Friday, December 13, 2013

Nurturing the Core: Putting Jewish Learning Front and Center

In a recent editor’s column in the New Jersey Jewish News, “The way we do the things we do”  (November 20, 2013), Andrew Silow-Carroll presents a succinct and accurate portrait of current and future challenges faced by Conservative Judaism in North America.  Unlike those who just bemoan the current state of affairs or proclaim our death, Mr. Silow-Carroll presents both challenges and areas of focus that, if addressed in a serious fashion, can serve as the building blocks for a bright future for the movement.  His analysis and suggestions merit further reflection.

The author describes himself in the same way many affiliated Conservative Jews do.  They go to synagogue regularly even if they feel services are too long.  They continue attending because they are at home in terms of ideology, practice and community.  Describing himself as a rarity, Silow-Carroll writes:

            Although I struggle with “obligation,” I like to surround myself with folks who can access Jewish tradition on a deep level, who make Judaism part of their lives well beyond the three hours on a Saturday morning, and who at some level are unable to reconcile the tension between modernity and tradition. We want that old-time religion alongside the new stuff – but constantly worry that one will hurt the other.”

Based on personal conversations and experiences, I believe he is less a rarity than he perceives himself to be. Like Silow-Carroll, many core Conservative Jews are people who want to be in places where they are not the most knowledgeable, most observant people.  They seek to do more and learn more Jewishly. They want to be part of a community, a kehilla, with multiple levels of learning and experience, abundant in role models beyond the clergy to whom they can aspire to emulate and rich in relationships with others with whom they can share Shabbat and other Jewish traditions.  Sadly, because they represent a minority of the whole, they are not studied in-depth and, as a category, are too often marginalized in studies, op-ed articles and strategic efforts.  We must pay more attention to this group. 

As a way to address the future, Silow-Carroll suggests three crucial areas of focus for “scrutinizing the face” Conservative Judaism presents to the world.  He recommends:
  • Invigorating the Shabbat experience;
  • Putting learning front and center; and
  • Exploiting new media.

Embedded in these areas is a deeper message beyond repairing  “the face we show to the public.” Namely, having regular, high-quality, immersive Jewish living and learning experiences together with being part of a powerful, meaning and action driven community are keys to our future and success.  This is neither new nor earth shattering.  It is, however, time for us to pay greater attention to the voices of people like Silow-Carroll and others.  Sitting in Jerusalem, I will leave the question of how to invigorate the Shabbat experience to others.   I do, however, want to address Silow-Carroll’s other two suggestions.

The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and our Conservative Yeshiva serve as a home for Jews struggling “to reconcile the tension between modernity and tradition,” seeking to experience intensive exploration of Jewish text in an intellectual-spiritual and inclusive-egalitarian-pluralist framework.  This is our raison d’etre.  From online learning opportunities to programs in Jerusalem, The Conservative Yeshiva is the place for people to do Torah Lishmah, to learn for learning’s sake. 

Our summer programs, three to six weeks in length, welcome nearly two hundred participants.  The program offers a range of options from full-day learning to half-day study/ half-day volunteering through our partner, Skilled Volunteers for Israel.  Participants range in age from nineteen to ninety-one and come from incredibly diverse backgrounds and abilities: some know no Hebrew while others are fluent; some are affiliated, others are not.  They are united by a desire to learn for their own growth and increased commitment.

This winter, we are launching a pilot program for college juniors and seniors seeking a Jewish learning alternative winter break program in Jerusalem.  For the first time, those who want to delve deeper into their Jewish soul will be able to do so with us instead of other kiruv oriented programs.  Twenty young Jews from across North America will join us for twelve days of immersive learning, exploration of this great city, and soulful experience of the myriad of Shabbat communities in Jerusalem.  In the next few years, we hope to welcome over one hundred students each winter.

Our year-long program is filled both with immediate college graduates and those in their fifties and sixties, learning and experiencing a wide-variety of answers and approaches to Jewish questions of ideology, thought and practice. Our Yeshiva is known for helping individuals take the next steps on their Jewish journeys, not dictating specific paths or outcomes.  In the future, we will offer shorter programs, from one week, theme-based open programs and programs for specific professions to drop in programs for those who want to invest one day of an Israel trip to Jewish learning.

Programming in Israel, however, is not sufficient to impact the lives of Jews in North America and the world.  To that end, the Conservative Yeshiva offers a growing number of online learning opportunities.  From e-shiurim, single unit lessons, source sheets included, on a particular issue delivered via e-mail to semester-long online courses, people are able to learn at their own pace, in their own home with teachers in Jerusalem.  This year, we piloted Daf Shevui, a program where two pages of Talmud are broken up into six digestible units also delivered to your inbox daily (  You can also study one Mishnah each day with the Conservative Yeshiva.  Over 3,000 Jews in North America participated in Mishna Yomit ( .  As we secure additional resources, we will produce more learning opportunities on a diverse range of topics.

For too long, The Conservative Yeshiva, a program of The Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, has been among the best kept secrets for Jews in North America like Andrew Silow-Caroll and those he represents.  If putting learning at the forefront and using new media to reach more Jews are key to building a stronger future for the vital center of Judaism, we are answering the call.   To retain the Andrew Silow-Carrol’s and the myriad others like him, immersive, relationship-based learning and community will be key.  We would do well to listen to them.  Here, at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and our Conservative Yeshiva, we already are.