A L’Chaim To Conservative Judaism


I’ve spent the better part of my adult life as a scholar of American Judaism, with a special focus on figures at the center of Conservative Judaism, and I’ve spent most of those years enjoying the benefits of Conservative Jewish institutions, conversations and communities.

Consider this short list: Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, Calif., where my wife and I davened for 21 years and where we celebrated the b’nai mitzvah of our children; Camp Ramah, which my daughter attended as a camper for two summers and where my son worked on staff for three; repeated experiences of emotional and spiritual support from clergy and community at moments when my family and I most needed it; a pattern of ritual celebrations and holiday observances that I shall treasure as long as I live; a kind of Talmud Torah — reverent engagement with Jewish text and history, in the context of broader ideas and learning — that to this day remains distinctive to Conservative Judaism; a fervent but critical Zionism that is no less distinctive; and, last but never least, a fulsome sense of what it is to serve God in this time and place with an open heart as well as a totally engaged mind and an enraptured soul.

That is but a short list, woefully incomplete, of what I most treasure in the set of gifts made available to me week after week, from adolescence until today, through the path in Torah that we call (never without some discontent at the name) Conservative Judaism.

I have experienced the incalculable blessings that life as a Jewish human being makes possible, in significant measure, thanks to Conservative Judaism. Indeed, I became chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary because this kind of Judaism — fostered by JTS for more than a century — continues to mean so much to me, and I wanted to spend my days, and not just my evenings, working to secure its future.

I have enormous debts of gratitude to repay to many Conservative rabbis, from Heschel and Kaplan to my teacher Sam Lachs, and to friends and colleagues who have changed my life for the better. I can now add rabbinical students, chazzanim, and educators to that list. So many Conservative congregants have inspired me in so many ways over the years, and have made a huge mark on clal Yisrael organizations, such as AIPAC, Hillel and federation; on the movements to liberate Soviet Jewry and found Jewish Studies on American campuses; on the campaigns for civil rights and to guard the good name of Israel. That impact is out of all proportion to Conservative numbers. I proudly count myself one of these Conservative “Jews in the pews,” and would not trade them for any Jews anywhere for all that I wish our community were more learned, more observant, and more determined to resist the powerful allurements of the society and culture in which we, being Conservative Jews, participate fully.

You will perhaps forgive me, therefore, if I express a certain amount of weariness and disappointment at hearing people who should know better (and often do know better) declare Conservative Jews less worthy than others, and pronounce the Judaism that elicits the best efforts of hundreds of thousands of Jews in North America, nurtures their spirits, comforts, teaches, and sustains them — Conservative Judaism — dead, almost dead, deserving of death, or any of the hundred other ways that one hears people speaking nowadays about the Judaism I love. Enough! Need I say that I am the first to admit the shortcomings of Conservative Jewish thinking and institutions over the years and down to our own day? What Conservative Jew is not expert in finding fault with Conservative Judaism? We are far from perfect (though no less perfect than anyone else), and bear our fair share of responsibility for a Jewish population in America that is far less active than it could and should be. (Many others likewise share in this responsibility.)

Any American Jew who has had eyes open to our collective situation has no right or reason to be surprised at the findings in the Pew Research Center report, most of which have been predicted by analysts and activists for a long time. We who care about the Jewish future on this continent are obligated, I believe, to greet this latest wake-up call with renewed resolve. Too many Jews are opting out of Jewish life. Too few are Jewishly literate. Most have never experienced live study of a Jewish text or a Jewish ritual that touched the soul. Complacency (“we’re already doing many good things; let’s just keep doing them”) is utterly forbidden under these trying circumstances, but so is despair (“we might as well give up on the effort to build a non-Orthodox Judaism in this country”). Both are distractions from the task at hand. This is a generation that has a lot of work to do.

The report is not good news for American Jewry, even if it offers evidence that some things are going very right: things that we need to do a lot more of and to make available to a lot more people. And the Pew findings continue a spate of bad news for Conservative Jews who lack the birthrate that, along with tight communities, is largely responsible for Orthodox growth in recent decades, and who also lack the rate of intermarriage that is largely responsible for recent growth in Reform numbers (and especially the numbers who declare themselves Reform without actually joining Reform temples).

Conservative Jews are just beginning to create a more effective structure to respond appropriately to what ails us and take maximum advantage of the many things we do exceedingly well: Ramah camps, day schools, revitalized synagogues, adult learning. Things are on the mend in the vital religious center of North American Jewry. We have much to be proud of, and the successes we have enjoyed should never be left unmentioned at a time of hand wringing and derision. But let’s be the first to admit that there is much more to be done if we are to stop, and even reverse, the recent numerical decline.

Learn From Our Mistakes

What is to be done in the community as a whole? Let me start with a modest procedural proposal. Could we make it a rule of Jewish discourse in North America that we learn from the mistakes made when followers of Begin beat up followers of Ben-Gurion, and vice versa; or chasidim literally and figuratively bashed mitnagdim (opponents of chasidim), and vice versa; or both of those groups informed on liberal Jews or maskilim to the authorities, and vice versa? Could we manage to take a vow that Jews will find good things to say about one another, build bridges rather than burn them, join criticism of themselves and their own movements to the constructive criticism they make of others, and refrain from pronouncing other Jews or their Jewish paths traitorous or lazy or already/imminently dead? Haven’t we suffered enough over the years from enemies declaring us dead (remember Arnold Toynbee’s famous description of the Jews as living “fossils,” soon to go the way of the dinosaur) to stop doing it to one another?

Let’s remember too that there are multiple factors of long standing that have caused the situation in which we find ourselves. Simplistic explanations and quick fixes are both certain to miss the mark. The most revealing lines in the Pew report, in my view, were those that showed parallels between Jews and other groups in America. Jews attend and join synagogues less at the same moment that church membership and attendance have fallen. Jews are reluctant to join any organization or institution when all Americans, in the famous phrase of political scientist Robert Putnam, are “bowling alone.” Jews, like Christians, report declining interest in religion in favor of spirituality, social justice, and individual fulfillment. Judaism, like every other religion in North America (indeed, in the world), is numerically stronger at the extremes and less so in the center.

We seek to build Jewish communities in America at a time of unparalleled individualism. We are heirs to a discipline of commandment in an age of “sovereign selves.” We expect allegiance to our particular group, its traditions and its homeland, at a time when universalism holds ever-greater sway. And, having urged our kids to participate fully in American life, sent them to university, and set them on the path to ambitious careers, we are now dismayed to find them acting in accordance with the general pattern: marrying much later if they marry, having fewer children if they have children, favoring career over almost everything, and choosing romantic partners without regard to family, community of origin, or ultimate concerns.

I doubt that Jews can entirely reverse the demographic trends that, outside the bounds of Orthodoxy, will soon result in there being far fewer Jews in America, and have already resulted in there being far less Judaism of any substance. Some community leaders have called for honest conversation among us about the unrealistic expectation that, men or women, we can “have it all.” I second that motion, and add a plea that we begin a parallel conversation about marriage and the family. The organized Jewish community needs to focus not only on numbers of Jews we are losing, but on the quality of the Jewish lives we sustain. We must find a way to fund a number of initiatives that would make a huge difference in keeping Jews Jewish and persuading Jews to have and raise Jewish children. Daycare and early childhood programs, for example. Seriously Jewish summer camps such as Ramah. A variety of day and supplementary schools that break the mold of “Hebrew school.” College initiatives that are not junior versions of “your parents’ Judaism.” Communities for 20- and 30-somethings that transcend the tired boundaries of “religion versus culture.” JTS is involved in every single one of these efforts in ways that transcend denominational boundaries. Let’s feed the Jewish spirit, engage the mind, link Jewish professional ambitions to the teaching of tradition and the building of community. Let’s never fail to serve the quest for God. And, yes, let’s get young Jews in the same room with other young Jews as often as we possibly can.

Let Us Respect Our Achievements

Were Conservative Judaism walking down the blind alley depicted by recent critics; had we done nothing to change our ways or our organizational structure in recent years; were JTS or any of the leaders of Conservative Jewish organizations deaf to the forces and trends that critics cite, then I too might despair about our future. (Even then, however, loving Conservative Judaism as I do, I would set about the project of expanding rather than abandoning all hope for serious non-Orthodox Judaism, and direct effort and dollars elsewhere). Of course, we need honest conversation about what commands Jews and why, a project that JTS has advanced in many dozens of congregations by engaging Conservative Jews in far-reaching discussion, study, and practice of mitzvah — a term that resonates with Conservative laypeople and elicits both good thinking and strong commitment. Yes, we need more passionate davening in more shuls, a goal that is achieved more widely than the critics allow, but that is all too often inhibited by worship spaces far too large for the number of worshippers and by a deplorable tendency to make the congregation into an audience for chazzan and rabbi — spectators to a Judaism in which they do not participate fully and which they do not fully own. Conservative Jews have too often been let down by leaders who asked too little of them by way of learning or practice, and misled by leaders who saw Conservativism as end rather than means, forgetting that the point is not this or that denomination or organization, but the path that enables Jews to choose life, choose good, choose blessing.

But please, my fellow Conservative Jews, even as we right these and other wrongs, let’s never fail to respect ourselves and our achievements. Those achievements did not cease in the alleged “glory days” when social and cultural forces propelled Conservative Judaism forward instead of forcing it to swim upstream. And if I had to chart a future for Jewish life in North America, and guess what path is most likely to secure that future, I would put my money on a model of Judaism that sees the world through an egalitarian lens, accepts the best that modernity has to offer; appreciates science and the arts; respects other faith communities and other Jews; and understands that, while good fences make for good neighbors, it relies for its survival upon low walls and high regard for others. I would bet upon Jews to learn by study and practice — albeit in ways that are new or evolving as I write — what is distinctive in their heritage so that they always have something Jewishly serious to offer the world, resources with which to resist the many temptations of modern life, something to root them and infuse them with ultimate meaning in the face of fashion and ephemera.

Conservative Jews know that we don’t help the cause of Judaism by acting as if Judaism is just like every other tradition or cause, any more than we help it by denying that Judaism has a lot to learn from other traditions and often needs to ally itself with other causes. The world awaits our Jewish response, and the world —infinite in its varieties, overflowing with possibility, stunning in what it has to teach us — contributes immeasurably to our understanding of what that response needs to be. That is the Torah I have learned and to which I hold on for dear life.

I am drawn to Conservative Judaism, when all is said and done, because I want with every fiber of my being, and with proper humility, to serve the Lord my God, and so serve God’s Creation with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul, all my might. Mind without heart, heart without soul, study without practice, ritual without ethics, Judaism without Jews, or Jews without Judaism —none of these will do. Let’s turn to one another, in the wake of the Pew report, drink a well-deserved l’chaim for many more years of life for a renewed Conservative Judaism — and then let’s get to work.

Arnold Eisen is chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.