The epicenter of the crisis in the American Jewish community is the decline of the Conservative movement. Long the center of American Jewish life, the Conservative synagogue now appears to be a relic. The era in which American Jews were uncertain of their identity, and needed Conservative Judaism to be an American movement that brought together traditional observance and a modern life, is over.
It is increasingly unclear what Conservative Judaism stands for. American Jews seeking traditional Judaism can go to Modern Orthodox synagogues, which provide the observance, community and learning that their Conservative counterparts used to offer. Those American Jews who want a veneer of Judaism with no demands, can join the Reform movement. Each in its own way is consistent and authentic. By contrast, the Conservative movement has a rabbinate that talks about Halacha (Jewish law) and a laity that often ignores these precepts.
A greater problem is the Conservative tendency to mimic the Reform movement. In the past, Conservative synagogues resembled their Orthodox counterparts and gained adherents as a result. Today, however, copying the Reform is accelerating the decline of Conservative Judaism.
The difficulty is less the ritual influence of the Reform, such as music on Shabbat, than the increasing acceptance of intermarriage. There are Conservative rabbis who bless intermarriages. The Conservative movement now allows non-Jews to open the ark during prayer services (an honor clearly aimed at the intermarried), and permits non-Jewish spouses to be buried in a separate part of the cemetery. Just like the Reform, the Conservative synagogue is steadily removing any incentive for non-Jews to convert and for Conservative Jews to marry other Jews.
By accommodating the intermarried, the Conservative movement is promoting demographic failure. Modern Jewish history demonstrates that intermarrying means the end of Jewish identity, despite decades of false claims to the contrary of which the 2013 Pew Survey is the most recent. At best, one in four of the children of intermarriage will grow up as Jews. For the most part they follow their parents and intermarry, ending their Jewish lineage.
In this context it is unsurprising that the Conservative movement is losing members. From having 41 percent of American Jews in 1971, the Conservative synagogue now accounts for perhaps 18 percent of the community. According to the demographer Steven Cohen, the over-50s in Conservative synagogues outnumber those under 17 years old by more than 4 to 1.
The response has been a dispiriting lack of leadership. During the recent centennial conference in Baltimore, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, about the number of synagogues in the movement. Wernick would not answer and said “That’s a conversation I’m not having anymore.” In fact there are some 630 Conservative synagogues, down from 850 in the 1980s.
With this mixture of religious vapidity and leadership vacuity, the Conservative movement may appear to have little chance of revival. Except it can draw strength from its own tradition and its current successes.
First, the Conservative movement should become the one American Jewish movement that works against intermarriage. In the American context, where many Jews have little Jewish knowledge and are reflexively anti-Orthodox, Conservative conversions are the only practical method for preventing intermarriage. Conversion and entry into communities that value learning and observance is more likely to create viable Jewish identities than accepting the latest demands from intermarried congregants.
Second, the Conservative movement should study and copy its successes. An excellent example is Tifereth Israel (“TI”) in Washington, D.C. TI is not a wealthy suburban congregation with grand facilities. Instead, it is something more impressive: it is one of the few Conservative synagogues that is growing.
TI is ritually and Shabbat observant. Its traditional members are treated with respect, unlike in other Conservative synagogues where those who keep kosher and Shabbat are regarded with suspicion. There is equality between men and women in the service, which even the most “open” Orthodox synagogues do not claim to provide. There is a strong sense of community, plenty of Jewish learning, along with young families and children. Above all, Rabbi Ethan Seidel provides deft and unostentatious leadership.
Conservative Judaism can again make a vital contribution to American Jewish life. It will need to address the greatest threat to American Jews today, intermarriage, and provide a viable alternative to Orthodoxy.
Andrew Apostolou is a historian based in Washington D.C.