Here's what I found out.
1. Conservative Judaism has six generations under one roof. In addition to the usual five age-based demographics that we talk about - (Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, and Generations X, Y and Z) - we have another one that crosses almost all boundaries: the "Camp" generation. USY and Camp Ramah have created a shared experience that is as powerful as the cultural and political dynamics that molded people based on the time period in which they grew up. Camp created peak Jewish moments, connections, relationships and pure joy that former campers yearn to find in their congregations, but can't.
The retreat experience rekindles that spirit. Here's an example of a spontaneous eruption of celebration on Saturday night at Sulam for Presidents as we ended two long days of learning, prayer, reflection and bonding and realized we had to leave the next day.
2. Peak Jewish experiences don't just happen. Every group is different and a meaningful moment for one person or group might never be repeated with others.
Here is an example: Our closing ceremony for Sulam for Presidents has two simple components. Before we say tefillat ha derech, the prayer for travel, participants are asked to say how they have changed during the weekend. A tallit is passed from one president to the next, and when it's your turn to speak, you wear the tallit. The symbolism in the moment is that this tallit has been passed from president to president in every Sulam program for several years, and when it is on your shoulders, you are the next in a line of hundreds that have worn it before you. The tallit wraps one person, but no Sulam president is alone.
One year, our group included two women who had never worn a tallit before. Moving into the presidency of their synagogues was adding weight to their decision about whether or not they would begin this mitzvah. They realized during the tallit ceremony at Sulam that this was the moment when they would make that change in their practice and identity. They asked if they could pass the tallit to each other, and the group shehecheyanu was said with tears of supportive joy.
Knowing that we can't force inspiration, spirituality or meaning, we have only one rule at any of our retreats:
The "recipe" for every day must have three ingredients, the same that are the foundation of our kehillot: Learning, Worship and Community.3. Our new kehilla presidents don't need to be taught about Generation X. They are Gen X. Fourteen of the 40 presidents at our Sulam retreat were between the ages of 33 and 45, and their eyes are wide open. During a large group conversation about change that led to mentioning sisterhoods and men's clubs in synagogues, one 43-year old president said, "Women my age smoke cigars and men my age like to cook. How will our Sisterhood and Men's Club adjust to that?"
4. Collaboration, mergers, sharing space, and sharing staff are going to be considered signs of visioning and planning, rather than foretelling the doom of a community. From the growing community of young families in Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in West Palm Beach, using a small space as their base and renting a large space during High Holidays, to Beit Reyim Synagogue in Ontario that has moved into the Jewish Community Campus, leaders are looking at their vision of 21st Century community first, rather than how to sustain buildings from the 19th and 20th Centuries.
In the last two months, I didn't find much support for the tired narrative of the decline of the Conservative movement. Instead, I saw how Conservative Judaism, born 100 years ago in North America during a time of unprecedented change, gives us the framework for continually creating meaningful Jewish identity and experience. There are signs of fresh thinking, fearlessness and a commitment from a new generation of leaders whose shared experience will build the Jewish community of tomorrow.