Conservatives’ New Dish

I read a remarkable quote a few days ago from a prominent member of the Conservative movement: “We’ve been searching for an identity for a hundred years now.”

A hundred years?

In the business world, products can fail in a year or two if they don’t have an identity. But in religion, maybe God gives you a pass from the realities of the marketplace.

Or maybe not.

Over the past couple of decades, the Conservative movement has been in a steady decline. A couple of years ago, one of the leaders, in his outgoing speech, described the movement as suffering from “malaise” and a “grievous failure of nerve.”

Everyone has a theory for why this has happened.

Mine is that they do have an identity, but it’s the wrong one: A great debating society.

When you think of the Conservative movement, you think of fascinating, complicated debates that aim to reconcile traditional halacha (Jewish law) with modern sensibilities. The leadership always seems to be going through some noble struggle to craft rulings that will delineate the permissible boundaries of their movement.

Now, the new powers have spoken, and after a 17-month “listening tour” and strategic review, they have decided to recommend … more debate.

From what I gather, they’ve had enough with “top-down” leadership, and now it’s time to let the “people” in on the process. They’re calling it the “mitzvah project,” whereby people will be encouraged to debate within their communities their personal views and feelings on mitzvahs, including, presumably, which ones of the 613 they feel like doing.

If you ask me, it sounds like they’ve thrown in the towel.

They haven’t figured out how to revitalize their movement, so they’re handing off the problem to the masses and calling it a grand community experiment to help define the movement.

That sounds noble, but there’s a problem: when you’re schlepping from carpool lanes to soccer practices with screaming kids in the minivan, you’re not in the mood to define religious movements. Professors, rabbis and scholars might live for the grand debate, but normal people don’t. They’re consumed with their own problems, like family, money, relationship and health. When they finally squeeze in time for religion, they want more than fascinating debates.

They want real nourishment.

For years, noisy, public debates — including some important ones on gender and gay issues — have had an enormous relevance to the process of Conservatives’ self-definition, but significantly less relevance to the nourishing of their flock.

As a result, the burden has fallen on individual communities, where local success stories are often due to charismatic and enterprising rabbis. It’s a shame the national leadership hasn’t led the way. But they can. They just need to expand their horizons. I would offer these suggestions:

First, de-emphasize the word Conservative and focus on Judaism.

Your followers are Jewish first and Conservative second. So are you. Focus less on the subtleties of your denomination and more on the richness of Judaism. Celebrate great answers, not just great questions.

Second, nourish your people with Judaism that connects to their lives. Unlike their rabbis, people don’t get paid to go to synagogues or conferences. They want to know: How will Judaism help me navigate through life? How will it enrich it? They don’t care whether their religion is organized or disorganized, as long as it’s relevant.

Launch a series — in video, Web, print and live classes — that would be called: “What Does Judaism Say About…?” Each section would deal with an issue people care about: money, marriage, social justice, raising kids, ecology, art, business ethics, health, intimacy, tikkun olam (healing the world), pleasure, charity, community, relationships, etc.

Have your experts craft this “nourishment” from the Torah literature they already teach, but would now tailor to the everyday interests and concerns of your people.

You can call it the Jewish Nourishment Project.

The more people feel that Judaism nourishes them, the more they’ll want to do mitzvahs, rather than just debate them. And when they do engage in debate, it will be from a point of knowledge — not only feelings and opinions.

The third suggestion is to nourish your people’s hearts and souls with spiritual experiences. The Conservative movement has some of the best and most spiritual “nourishers” in the Jewish world. Rabbi Ron Wolfson, for example, and many others have developed innovative ways of making the synagogue experience more welcoming and inspiring. Borrow from your local achievements to create national programs. Give spirituality a bigger priority in your seminaries. Create an annual spiritual convention. Help Jews elevate, not just debate.

Finally, think portable. Take your movement on the road and to college campuses. Reconnect with the thousands of Jews who have been nourished by one of your biggest success stories — Camp Ramah. Become known as a movement that provides Jewish knowledge and spiritual joy for all generations, even when they’re not in synagogue.

Make the head offices of the movement a Web-driven resource center to help disseminate your Jewish nourishment. Create your own global Webcasting network.

In short, re-brand yourselves as great Jewish nourishers — of the mind, body and soul.

Your efforts will always include fascinating debates and sensitive rulings. But these aren’t enough. If you want to thrive in the next century, you’ll need to start nourishing the Jewish world with what it is hungry for.

And that is good old Judaism, served up smart, deep and delicious.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at