In the summer of 2007, my family and I spent a Shabbos outside of Chicago at a resort with over 500 members of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Club officers, die hard members and a few spouses. I was not a participant in their annual national convention, but worked as the event coordinator for a caterer that has a nationally know hechshar, who was hired to make the meals for these men and a few women. I had several interesting observations over the weekend.
- Many Men’s club members/officers I met told me that for all the work they do in getting people to commit to minyan (even once a week), wearing tefillin (they have a world wide campaign), and congregational involvement they lose some of their best to the local Orthodox shuls. This happens mostly because either those Conservative members feel they will gain more knowledge by involvement with Orthodox shuls, or in many cases the local “Chabad rabbi meets them and starts learning with them”.
- Most of the topics of their educational sessions, based on my schmoozing with participants, lacked any discussion regarding a relationship with Hashem, and instead, focused on social responsibility. I grew up in a ‘traditional’ shul in Wichita, Kansas and experienced much the same with my own education. It wasn’t until my exposure to NCSY that God was even mentioned. That was one of the things that drew me to Torah observance. Sadly, this lack of discussing one’s relationship with Hashem seems to still be a problem.
- The weekend took place during the Three Weeks and one participant walked out of services on Shabbos night, not because there was someone playing a guitar and singing Carlebach, but because he viewed the singing as a violation of “the prohibition of not listening to music and being joyful during the Three Weeks” (his words to me).
- There were at least 6 times that someone brought me over to their friends and said “this is what my son or son-in-law looks like” (I have a trimmed beard and was wearing my Shabbos hat).
- As a general statement, I will say that even the most educated of the group that I met were basically in the dark about the day to day life of an orthodox Jew. I got many questions asked to me ranging from tearing toilet paper on Shabbos to what kind of coffee to drink while driving cross-country.
- They are (the Men’s Club, that is) very interested in Orthodox outreach techniques, why Discovery Seminars work, the mechanics of NJOP programs, and the word ‘keruv’ (their spelling) came up in many conversations that I had and was even printed on baseball caps that were sold on Sunday morning. Of course, most of their interest is in doing outreach to intermarried couples, as I was informed.
On man in his late 60s-early 70s came up and asked me why it was a problem to open Splenda packets on Shabbos. I told him because that it’s an issue of breaking the printed letters. He then said, “Well then cutting a cake with writing on is also a problem on Shabbos, right?”
I answered him and then said, “Thanks for the questions. You have a real Yiddishe kup.”
He smiled and told me proudly that he must have gotten it from his great- great-grandfather. He informed me that his grandmother’s grandfather was Rav Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor z’tl. My heart skipped a beat and I got the chills. In fact, I have the chills right now typing.
I asked, “From Kovno?”
“Of course”, he answered.
I informed him that his relative was the authority on Jewish Law for his generation and that I had attended Yeshiva University, which is named after his relative. He told me that he’s been contacted several times by YU about coming out for a visit.
This man has been a former Men’s Club president, congregational president, and most recently in 1997 was the moving force behind for formation of Camp Ramah Dorom. He is, in fact, very close with R Tovia Singer of outreachjudaism.org and has brought R Singer out to his community a number of times. While not following the direct path of his great-great-grandfather, he is nevertheless, someone who is very serious about his Judaism.
It was an eye opening weekend for me. I got a view of the Conservative movement that even some of the most experienced ‘kiruv professionals’ could only have dreamed of. It confirmed much of what I heard about, but their thought-out interest in outreach was new to me.
I often read on blogs about how the Conservative movement is dying. I really can’t comment on this, since I’m Torah observant. I do know that, based on first hand knowledge from substitute teaching in a Reform congregation, that the Reform movement is attempting to attract families and make their congregations more of a social meeting environment, a gathering place. Meanwhile Conservative Judaism, as a movement is losing people to both the left and the right.
If the Conservative movement is trying to adapt “tried and true” kiruv techniques and programs that mimic those within the Orthodox community, then we need to step up to the plate and offer something more. More feeling, more accessible learning, more being truly non-judgmental, and more of a meaningful experience in our observant lifestyle.