jacob is anticipating his reunion with Esau, knowing Esau is coming his way with a large company of men and not knowing Esau’s intentions for him, the text says “va-yira Ya’akov m’od”, Jacob was greatly frightened. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of rabbinic legends on the Torah from close to 2000 years ago, teaches us (76:1) that “two people received God’s assurances, yet they were afraid; the chosen one of the Patriarchs—Jacob—and the chosen one of the Prophets—Moses—despite the teaching from Proverbs (3.5) to “trust in God with all your heart”. Thus, according to the Midrash, the Jewish people in other precarious moments in our history—like in the days of Haman and the Purim story, for example--could justify their own fear by saying, “If our ancestor Jacob, who had received God’s assurance of protection, was nevertheless afraid for his survival, how much the more so are we justified in feeling afraid?” Jacob’s example illustrates that fear, or anxiety, is actually fully compatible with deep faith.
A number of scholars and sociologists have, in the last 10-20 years, sounded the alarm bell for Conservative Judaism, warning that the Conservative Movement is rapidly heading for extinction. So, should we be afraid of what they’re saying? Should we be feeling hopeless for the future, or perhaps even fearing for our survival as a Movement? Friends, I think we should take a page out of our ancestor Jacob’s book. Namely, on the one hand we should embrace the healthy anxiety that some of the statistics may cause us, because it is out of this anxiety and concern and even fear that a meaningful way of Jewish life is being lost, that we are forced to rise to the challenge. We must continue to do more outreach, embrace innovation, and passionately and energetically model Jewish engagement and practice that is both traditional and adaptive, and thought-provoking for our minds and inspiring for our hearts and souls. And on the other hand, we should not just embrace our anxieties on this issue, but we should also have faith:
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