In praise of the Conservative movement

In praise of the Conservative movement

Rabbi Alan Silverstein
Rabbi Alan Silverstein

The 10 Days of Repentance edition of NJJN (Oct. 3) featured Stewart Ain’s story highlighting the views of critics and detractors of the Conservative movement from around the country. The High Holidays liturgy envisions a trial in which words of criticism ought to be accompanied by words of praise. The following observations seek to balance these scales of judgment in assessing Conservative Judaism.

• Jack Wertheimer’s wonderful 2018 volume, “The New American Judaism,” offers an assessment of the Pew study’s 1.2 million self-identified Conservative Jews in the United States comprising 26 percent of “Jews by Religion” and 29 percent of synagogue members.

Wertheimer draws upon “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed,” the Mosaic article he wrote in 2014 in collaboration with Steven M. Cohen, and points to a “denominational gradient” among American Jews (e.g., ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Jews of no denomination, Jews of no religion). Greater intensity of Jewish living yields higher levels of Jewish identification. In “The New American Judaism,” Wertheimer writes, “On every measure of religious participation, Conservative Jews today score higher than all other Jews except the [ultra and Modern] Orthodox.”

Wertheimer observes: Conservative Jews “are the most likely to attend religious services with some regularity, to observe Jewish holidays in their homes, and to put a strong emphasis upon Jewish education.” He notes that “more than any other non-Orthodox group, Conservative Jews give to Jewish causes, support Jewish organizations, travel to Israel, and socialize primarily with Jewish friends…. Much of Jewish organizational life, moreover, is beholden to Conservative Jews working as professionals and volunteer leaders and investing themselves in the needs of the Jewish people.”

Wertheimer adds that it is not true “that the majority of [nearly 600] local Conservative congregations are floundering….” He goes on to say that it is unquestionable that the memberships of certain congregations, not just Conservative, are declining, a reflection of the practices of aging baby boomers. Yet, Wertheimer adds, “in the face of these hard realities, energetic [Conservative] synagogue leaders, clergy, and board members alike have sprung into action.”

The Pew data also indicate that 98 percent of self-identifying Conservative Jews are “proud” to be Jewish, 93 percent feel that “being Jewish” is “important” to their lives, 90 percent regard Israel as “an important part of being Jewish,” and nearly 90 percent express “an emotional attachment to Israel,” especially the 56 percent who have visited Israel. Four in 10 self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least one time per month, and half of these Jews are current synagogue members.

In “The New American Judaism,” Wertheimer’s research confirms that “for the preponderant majority of affiliated Conservative Jews, what they seek is a style of service and a certain ambiance” one that combines traditional aspects with egalitarianism, and “a different balance of tradition and change” than in more liberal congregations. Conservative synagogues, he writes, “include a higher proportion of people who have basic synagogue skills and an understanding of how Judaism works … most apparent in the dozens of congregants found in many Conservative synagogues who are able to lead the Hebrew services, read Torah, and chant the haftarah.”

• During 5779, The Jewish Education Project published the results of a “Gen-Z” survey among 17,000 Jewish teens currently engaged in such youth-serving organizations (YSO) as USY, NFTY, NCSY, BBYO, or Young Judaea; Jewish day school; and/or Jewish camp. Overall, teens ages 13-19 involved in YSOs reported higher scores on all of the Gen-Z “desired outcomes” — e.g., positive attitudes about Jewish identity and connection to Israel; pride in being Jewish, forming friendships with other Jews, sustaining Jewish family values, and feeling empowered to make changes in the world. They also scored high on feeling good about themselves and deepening relationships with family, friends, and mentors. Among members of YSOs, each category of top-tier youth success featured USY, Conservative Judaism’s youth movement.

• Canadian Jewry published data assessing its 400,000-strong Jewish community, reporting, “Almost everyone surveyed says being Jewish in their life is very (64 percent) or somewhat (27 percent) important, with few (8 percent) indicating it is of little or no importance.” The report goes on, “Most Jews in Canada have participated in one or more types of Jewish education when growing up. Jewish education will most likely include attendance at an overnight summer camp, Hebrew school, or Sunday school, but close to one-half have attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva and have done so for an average of nine years.”

Jewish religious movements, notably Conservative Judaism, are the drivers of these impressive statistics. The study concludes that “Conservative Judaism … is alive and well in Canada” and tops the charts of affiliation, followed by Orthodoxy and, only then, Reform, with a small number in the smaller movements, and a further 30 percent identifying themselves “just Jewish.” Among the more than “six in 10 Jews [who] report belonging to or being actively involved in one of the mainstream denominations, the breakdown is as follows: Conservative (26 percent), Orthodox/Modern Orthodox (17 percent), Reform (16 percent).”

• Inspiring news should be shared about the growth of the Masorti (and Reform) movements in Israel as noted in “Rising Streams,” the recent study by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute. The Camp Ramah network released impressive data affirming the high levels of Jewish identity among its thousands of alumni. The Conservative/Masorti movement has expanded, now offering five rabbinical schools (Jewish Theological Seminary, Ziegler/LA, Schechter/Jerusalem, Seminario/Argentina, Frankel/Germany). Masorti Olami continues to add affiliated congregations in Europe, Latin America, and beyond. The international Rabbinical Assembly has engaged a new executive director, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, to lead the implementation of a comprehensive strategic plan, and JTS is preparing to open its new campus.

Yes, like most long-established Jewish organizations, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism is facing fiscal and institutional challenges. A strategic plan is gradually being implemented, and a new CEO will be sought. The global movement remains 2.1 million strong: 1.2 million self-identified Conservative Jews in the United States and 900,000 (and growing) self-identified Conservative/Masorti Jews elsewhere around the world. The “centrist” religious role played within American and world Jewry by the Conservative/Masorti movement is a source of great blessing. 

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, served as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14) and is president of the Conservative movement’s Mercaz Olami.

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