On Quitting: Learning from Failure
by Donna Gerson
This winter, my husband and I quit the Conservative shul that we belonged to for nearly ten years. While the saying – "winners never quit and quitters never win" – resonates in my head, I realize that sometimes leaders need to assess circumstances, cut losses, learn from their experience, and move on.
Our decision to leave our congregation has been part of a larger journey that began prior to my affiliation with the Wexner Heritage Program and intensified over the last year. Raised in a Conservative Jewish home, I turned to Conservative Judaism as an adult more out of reflex than reflection when we decided to join a congregation in the suburbs.
The rabbi at the congregation we just left is lovely – a young, fun, and thoughtful person. Most of the congregants are really nice people who are trying their best to build a community through faith. We had no clash of wills with the rabbi, administration, or congregants. Instead, we found that we simply did not adhere to the belief system that anchors the Conservative Movement.
After years of attending services, I knew we were not Conservative Jews and had no aspiration to become Conservative Jews. Like so many, I suspect, we were simply paying our dues out of inertia. Our son’s bar mitzvah was looming on the horizon. I didn’t have the strength or will to explore other options. The only other congregation in easy commuting distance from our home is a Reform temple that we tried years earlier and did not find particularly welcoming. And, yes, there was a good dose of Jewish guilt thrown in, too. Good Jews affiliated with a congregation; Bad Jews chose not to affiliate. I did not want to be a Bad Jew. So I settled for being a Disconnected Jew.
My first Wexner Summer Institute in Aspen opened my eyes to meaningful prayer options. At first, I wanted to skip the optional morning prayer sessions. Why not catch some extra sleep at the luxurious St. Regis? I didn’t attend morning minyan at home, I reasoned, so why start now? I’m so glad I didn’t take the lazy route. I woke up early, grabbed coffee, and tried the liberal minyan. Coffee is allowed at morning prayers at Wexner, which got me thinking about designing cup holders for pews, but I digress. A-ha! It is possible to gather together, pray, contemplate, and discuss torah in a meaningful way. It is possible for me to engage in ritual that does not feel stale or forced. It is possible to feel a sense of community.
I came to understand that I could connect congregationally, but that my choices back home were not suiting my needs. When I made this observation to a mentor of mine, his response was, "work to change it from within." Easier said than done. Ever petition a synagogue Ritual Committee? Death Row inmates get more due process. Ever try to change a Religious School curriculum or hire a Religious School director? Try wading into that muck for a few weeks.
After a year of soul-searching, I concluded that I cannot (and should not) change the Conservative Movement or my synagogue in particular. In the words of Gandhi, I need to "be the change I want to see in the world." And in this instance, I needed to step away graciously. I am now comfortable in the Land of the Unaffiliated. It may be my permanent residence, but I hope that my family finds the congregational connection we need. First, though, we will engage in a period of denominational palate-cleansing that will renew our focus on home rituals. We’ll research, read, and talk together. Then we are going to explore our options with open hearts and open minds.
I’m proud to say it: I’m a quitter. But I’m taking steps to lead myself toward finding meaning and joy in my Judaism.