Conservative Movement in U.S. is Here to Stay
by Rabbi Alan Silverstein
This article first appeared in last week’s edition of New Jersey Jewish News
The so-called “Jewish telegram” reads: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Yet as Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna stated recently to the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, sometimes concern about possible discontinuity can be beneficial. It often leads to a burst of creativity.
Forty years ago, naysayers inaccurately predicted the imminent demise of Orthodoxy on these shores. A vigorous yeshiva educational network along with high fertility rates have reversed that concern. Similarly, in the mid-1970s, Reform scholars successfully rallied their movement to reverse numeric decline through outreach to the intermarried and the unaffiliated.
The National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01 projected doom and gloom for the future of Conservative Judaism, with its 43 percent of American synagogue members in 1990 dropping to 33 percent 10 years later. In part, this startling change was due to the undercounting of Orthodox numbers in 1990, the growth of the Reform category of patrilineal Jews, and a change of guiding methodology in the NJPS.
Additionally, there is merit in pointing out that the Conservative movement has not been sufficiently proactive. Conservative Jewish organizations have neither seeded nor nurtured potential congregations in America’s hinterland. For example, in the rapidly growing American West, 70 percent of Jews are not current synagogue members. Many of the unaffiliated are relocated adults raised as Conservative Jews in other parts of the country but unable to find United Synagogue congregations in their new neighborhoods. The remedy is for the Conservative movement to seed congregations in new areas, an approach being taken by the Reform and Chabad-Lubavitch movements.
Yet one must compare the NJPS with a 1995-96 survey conducted by the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Ratner Center, which identified 6,000 Conservative congregant homes and nearly 400 congregations. In geographic areas where Conservative synagogues were already established, the Ratner data reported that the movement had more than held its own. Not only were new individual and family members joining at a necessary “replacement rate,” but when compared to 1985-86, 48 percent of the synagogues were “somewhat” or “dramatically” larger, 21 percent were “about the same,” and only 20 percent were “slightly smaller.”
Only 11 percent of the congregations were found to be “dramatically smaller,” a predictable cyclical rate of erosion during an era of escalating geographic mobility.
Earlier studies provided pessimistic assessments of the future of synagogue attendance within local Conservative congregations. The impact of the “baby bust” of 1930-1945 meant that statistically few congregants ages 35-50 were to be found as regular attendees at Shabbat services in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The baby-boomers born after World War II were too young to have come aboard. In 1979, social scientists Charles Liebman and Sol Shapiro reported to Conservative Judaism’s leaders that the movement “had a bleak future, with the core members getting older and dying off, and no one to replace them.”
The 1995-96 JTS study revealed that during the ensuing 15 years, boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) plus both younger and older adults had entered impressively into the lifelong learning and the Shabbat morning religious life of Conservative congregations. Moreover, an expanding core group of engaged Conservative Jewish parents were sending their sons and daughters to Jewish day schools, Camp Ramah, United Synagogue Youth, Israel experiences, and KOACH college activities. The authors of the Ratner report concluded:
“There is a widespread perception in the Jewish community of North America that with the passage of generations, the quality of Jewish life necessarily diminishes; and younger Jews are apt to have less of a Jewish education and commitment than their elders. Among members of Conservative synagogues, generally the opposite is true.”
Whereas a generation ago, Conservative Judaism had been described by many of its own adherents as “wishy-washy,” a default address for congregants who were neither Reform nor Orthodox, widespread affirmative Conservative identity was noted in the Ratner report. As the study pointed out, most members of Conservative synagogues “are genuinely attracted to Conservatism; they unabashedly reject Orthodoxy and Reform; and, as a group, they demonstrate a clear affinity for several elements of the Conservative movement’s ideology.”
JTS chancellor Ismar Schorsch has commented that the Ratner survey affirmed that “the center (meaning the Conservative Movement in American Judaism) is not only holding, but is strengthening.” To be sure, the demographic challenges facing Conservative Judaism noted in the NJPS are very real. Yet we ought to share Professor Sarna’s optimism. Just as kindred Orthodox and Reform movements admirably responded to their own challenges in the past, so, too, will the Conservative movement rise to the task of best meeting the needs of 21st-century “centrist” American-Jewish religious life. In Dr. Schorsch’s words, “We are here to stay.”