Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Demise of the Conservative Movement

As a Conservative rabbi, a Jewish person raised in the Conservative Movement of Judaism, and one whose theology is well grounded in Conservative Judaism, I had absolutely no interest in the Conservative Movement's Biennial Convention that took place earlier this month in Philadelphia. What's more is that I didn't even hear many people (rabbis included) talking about this convention. At least not locally in Metro Detroit; a city which once boasted some of the largest and most thriving Conservative synagogues in the country. The lack of interest was... well, actually interesting. I couldn't even tell you one person from Detroit's Jewish community who flew to Philadelphia for this convention.

Yes, I read a few articles from the national Jewish publications and websites about "The Biennial," but there wasn't much coverage of the convention on Twitter compared with the Reform Movement's convention a couple week's earlier, which had several times the participants and dozens of tweets each hour.

I don't believe Conservative Judaism is dead. I just believe it's stuck. I don't blame Conservative Judaism as an ideology for this. Rather, I blame the movement. That is, I blame the institution. It has yet to prove that Conservative Judaism is meaningful in the 21st century to a new generation of Jews.

And now, as if anything could be less interesting than the Conservative Movement's Biennial Convention, a two-day scholarly conference is taking place in Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute entitled "Conservative Judaism: Halacha, Culture and Sociology." This academic conference plans to discuss the burning issues threatening to split the Conservative Movement, such as the ordination of homosexual and lesbian rabbis, the sharp drop in the number of young members and the challenge of intermarriage. Sounds like fun!

Perhaps, one person who gets it is my colleague Noah Zvi Farkas (right). In a Jewish Week op-ed, Rabbi Farkas lays out his own understanding of what ails the Conservative Movement. Titled "The Re-founding of Conservative Judaism," he writes:

As a young rabbi who believes in the idea of religious movements, I note that Conservative Judaism is a grass-roots coalition that has lost two of its primary organizing principles: one was that Conservative Judaism and Conservative synagogues serve the need for Eastern European Jewish immigrants to become Americanized while holding on to their religious roots.

The other is the recognition that the scholastic trend to study ancient and medieval Jewish texts scientifically, known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, has not yielded a sufficiently sacred orientation for Jewish life.

Jews in my generation, that is, Jews whose great-grandparents or grandparents came to this country looking for the promise of the American dream and needed a connection to what was familiar, are no longer motivated by the same sorts of organizing principles that our ancestors were. For generations Conservative synagogues thrived on the complicity that Jews will, more or less, seek out a synagogue when they move to a town, and that they will join that synagogue and continue to give to that synagogue because that is what Jews simply do.

Exactly! Times have changed. The Jewish community has changed. Conservative leaders have spent decades deciding whether it's kosher to ride to shul, whether a penis is a requirement for the rabbinate, and whether two men can commit to each other lovingly with the use of two glasses of wine, two gold rings, and an ancient Aramaic document transposed into a modern piece of artwork. While all this was being debated, the centrist Orthodox shuls grabbed the best and brightest in the Conservative Movement who didn't become rabbis while the Reform outreached to those the Conservatives refused to inreach.

I think Rabbi Farkas hits the mark when he suggests a community organizing approach to re-found Conservative Judaism as a meaningful denomination for the 21st century. It needs a re-branding and an institutional overhaul. But it also needs to cease doing what hasn't been working. And that includes these conventions and conferences that only prove that there is a growing majority out there who don't care about these conventions and conferences. Plus, they'll save a lot of money.


Rabbi Jason Miller said...

My friend and colleague Rabbi Barry Leff blogs live from the Van Leer conference on Conservative Judaism on his Neshamah.net blog.

I like the way he opens his blog post titled, Live from the International Conference on Conservative Judaism at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem:

The headline for this post -- "Live from the International Conference..." is somewhat misleading.

Reporting "live" implies there is breaking news, something really interesting happening.

Alas, that's not the case. For those of us who follow the Conservative movement closely, there hasn't been a lot "new" presented here.

There was a fair amount of "buzz" leading up to the conference. "Isn't it exciting, an independent institution is doing a conference on us!" I think it made a lot of people feel like the fact that this was an academic conference by an independent organization gave some kind of "validation" to us.

That attitude indicates the relatively low self-esteem the movement is feeling at the moment.

Karen Rosenstein said...

You and Rabbi Farkas make so many valid and important points. Is there hope for leadership to arise within the Conservative movement to deal effectively with these realities?

Reb Barry said...

Hi Jason...I'm actually not so down on conventions. Conventions can do a lot of good...IF they are run right and have the right goals. Basle 1897; Pittsburgh 1885; Philadelphia 1787 are just a a few conventions that had significant results. What we don't need is more "navel gazing." What we do need is conventions that get people excited, and that give people tools to change the world.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


I'm not down on conventions/conferences either (I realize those are different animals by the way). However, the every-other-year convention ("The Biennial") that United Synagogue puts on for the membership of the Conservative Movement in North America has become a joke. The 2009 Biennial was probably one of the largest in recent history and likely only had 400 people (that averages out to less than a minyan from each of the U.S. states and Canada).

It certainly was not a representative sample of the rank-and-file membership of the movement. With its Philadelphia location, it probably drew an disproportionate amount of people from the East Coast. My point was more that there was little attempt to "broadcast" what was being discussed in the convention hall to those who might be interested but didn't make the trek. That is to say, there weren't many tweets coming out of the Biennial. I was much less interested in the Reform Biennial in the previous month, yet I followed each day of that convention on Twitter. If USCJ wanted to "let people in" on Steve Wernick's first convention, they could have offered a live Web feed too.

Further, there just wasn't much interest to attend the Biennial among people who should be interested and have a vested interest in the structural changes being implemented.

Conventions, conferences, retreats, etc. can be extremely beneficial for different reasons. I'm just not sure that United Synagogue is really getting any bang for it's buck with the Biennial (and I'm sure the staff time devoted to it's production is substantial).

Eric Pearson, for U.S. Congress said...

The Democratic Party is engaged in initiatives that will have the effect of further silencing the voice of pro—Israel supporters. The party is seeking to expand voting rights to felons, which are denied by many states (the reasoning being that criminals guilty of major crimes should not have a role in helping to select lawmakers). As has been reported many times in the media, prisons have become centers of extreme Islamic proselytizing. Does anyone think those felons will be supportive of the America—Israel alliance?

Efforts by our Democratic Party to loosen voting requirements and abolish the Electoral College will also tend to weaken the support for the America—Israel alliance within the party, and within America. This is for two reasons: states such as Florida, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania have relatively large Jewish populations, the impact of which can swing the election in that particular state to one candidate or another.

These states also have a large number of electoral votes that can determine the President. By eliminating the Electoral College, these swing voters and their impact will be rendered meaningless. The same dynamic will affect pro—Israel Christian voters in smaller, more rural states. Their votes will become much less important if the Electoral College system is abolished. Meanwhile, our Democratic Party has capitalized on the maligned ‘War on Terror’ and the near hysteria over civil rights issues to court the increasing number of Muslims in America. Muslims have begun organizing politically and are receptive to these overtures.

This is best expressed by Daniel Pipes, a well—known scholar on Islam, “He has predicted that Arabs will become increasingly a key component within our Democratic Party and that the Democratic Party will abandon its historic sympathy for Israel.”

Thank you, and God Bless America and Isreal.

Eric Pearson, for U.S. Congress, 5th district, TN.

Web site: http://www.democraticreformparty.com
Blog site: http://blog.democraticreformparty.com

Jonathan said...

I think I read that 3000 people attended the Reform movement's convention in November. And that was supposed to be down from about 6000 two years ago. Still a towering number over the 400 as you say attended the Conservative convention. At the same time I read that Rabbi Artson was quoted at this convention saying, "while we have problems we have the best product." Maybe it is the best product...for himself?

Reb Barry said...

Johnathan, don't confuse a great product with a popular product! McDonalds is very popular...but even here in Israel where we have kosher McDonalds, it's not where I eat!

Rabbi Jason Miller said...


Valid point about popular vs. good, but when the Conservative Movement has 700 member congregations (less now) and historically it has only attracted a few hundred folks to its conventions (run every two years), you have to admit that's not good.

There are many reasons for this in my opinion:

1) Not really trying to publicize the convention to the membership. Maybe they always figured that if they tell the rabbi and president of a synagogue, they will spread the word to their board and rank-and-file (that doesn't happen and the rabbis and presidents don't attend the conventions anyway).

2) The conventions are shvach.

3) Not willing to invest the money in having professionals plan and implement the conventions. Thus, every two years it's just more of the same.

4) Stale! The Conservative Movement lacks excitement and hasn't really needed to try new things because it coasted through much of the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. The descent began in the 90s, but no one started yelling for change until it was too late.

Jonathan said...

Reb Barry, At the local Conservative synagogue - where I do pray - about 50 people attended the sanctuary service for the past two weeks. Kind of smallish amount. But what's worse is that the seating capacity for that sanctuary is about 2000 seats. So between the time the sanctuary was built and today, so many people - so many people who consider themselves Conservative Jews certainly do not think we have a great or popular product. For Rabbi Artson to state we have the best product says that he too is disconnected from the Conservative movement like so many of our Conservative leaders before him. Why does this have to be the case.
In a piece of good news, I was uplifted by reading the recent sermon "Ani Mamim" by Rabbi Adam Frank. But here too being pumped up by that sermon is limited by two things. One - He himself doesn't consider himself a Conservative Jew. Two - Let him come back to the States and find a synagogue that will have faith in what he believes. I honestly don't think he could find a job in a typical Conservative Synagogue. That is not a criticsm of him. That is a criticsm of our laity who have been told for generations by our rabbis that their limited observance was just as good as someone who is Shomer Mitzvos. And they bought into it big time. In fact usually it was the Jews who were really Shomer Mitzvos who were shown the door and told to leave our shuls. And now even the congregants who have open invites to show up don't. We are not great. And we are not popular.