In its current issue, New York magazine reports that Phd. applications to the Jewish Theological Seminary have doubled this year. That statistic, presented in the context of a story about the recession’s effect on the city, probably says more about the dire straits of the job market and the search for meaning in rough economic times than it does about the state of Conservative Judaism.
The movement, we well know, is suffering from — pick your poison — malaise, failure of nerve, lack of transparency and inclusivity, hemorrhaging of members. The situation is said to be so bad that Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University, told the Jerusalem Post this week that we should say Kaddish for both the Conservative and Reform movements.
"The Conservatives are in a mood of despondency and pessimism. They are closing schools and in general shrinking," he said.
"The Reform Movement may show a rise, because if you add goyim to Jews then you will do OK," added Lamm, referring to the Reform Movement’s policy, starting in 1983, of recognizing patrilineal descent.
The National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 found that of the 46 percent of US Jewish households belonging to a synagogue, 33% were affiliated with a Conservative synagogue, a 10% fall from the 1990 survey. In contrast, the Reform Movement was up from 35% to 38% and Orthodox Jews rose from 16% to 22%. Two percent were affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement and 5% with "other types" of synagogues.
Sociologists familiar with US Jewry believe that similar trends continue.
"Reform is out of the picture, because they never got into the picture, and the Conservatives are getting out of the picture," Lamm said.
"The future of American Jewry is in the hands of haredim and the modern Orthodox. We have to find ways of working together."
Rabbi Andrew Sacks, director of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Israel, responded on his blog.
I would take no solace in knowing that the numbers of any Movement were in decline, for each Movement has a valuable contribution to make to our people. But the Conservative Movement is well served by new dynamic leadership in almost all of its branches.
Its Day Schools, summer camps, and Rabbinical Schools are at full capacity. The number of teens who visit and study in Israel is a source of pride.
I am not comparing numbers with the Orthodox Movement or with the Reform Movement. Sociological circumstances impact on these statistics. Numbers can be misleading and Rabbi Lamm has fallen into the numbers trap.It is the dynamic nature of Masorti/Conservative Judaism that will ensure a bright tomorrow not only for its affiliated members, but for all Jews.