The Future of Conservative Judaism

agouraguy's picture

In his July 2012 article, “A Game Plan for Renewal: The Demise of National Movements and their Rebirth,” Dr. Steven Windmueller of the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College reports on his research showing that many religious, political, fraternal and social movements in North America are in decline.  He offers several reasons including increasing membership costs, multiple competing causes and interests, the replacement of traditional memberships with social networks, and the lesser interest and loyalty of younger adults to their parents’ institutions.   He further suggests that “an increasing secularization of American postmodern society” intensifies this trend for many diverse liberal religious groups, and cites the substantial decline in membership of Conservative synagogues over the past decade as an example.

When I read this article I was a short year away from beginning my term as FJMC president; it impacted my thinking and helped me formulate my vision for FJMC and the types of activities that we should pursue to accomplish that vision.  For some time I had been concerned about the decline of our Movement and its ramifications for the future of Judaism overall within North America, but I had not realized that what was happening in Conservative Judaism was at least partially a reflection of what was happening throughout our society.   To an extent, this was a bit liberating.  The literature is filled with articles that attempt to describe the many problems and defects in our Movement that are supposed to be the root cause of declining synagogue affiliation.   Now, it seems, that while there are many areas in our Movement which can be improved, the fault is not exclusively internal.   On the other hand, with such major social and cultural shifts occurring in virtually every area of life, what could we do to counter these global trends in order to revitalize Conservative Judaism?

Over the next several months the leadership of FJMC held several “think tanks” to identify or create new concepts and approaches that we could develop and provide to our men’s clubs and their congregational communities in an attempt to “turn the tide” and attract men (especially younger men) and their families back to their synagogues.    We developed some preliminary, exciting ideas which we felt would have merit, and began to mature them for implementation.

Then, in October 2013 the now infamous Pew Report was published.  This served as a wakeup call for our Movement’s leadership to refocus attention onto the issues and challenges facing us, and to seek opportunities and solutions.  For me, the Pew Report reemphasized concerns about the future of Judaism in America, as well as the future of our Movement.  It also reinforced the concept that our Movement in particular is being impacted by the same social and cultural trends affecting many other movements and organizations, especially those that are “in the center.”  More importantly, it provided the motivation for FJMC to work more aggressively on the concepts that we had already begun to develop, and it suggested that we might be proceeding in the right direction.

We’ve now formulated and have begun implementing an action plan designed to positively impact our Movement while adding value to our clubs.  The plan is based on three major elements:  membership growth, innovative programming initiatives, and Keruv/outreach to interfaith families. 

Membership Growth.   Last year FJMC experienced a small but significant growth in membership, and the attendance at our last International Convention in July 2013 was at an all-time high by more than 20%.  We realized that if we could accomplish this at a time when synagogue membership was declining, there’s no reason that we couldn’t grow even more – so at our Convention we launched a major Membership Campaign which is still in progress.  The objectives are to grow the number of men who belong to each of our clubs, as well as to affiliate new clubs.   Despite the social and cultural trends discussed earlier, we believe that men will join and be active in their men’s club if they perceive that their clubs bring meaning to their lives – and this meaning usually derives from the strong relationships that are often built within a men’s club.  We think that this is the key to growth and retention, and it reflects the lessons that we learned from Dr. Ron Wolfson when he spoke at our Convention about his latest book, “Relational Judaism.”  Men (and women) are hungry for meaningful relationships, and if we can foster these in our clubs then certainly our clubs will grow.

We also know that new members add strength to existing clubs, and new clubs add strength to our regions.  Further as clubs get stronger with new members and as new clubs affiliate, their synagogues grow stronger.  How?  For many men involvement in synagogue life is not a priority, but men’s clubs often serve as gateways to enhanced participation.  As a man sees the value of active participation in his club, he starts to see the value of volunteering more in his synagogue, attending prayer services, performing mitzvah projects, participating in adult education classes, etc.  He learns that he can be a role model for his children, and he embraces that new role.  Hence increased membership yields stronger clubs yields stronger synagogues.  Further, we are encouraging our active club members to reach out to their friends to attend club programs, activities, and events – and these can be friends from within the synagogue or friends who are not members of their synagogue.  As their friends begin to see the value of being a men’s club member, they begin to see the value of synagogue membership as well.  Growth begets growth, and everyone wins – the club, the synagogue, and certainly the new member.

Programming.  We’re developing six new programmatic initiatives that our clubs can pursue in conjunction with their clergy, as appropriate, to further our Mission of “involving Jewish men in Jewish life.”   We know that one major obstacle to synagogue participation is the discomfort that many men and women experience during prayer services.  The reasons include lack of knowledge of the prayers, unfamiliarity with the services, and little or no ability to read Hebrew.   To address these issues, we’re developing three types of services (in partnership with the Cantors Assembly) to provide a meaningful Shabbat morning experience and we’re revamping our highly successful Hebrew Literacy program, as follows:

  1. Our Learner’s Service is a six session course to educate congregants about the basic structure, meaning, and choreography of the Shabbat service. 
  2. Our Experiential Service is a weekly service that integrates discussion, study, and prayer. 
  3. Our Meditation Service provides an alternative spiritual experience for the congregants. 
  4. Our Hebrew Literacy program utilizes an on-line training approach to teach basic Hebrew with an emphasis on the words used during Shabbat prayers. 

Our fifth initiative provides guidelines and models for celebrating Shabbat at home on Friday evening with a joyful and spiritual Shabbat dinner that engages family and friends.  (Please see my article in last September’s CJ, “Shabbat has kept the Jews” for background on this initiative:  This is an update to our popular “The Shabbat Seder,” which was published nearly 30 years ago.

Finally, we’re developing (also with the CA) “Creating a Minyan of Comfort,” a two hour training course and guidebook designed to teach men how to lead a shiva minyan.

These initiatives will be piloted in selected synagogues across North America this fall.  Assuming that they meet their respective objectives they will be officially “launched” and modeled to our clubs at our upcoming International Convention next July in Miami.

Keruv.  As was documented in the Pew Report, intermarriage is now a fact of life.  FJMC began working with interfaith couples and their families more than a dozen years ago in our pioneering Keruv (literally, “to draw near”) initiative.  Our approach has been to provide guidance and information to synagogues to promote the welcoming of interfaith families, with the goal of encouraging the raising of Jewish children.   We’ve trained several dozen “Keruv consultants” who are engaged with the clergy and congregational leadership in their synagogues and in neighboring synagogues to implement Keruv programming, and we’ve conducted rabbinic think tanks with over 150 pulpit rabbis to delve into the various issues associated with interfaith families and to sensitize them to the needs of these families.  This initiative continues to grow.  As the rate of intermarriage increases, there is a growing opportunity to draw additional families nearer to Judaism, and specifically into Conservative synagogues. 

We’re hopeful that this action plan will help to strengthen Conservative Judaism, and we’re optimistic that the future of our Movement is bright! 

[Note:  This is an advance version of an article that I submitted for publication in the Fall issue of CJ Magazine.  I've posted it here to give our FJMC members an opportunity to review it prior to publication, and to offer any reactions, suggestions, etc., that you may have.  I look forward to seeing your comments!]




Yeshar ko'ach on the year

Yeshar ko'ach on the year just coming to an end! I'm so glad you're at the helm and guiding the organization. One more thing that you could try to weave into the FJMC's initiatives is succession planning. Leaders need to help mentor/grow successors to replace them. Some clubs do this better than others. It would be good if this were given more priority ... especially for new clubs just getting started that don't already have this concept in mind.


agouraguy's picture

Thanks for your comments.  We do cover succession planning in our Club Officers Manual, in our training at Convention, and in our training of consultants and regional officers who visit and support our clubs -- but clearly we can do a lot better.  You are correct that new clubs in particular are challenged by this, especially as they are struggling to establish a functioning board and attract members and potential leaders.  I'll transmit your suggestions to our Training team and to our Club Services team.