The Forward is reporting that a group of congregations is preparing to nail a protest to the door of the United Synagogue, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm. An advanced copy of the strongly-worded missive, obtained by the newspaper, accuses the USCJ of having grown “insular, unresponsive, and of diminishing value to its member congregations.” Set to go out today, the letter also hints that these Conservative synagogues may consider withdrawing from the movement if serious changes are not initiated within ninety days.
Though in recent decades it has become standard practice to identify Jews by their “flavor”—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist—denominationalism is actually a latter day, foreign imposition on organized Jewish life, representing the influence of American Protestantism.
This rebellion, still modest but growing, against what was until fairly recently considered the powerhouse of American Jewry, signifies a general weakening of denominational influence. The willingness of local synagogues to raise their voices against an authoritative national body comes at a time when “transdenominationalism” has emerged as a buzzword, and many younger Jews are banding together to form grassroots, unaffiliated religious communities.
Denominational bodies still have plenty to offer American Jewish life. Practically speaking, they are powerful organizational tools, providing mechanisms for fundraising, supporting schools that train rabbis, cantors, and educators, and offering institutional guidance and quality control. They can articulate powerful and distinctive Jewish ideologies, and provide their member congregations with resources that keep these synagogues from growing spiritually stale.
But, so long assuming themselves to be inviolable, the movements may very well be growing stale themselves. Competition, in the form of unaffiliated and transdenominational alternatives, will hopefully shake them up and make them start fulfilling their roles with a little more urgency.