A year ago the writing appeared to be on the wall. The Pew Research Center’s study of American Jews confirmed a picture of a Conservative movement that was leaking members. Thirty percent of those raised Conservative had left for Reform. Another 4 percent had become Orthodox. Overall, the percentage of Jews who called themselves Conservative had fallen from 43 percent in 1990 to 18 percent, according to the September 2013 report.
It was a rough blow for the movement that defined itself as holding the Jewish center. So when 1,200 Conservative activists gathered in Baltimore last October to celebrate the movement’s 100th
anniversary, the dismal Pew numbers were never far from their minds.
“Everybody has internalized it and has been chastened by it,” Rabbi Adam Raskin of Congregation Har Shalom in Potomac says now. “What Pew taught me is that we have to make synagogue life relevant and compelling and necessary.”
It’s a lesson other Jewish movements are learning as well. Like them – and like mainline Christianity – Conservatives are grappling with the graying of their numbers, shrinking budgets and the rise of the “Nones,” young people who feel a sense of the spiritual but who don’t affiliate.
Some 650 synagogues affiliate with the umbrella United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, down from a peak of 800 a half-century ago. Some of that loss is a result of congregations disaffiliating with the national organization, while other synagogues folded, merged with each other or merged with Reform congregations.
At the same time, Conservative-style Masorti (traditional) Judaism is growing in Israel, with some 60 kehillot (communities), plus another 140 throughout Latin America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Australia, Africa and Asia, according to Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel in West Essex. N.J., who chairs the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.
The Conservative movement sponsors day schools, a rabbinical seminary and camps. How can a movement with such assets, not to mention its rabbis, cantors and educators, be “incapable of inspiring Jews in the 21st century?” Rabbi Joshua Rabin, United Synagogue’s director of kehillah enrichment, asked a year after Pew, in the movement’s CJ magazine.
“It’s a challenge to try to figure out what is going to be the most sustainable model,” says Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac.
Conservatives have always seen themselves in the center spot between Orthodox and liberal movements like Reform and Reconstructionist. But whereas the movement shares the liberal belief in modernity and egalitarianism, like Orthodoxy, it considers Jewish law binding. Changes in interpretation of Halacha, or Jewish law, must pass through a rigorous and slow process in the United Synagogue’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards.
So in 2006 the committee sanctioned gay relationships. But it was only in 2012 that it issued guidelines for its 1,600 rabbis on performing same-sex weddings, leaving it up to the individual rabbi whether he or she would perform such weddings.
Such deliberate decision making, not to mention the Big “C” Conservative name, can lend the movement a dour and judgmental aura, Raskin says. “Labels can be a liability more than anything. People say, ‘But you’re Conservative’ [when I invite them to the synagogue], as if that’s scary, as if they’re not up to snuff.”
A new centrism?
Conservative Judaism was born with the idea that tradition and modernity are compatible. Solomon Schechter, who became president of Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902, believed this could be done within a big tent of Judaism without the need of a label.
“It had been the hope of the founders of the Conservative movement in the early 20th century that it would embody a modern, Americanized version of traditional Judaism,” writes Edward S. Shapiro – a professor emeritus of history at Seton Hall University who grew up at B’nai Israel Congregation now in Rockville – in First Things. “As late as the 1920s it was often difficult to distinguish between Orthodox and Conservative synagogues. … Conservative Judaism emphasized its loyalty to ‘the Torah and its historical exposition,’ the observance of Sabbath and the dietary laws, and maintenance of the traditional liturgy.”
In the years since the Conservative heyday, the majority of affiliated Jews have abandoned that loyalty to traditional observance, leading to the growth of Reform, where tradition is not binding. The loosening of tradition led Conservative Judaism to become more egalitarian. At the same time, Orthodoxy has blossomed, attracting a small but significant number of Jews away from the
“As more than one Conservative leader has somberly noted,” Shapiro writes, “our failures become Reform Jews and our successes become Orthodox.”
In the new reality, Raskin says his movement must stake out a redefined centrist position: Just as the movement must not let Reform be the default for inclusion and equality, Orthodoxy must not become the destination for those who want a deep and rigorous Judaism.
“The Conservative movement has to be a place where the less observant and the more observant have a home,” he says. “In liberal Judaism we only focus on lowering the bar. We have to also focus on the core – those who are more Jewishly educated, more observant. They tend to leave for Modern Orthodoxy.”
But what is important at the top of a movement looks very different down in the turf, where people are going about the day-to-day business of being a Jew.
The biggest issue for a congregational rabbi is not the Halacha of same-sex weddings, but of “creating community within our synagogues,” Raskin says, “helping people to forge connections and experience traditional Jewish life together.”
Those connections could come at a shared meal or at services on a Shabbat morning.
“These are the things that need to happen in the Conservative synagogue,” he says. “This is where people carve out time to focus on community and relationships. This is our key for growth. It transcends ideology, liturgical preferences, even whether the rabbi gives a good sermon.”
One aspect of building and strengthening Conservative communities is making them attractive to the growing number of interfaith families.
“We need to be genuinely welcoming to people of interfaith families,” Raskin says. “They shouldn’t be going to Reform by default.”
At last year’s centennial, Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary, called on the movement to “stretch our boundaries wider” by welcoming others “regardless of where they come from. They bring us gifts that we would not have without them.”
This fall, Kol Shalom in Rockville is planning a series of events for interfaith families, according to Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman. One panel discussion will include two types of interfaith couples — one that feels welcomed in the community and another that does not — speaking about their experiences.
B’nai Israel in Rockville pursues a mixture of egalitarianism and tradition, according to Rabbi Michael Safra. “We’re making Jewish traditions relevant in a modern age and welcoming everyone,” he says.
A new word for ‘synagogue’
The universe, in Jewish conception, was created with a word. Even before Pew, the Conservative movement was looking for a way forward. In trying to breathe new meaning into the movement, it used words.
In 2011, a strategic plan commissioned by the United Synagogue suggested replacing the words “synagogue” and “congregation” with the word kehillah, or holy community. A revisit to the strategic plan earlier this year reiterated the superior value of the term.
It is a return “to our sacred language, Hebrew, to call them kehillot,” according to the movement. It expands the concept of holy community “beyond the traditional understanding of a synagogue. … It also can be a school, a summer camp, or an informal lay-led minyan or chavurah — small prayer groups. It can be whatever like-minded community-seeking Jews form when they come together to search for God and meaning in their lives.”
The strategic plan also called for focus on young children and families, for re-engaging baby boomers and older adults, for educating middle-grade children and teens, and for marketing and branding. “Now is the time to invest money to tell our story,” the report said.
One new initiative is a leadership-building program called Sulam that pairs a congregation’s rabbi with a lay leader.
Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac has just entered the Sulam program. “Sulam is part of a recognition that national organizations need to offer support to congregations,” says Weinblatt.
Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg has had a longer participation in the program.
“In one session, we discussed time management and setting priorities,” Shaare Torah’s Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal wrote on the Sulam website. “They discussed certain challenges, like having a different agenda than their spouse. One person talked about how they want to be more active and learn more, which wasn’t really a goal of their spouse. Another talked about a spouse coming to support the person when they didn’t really want to be there. It was interesting, very powerful, to hear them have that conversation in more mature way.”
Added Benita Cohen, a participant from Shaare Torah: “I am now mindful of how I spend my time, my actions, what I’m saying, what I’m putting in my mouth. What I do now has a sense of purpose. Instead of spending an hour on the computer looking at kids’ clothes or home decorations, I say to myself, ‘Is this good for me?’ At the end of the day, is this what I want to achieve? It’s a pretty
In his CJ magazine article, “The Optimistic Movement,” Rabbi Joshua Rabin argued that his movement, with so many human and institutional resources, might move forward if it learned to look on the bright side. The Conservative movement has a good product, he wrote, “because a Judaism that embraces a progressive understanding of halachah, egalitarianism and a worldview grounded in intellectual honesty is exactly the kind of Judaism that we need to engage the Jewish community of today.”
He then offered two very different narratives to the same reality, one helplessly bemoaning the fact that the Conservative glass is half full. The other argues that the glass, like that of most religious institutions, are half-full at best, and that all are struggling to adapt.
“The challenges we face are real,” Rabin wrote, “but how we interpret them, and whether we believe we can overcome them, is up to us alone.”
General Assignment Reporter Alexa Laz contributed to this article.
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