First, I want to distinguish between the efforts of individual rabbis and those of the Conservative movement as a whole.
A rabbi who leads congregants to volunteer at a food bank may be reflecting the values of the movement, but is acting as an individual.
The Conservative movement acted as a movement when it decided to ordain women and, more recently, gays and lesbians.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel led eight hundred people to FBI headquarters in New York City to protest the brutal treatment of demonstrators at Selma, he was leading a movement — not just a group of individuals.
Second, if the Conservative movement is "about" the excellence of its scholarship, no one in the "real world" will care, any more than the average college student cares what's discussed over lunch at the faculty club. The rare student may want to join the club, but that doesn't make the club a "movement."
To be a movement, a movement has to move: it has to have a direction. Moses led the people out of Egypt; Joshua led them into the Promised Land. But in between there was a lot of aimless wandering around in the desert. Moses' job was to keep the people fed, safe from Amelekites, and away from gilded livestock. The people may have had Torah but they weren't doing much with it. Mostly they whined about the fleshpots of Egypt, bickered, and backslid, while Moses waited for them to die off so a worthier generation could take their place.
Is the Convervative movement wandering in the desert today, neither leaving nor arriving, concerned with keeping the people fed (Kiddush lunch), safe from Amelikites (assimilation), and away from gilded livestock (intermarriage) while waiting for a new, worthier generation, raised on Camp Ramah and USY, to grow up and take its rightful place?
And hasn't this been going on for at least 40 years now?
If the Conservative movement is "about" anything other than scholarship, it is about pluralism. In the US, this is a done deal. But here in Israel the war is being waged by a handful of hardy guerilla warriors like Andy Sacks, with minimal backing from the US.
The Jewish press is constantly harping about the growing alienation from Israel of American Jews, and young American Jews in particular. Well, duh! American Jews see images of Gaza, the separation barrier, and the settlements. They read about the haredim rioting in the streets, crashing through the doors at Intel, spitting on women in tallitot, and beating up women who don't move to the back of the bus. US Jews know that "Jews like us" here (Conservative, Reform, and secular — i.e., the majority of American Jews) are second class citizens in Israel. Even the US State Department recognizes this. http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2009/127349.htm . What is there to "relate to" here other than a heroic history and a shared fondness for felafel and espresso bars?
It will take more than Birthright trips to overcome this well-founded alienation, more than hikes and beaches and sunrises atop Masada to get many US Jews to admire Israel as more than a pretty picture on a Facebook page.
So if the Conservative movement wants to be about something, perhaps a vigorous defense of (which is to say offense for) pluralism in Israel would be the place to start.
I previously suggested that the movement organize a march to the Kotel of 1000 women in tallitot. At the last Rosh Hodesh, a professor from Saskatchewan used her frequent flyer miles to join 150 Women of the Wall. What if 500 US shuls each sent a woman, each wearing a banner proudly declaring the name of her community, and they marched with 500 Israeli women, including women in the IDF? And what if this was timed to coincide with a Birthright trip? Now that would be a movement.
The rapid rise of J Street suggests that a starry-eyed vision of Israel's perfection is no longer shared by a large number of American Jews. They don't believe in "Israel, right or wrong," let alone "How dare you criticize Israel; do you want to give aid and comfort to our enemies?"
The way to engage the J Street generation (which will inherit both the wealth and power of the AIPAC generation) is not to sell them Zion as a shining city on a hill, but as a Habitat for Humanity fixer-upper — scruffy, with with lots of potential — that needs their help to become the best possible home for the Jewish people.
As Chancellor Eisen said, "Israel is too important to sit by and let other people blow it.”
Other people are already blowing it. So what is the Conservative movement going to do about it?
Perhaps now, at the start of a new decade, is the time for the movement to set some goals — to have the Promised Land in view and to track progress toward it.
For example, the movement might resolve that by 2019:
· The Israeli government will fund non-Orthodox rabbis and institutions on the same basis as Orthodox ones.
· That non-Orthodox marriages and conversions, on the soil of Israel, will be recognized on the same basis as those performed by the Orthodox establishment.
· That women will be protected under Israeli law (rather than subject to arrest) if they daven in tallitot (and tefillin) and read from the Torah at the Kotel or in any other public space.
· And that at least one Masorti rabbi will sit on the Jerusalem City Council and in the Knesset.
The movement recently raised millions of dollars to fund a new campus for the Schechter Institute, and has raised millions more for the Fucshberg Center in Jerusalem. If the movement is to be a movement, and not just an exclusive club with fancy buildings, perhaps it could find a way to supplement the $2 million that now (under) funds every Masorti rabbi, shul, camp, insutition, and political/legal effort in Israel? In the process, it might not only save Israel for "Jews like us" but make Israel relevant again for the J Street generation and perhaps reinvigorate the movement in the US.