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Fewer in Number but More Vibrant, Conservative Jewry Looks to Future

October 22, 2003
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It’s a Shabbat morning, and Rabbi David Wolpe looks out over the main sanctuary of Sinai Temple in downtown Los Angeles at a sea of faces.

Normally, Wolpe sees 1,000 intrepid Shabbat synagogue-goers, he says, not bad for a synagogue with 1,600 families.

Of the Shabbat faithful, typically “980 drive to synagogue,” Wolpe says. “Many don’t drive home afterwards; they go out.”

And therein lies the central paradox of today’s Conservative movement.

The movement “generates tremendous activity and commitment,” Wolpe says. Yet, “in my experience, most Conservative Jews have a traditional feel, but not a very halachic approach,” he says, using the term for Jewish law.

Historically, that tension has animated the movement, which grew as an alternative to Reform Judaism a century ago and officially adheres to halachah while synthesizing modern interpretations of tradition.

But Conservative Jewry is facing a critical crossroads.

Once the dominant postwar stream of American Judaism, movement membership appears to be falling while the more liberal Reform and Reconstructionist movements, and the more traditional Orthodox movement, are gaining ground.

In 1990, for instance, 38 percent of Jews identified themselves as Conservative for the National Jewish Population Survey, but only 33 percent did so a decade later.

“The Conservative movement has been in demographic decline for nearly two generations,” says Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. JTS serves as the movement’s established academic heart along with the newer and, some say, more liberal, University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Most of the nearly 770 synagogues affiliated with the movement’s United Synagogue congregational arm have yet to feel that population drop sharply because of a mini-baby boom filling congregational religious schools, Solomon Schechter Day Schools and Camp Ramahs — but the crunch will hit as those children grow, experts say.

“The movement has got to figure out how to adjust to that reality,” Wertheimer says.

As movement leaders grapple with that dilemma, several hundred congregational leaders will be gathering for the 2003 biennial of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Dallas on Oct. 26-30.

The conference, titled “Preserving the Jewish Past, Living the Jewish Present, Building the Jewish Future,” comes as prominent figures in the movement debate just why they are losing members.

Some even question the notion that the movement is shrinking.

“The issue for me is, we’re not growing,” says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, United Synagogue’s executive vice president.

But he says that in the past 10 to 15 years, United Synagogue has seen its membership rolls remain steady.

Indeed, Epstein and others contend that the focus on numbers misses the point. Some even maintain that fewer members translates into a leaner, meaner movement, spiritually and religiously.

“The numbers may drop, but you have a more passionate core that in turn generates greater numbers,” Wolpe says.

Others, like Rela Mintz Geffen, president of Baltimore’s Hebrew University, says it is difficult to interpret the meaning of the latest population survey data showing fewer self-identified Conservatives.

“In 1990, more people called themselves Reform than Conservative, but when you looked at Conservative synagogue membership, it was higher” than in the Reform ranks, she says.

Steven Bayme, national director of contemporary Jewish life at the American Jewish Committee and a visiting JTS history professor, says the prognosis of the movement’s health also depends on how it is approached.

From “the top down,” Bayme says, the movement is seen as being based on a critical mass of Jews living their lives according to halachah and receptive to modern Jewish scholarship. But, he asks, “how many individuals in congregations keep Shabbat, kashrut and family purity” by visiting the mikvah, or ritual bath. “The level of observance is much lower than the leadership would want.”

Yet the movement has provided a “middle road,” Bayme adds, a path for non-halachically religious Jews who want Jewish “enrichment” and Jewish families.

“Behind the numbers, I don’t see decadence, I see a tremendous amount of vitality,” Bayme says.

Much of that vitality centers around synagogue life.

Conservative synagogues have largely taken root in middle-class suburbia. Yet they also have sprung from 1960s- era spiritual-renewal drives, such as the chavurah movement, Bayme and others say. At its genesis, that movement sought to establish intimate prayer by transforming largely passive congregations centered around a rabbinic leader to active hubs for family life.

Leading that spiritual-renewal trend is a new nondenominational initiative of a group called Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal, funded by some large Jewish donors. The group, known by the acronym STAR, is promoting a project called Synaplex that seeks to produce innovative Shabbat activities in congregations, like a spiritual version of a multiplex.

The pilot program operates at 12 congregations nationwide spanning the religious spectrum. Five are at Conservative shuls.

Conservative rabbis who premiered Synaplex this fall will discuss some early signs of success — including big crowds — at the movement’s biennial conference.

“I don’t think the future of the movement will lie on halachic observation and scholarship, but on intensive Jewish environments,” Wertheimer says.

While some believe demographics present a challenge, Wertheimer says there are “structural” issues facing the movement as well. Power rests on the local, congregational level, he says, but “the flip side is the movement is not a well-coordinated movement.”

Unlike the Reform movement, for example, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, its rabbinic assembly and other organizations do not coordinate closely.

The result has been that synagogues have been left to rely on local resources in their planning, rather than on national or even global trends, he says.

“The question is whether the Conservative movement will continue to be a loose coalition or whether it will strive to actually be a movement,” he says.

Epstein disagrees.

The real problem, as he sees it, is that the movement remains so broad and diverse that the difficulty lies in deciding where to put the most resources. In other words, does the movement spend money on less active, observant Jews, or on the more activist, learned core?

“Do I spend my time trying to move people from the 10-yard line to the 50-yard line, or from the 50-yard line?” Epstein says.

That question echoes the philosophical debate that is both at the movement’s core and tugging at its edges.

In the mid-1950s, a liberal offshoot of the movement became the Reconstructionist movement. Then, in the 1980s, the Union for Traditional Judaism emerged, adhering to more Orthodox-style services and traditions.

“The movement suffered for years from being the largest,” Mintz Geffen says. By avoiding breaking from tradition, it did not delineate boundaries on either side.

Conservative Judaism refused to follow the Reform movement in sanctioning patrilineal descent — accepting as Jews those with Jewish fathers but non-Jewish mothers — but followed Reformers in ordaining women as rabbis.

Those new rules spurred members to leave on either end of the halachic field, toward more and less traditional streams, observers say.

“While the movement had become more consistent by drawing lines on the right and the left, it was a smaller movement,” Mintz Geffen says.

Today, those twin forces shape along several fronts, such as intermarriage.

Congregations officials are urged to make interfaith couples feel welcome, but non-Jewish members of those families are not allowed to lead public prayer services.

In recent years, the issue of gays also has sparked intense debate.

While the Reform and Reconstructionist movements ordain gays, and Orthodoxy forbids it, the centrist Conservative movement takes a third path: Synagogues welcome gay members but the movement does not allow gay commitment ceremonies or ordain openly gay students as rabbis.

The movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which decides religious positions, is reviewing the policy, which may or may not lead to a change.

Speaking of the interfaith issue, Epstein says, “The challenge is to find the right language to make people feel comfortable, while at the same time not moving from our goal of having people raise Jewish families.”

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