In Praise Of The Conservative Movement


The 10 Days of Repentance edition of The Jewish Week (Oct. 4) featured Stewart Ain’s story highlighting the views of critics and detractors of the Conservative movement from around the country. The High Holy Days envision a trial in which words of criticism ought to be accompanied by words of praise. The following observations seek to balance these scales of judgment in assessing Conservative Judaism.

First, Jack Wertheimer’s wonderful 2018 volume, “The New American Judaism,” offers an assessment of the Pew study’s 1.2 million self-identified Conservative Jews in the U.S. comprising 26 percent of “Jews by Religion” and 29 percent of synagogue members. 

Wertheimer draws upon his previous Mosaic article in 2014, “The Pew Survey Reanalyzed,” written in collaboration with Steven M. Cohen, and points to a “denominational gradient” among American Jews (e.g. Ultra-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Jews of No Denomination, Jews of No Religion). Greater intensity of Jewish living yields higher levels of Jewish identification. As stated in his “The New American Judaism,” Wertheimer writes, “On every measure of religious participation, Conservative Jews today score higher than all other Jews except the [Ultra and Modern] Orthodox.”

Wertheimer observes: “They [Conservative Jews] are the most likely to attend religious services with some regularity, to observe Jewish holidays in their homes, and to put a strong emphasis upon Jewish education.” He notes that “more than any other non-Orthodox group, Conservative Jews give to Jewish causes, support Jewish organizations, travel to Israel, and socialize primarily with Jewish friends. … Much of Jewish organizational life, moreover, is beholden to Conservative Jews working as professionals and volunteer leaders and investing themselves in the needs of the Jewish people.”

Wertheimer adds that “nor is it true that the majority of [nearly 600] local Conservative congregations are floundering… Unquestionably, [certain] congregations [not just Conservative] have experienced a decline in membership [reflecting the aging of Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964]. … [Yet] in the face of these hard realities, energetic [Conservative] synagogue leaders, clergy and board members alike, have sprung into action.”

The Pew data also indicates that 98 percent of self-identifying Conservative Jews are “proud” to be Jewish. Ninety-three percent feel that “being Jewish” is “important” to their lives. Ninety percent regard Israel as “an important part of being Jewish.” Nearly 90 percent express “an emotional attachment to Israel,” especially the 56 percent who have visited Israel. Four-in-10 self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least one time per month, and half of these Jews are current synagogue members.

In “The New American Judaism,” Wertheimer’s research confirms that “for the preponderant majority of affiliated Conservative Jews, what they seek is a style of service and a certain ambiance [Traditional And Egalitarian]…. a different balance of tradition and change than in [more Liberal] temples.” Conservative synagogues, he writes, “include a higher proportion of people who have basic synagogue skills and an understanding of how Judaism works … most apparent in the dozens of congregants found in many Conservative synagogues who are able to lead the Hebrew services, read Torah and chant the Haftorah.”

Second, during 5779, The Jewish Education Project published the results of a “Gen-Z” survey  among 17,000 Jewish teens currently engaged in a YSO (Youth Serving Organization), e.g. a Jewish youth organization [USY, NFTY, NCSY, Bnai Brith Youth Organization, Young Judea, etc., Jewish day school and/or Jewish camp]. Overall, teens [ages 13-19] involved in YSOs reported higher scores on all of the Gen-Z “desired outcomes” [e.g. Jewish identity, connection to Israel, pride in being Jewish, forming Jewish friendships, sustaining Jewish family values, also feeling good about themselves, deepening relationships with family, friends, and mentors, and feeling empowered to make change in the world etc.]. Among YSOs, each category of top tier youth success featured USY, Conservative Judaism’s youth movement.

Third, Canadian Jewry published data assessing its 400,000-strong Jewish community. “Almost everyone surveyed says being Jewish in their life is very (64 percent) or somewhat (27 percent) important, with few (8 percent) indicating it is of little or no importance.” “Most Jews in Canada have participated in one or more types of Jewish education when growing up. Jewish education will most likely include attendance at an overnight summer camp, Hebrew school, or Sunday school, but close to one-half have attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva and have done so for an average of nine years.”

Jewish religious movements, notably Conservative Judaism, are the drivers of this impressive data. The study concludes that “Conservative Judaism … is alive and well in Canada and tops the charts of affiliation, followed by Orthodoxy, and only then, Reform, with a small number in the smaller movements, and further 30 percent identifying themselves ‘just Jewish.’ Among the more than “six in ten Jews (who) report belonging to or being actively involved in one of the mainstream denominations, the breakdown is as follows: Conservative (26 percent), Orthodox/Modern Orthodox (17 percent), Reform (16 percent).

Fourth, inspiring news also should be shared about the growth of the Masorti (and Reform) Israel movement as noted in the Jewish Agency’s JPPI recent study, Rising Streams. The Camp Ramah network released impressive data affirming the high levels of Jewish identity among its thousands of alumni. The Conservative/Masorti movement has expanded to offering five Rabbinical schools [JTS, Ziegler/LA, Schechter/Jerusalem, Seminario/Argentina, Frankel/Germany]. Masorti Olami continues to add affiliated congregations in Europe, Latin America and beyond. The international Rabbinical Assembly has engaged a new executive director, Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, to lead the implementation of a comprehensive strategic plan, and JTS is preparing to open its inspiring new campus.

Yes, like most long-established Jewish organizations, the USCJ is facing fiscal and institutional challenges. A strategic plan gradually is being implemented and a new CEO will be sought. The global movement remains 2.1 million strong: 1.2 million self-identified U.S. Conservative Jews and 900,000 (and growing) self-identified Conservative/Masorti Jews elsewhere around the world. The “centrist” religious role played within American and world Jewry by the totality of the Conservative/Masorti movement is a source of great blessing.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein is president of the Conservative movement’s Mercaz Olami and spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, N.J.