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The Vital Center is Holding

Reports of the demise of Conservative Judaism are greatly exaggerated

by Rabbi Alan Silverstein

Many Conservative Jews were alarmed by press accounts of the Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011. The study claims national implications, noting that “the future of American Jewry is powerfully influenced by developments” in New York.

If you didn’t read about the study, the finding that caused the most concern was this: “Over the last two decades, both Conservative and Reform household percentages have fallen, with the Conservative proportion falling even further than the Reform.”

Disturbing in a different manner was the executive summary of the Los Angeles-based Synagogue 3000’s recent nationwide survey of Reform and Conservative congregations, which concludes that “Reform congregations fare better” than Conservative counterparts in religious life, mission and morale. We are left pondering: are we witnessing the precipitous numeric and religious collapse of Conservative Judaism, the “vital center” of the Jewish spectrum?

I am relieved to report that closer examination of the data reveals a more nuanced assessment.

First, contrary to the headlines, the New York numbers for the three large movements do not reflect the disappearance of Conservative Jews. In fact, the study found 142,000 affiliated Modern Orthodox Jews, 191,000 members of Conservative synagogues, and 160,000 members of Reform synagogues. What patterns do these numbers represent compared to a decade ago? The study team found “approximate stability” in the number of Conservative Jews claiming synagogue membership between 2002 and 2011, according to an article in the New York Jewish Week.

Second, reading the actual data within the Synagogue 3000 study reveals not only the weaknesses but also the strengths of our congregations. For example, the research team reported that on Saturday morning, “Conservative services are far better attended than Reform services.” This greater attendance is “a reflection [in contrast to most Reform temples] of there being an ongoing Shabbat morning worshipping community in Conservative congregations.” They also assessed that enhanced Shabbat engagement in Conservative synagogues can be attributed in part to greater “emphasis upon observing special practices … on the Sabbath or … holy day” and upon “personal prayer, meditation, devotion or other spiritual practices.”

Third, the study is misleading when it bundles all Jews other than the Orthodox into a single “non- Orthodox” category. In fact, the New York researchers affirm that joining a Conservative congregation makes a huge difference in terms of active Jewish engagement. The study consistently referred to “a familiar denominational gradient, with the Orthodox substantially leading Conservative adherents, who in turn surpass Reform Jews on measures of engagement and attendance,” while all far exceed the level among the “Just Jewish” respondents.

While 73 percent of affiliated Conservative Jews rate “very high” or “high” on a scale measuring Jewish engagement, 72 percent of the unaffiliated “Just Jewish” respondents rank either “low” or “very low.” In response to this data, Jewish Theological Seminary Professor Jack Wertheimer concluded, “it is time to put to rest the fable…that those who do not identify with a denomination are an innovative breed of intrepid pioneers intent on carving a new form of Jewish identity. Overwhelmingly, such people are progressively disengaging from every aspect of Jewish life.”

Furthermore, within the denominational gradient among the non-Orthodox, both the Synagogue 3000 and New York Federation studies identify Conservative Jews as exhibiting the highest levels of Jewish intensity. Conservative Jews not only are “substantially more likely to attend monthly services” than their fellow “non-Orthodox” Jews, they also excel in terms of participation in Shabbat meals, sustaining Jewish friends, talking about Jewish matters, accessing Jewish websites, and donating to UJA/Federation.

Affiliated Conservative Jews also are noteworthy within the non-Orthodox spectrum in their commitment to educating their children as Jews. Uniquely high percentages of Conservative-affiliated children receive some type of formal Jewish education, attend day schools, enroll in Jewish preschool or Jewish day care, and spend time in Israel. Conservative congregations also are the most common non-Orthodox addresses in which to find a daily minyan, kosher kitchens, delegations to the AIPAC Policy conference, Israel Bonds campaigns, and so much more.

If many factors point to a high quality of Jewish engagement within Conservative ranks, why does survey data frequently reveal a numeric decline? This important question merits careful analysis. Here are but a few factors to be explored:

First, sons and daughters of Conservative Jews are marrying and having children later and later. During these odyssey years (their 20s and 30s), single adults cluster into urban singles scenes. This does not mean that they necessarily will be lost to the movement of their youth. Instead, they temporarily self-identify as “Just Jewish” until their marital and household paths have been determined. At that point, young married couples with tots ready for preschool routinely re-enter the world of synagogue membership and movement identification.

Second, the populations of certain American neighborhoods have aged or have changed their ethnic and/or religious composition. Unfortunately, the Conservative movement has been far too slow in balancing these predictable membership losses with the seeding of congregations in emerging areas of residence. An entrepreneurial approach to synagogue growth has become a priority for the re-organized United Syn- CJ agogue of Conservative Judaism. The USCJ’s strategic plan also focuses on enhancing the vitality of local Conservative synagogues. The goal is to make congregations more skilled in their retention of empty-nesters, while simultaneously providing more energetic outreach to prospective members.

In sum, a careful reading of the current surveys ought not to discourage the Conservative movement. Embedded within the sometimes difficult findings is a context that is considerably less ominous. The data point to the possibility and hope for a much brighter future.

Rabbi Alan Silverstein is religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, New Jersey, and chair of the Masorti Israel Foundation.

 
 
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