Tradition today

On Conservative Judaism and its future

Simchat Torah in Zuccotti Park 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Liz Nord)
Simchat Torah in Zuccotti Park 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Liz Nord)
Ever since the Pew Research Center report about the status of American Jewry was issued, the press has been filled with opinion articles and letters lamenting the passing of American Jewry in general and of the Conservative Movement in particular.
Some of this lamentation has come from those who, while ostensibly unhappy, see this as a vindication of the Zionist vision that only in Israel can Jewry survive. Others shed crocodile tears about the Conservative Movement, which somehow went wrong and is now paying the price.
Well, I have news for you – the obituaries are out of place, since the news of the death of the Conservative Movement and of American Jewry (outside of Orthodoxy, especially ultra-Orthodoxy) is somewhat premature.
It has already been pointed out that the figures in the report are questionable, since they may have been skewed by the nature of the questions, and the reluctance of those questioned to be identified as religious or aligned with a specific group for various reasons.
Moreover, the picture is much more complex than such a report could explain.
Yes, it is true that synagogue membership is down. There are many reasons for that, not the least being the financial crisis that has hit America. Unfortunately, synagogue dues and day-school fees are expensive, and when people are counting their pennies, they often find that they can no longer afford it.
This is a problem that the community and the federations have to tackle.
Furthermore, there is a tendency today for people to avoid identification with “the establishment.” America is filled with so-called independent minyanim that do not want to be part of any movement, but even a casual glance will tell you that in practice, philosophy, Halacha and theology – to say nothing of training – they fit perfectly into the Conservative Movement.
In my frequent trips to the US and Canada, I see vibrant Conservative congregations with innovative programs and concerned and committed laypeople.
If they are dead or dying, they are doing a good job of hiding it. That the numbers are down we all know, and that there are serious challenges we also know, but the elegies and lamentations are out of place.
Additionally, if it were true, no one should rejoice – least of all Zionists, since the loss of the Conservative Movement would spell disaster for American Jewry and for Israel. The movement has been the backbone of the American community, federations and support for Israel since its inception, both financial and political. It has further held together the vast Center of American Jewry, which is neither to the far Right nor the far Left religiously. It has always taught tolerance and respect of other views, and indoctrinated love of the Jewish People above sectarianism.
The Conservative Movement was also a major catalyst in moving the Reform Movement from its extreme positions and its anti-Zionism toward more tradition and love of Zion, and moving the modern Orthodox toward more concern for women’s participation and greater openness to modern studies of Judaism. If there is one thing that it has not done successfully, it is to induce loyalty to the movement itself and to plan for its own future, and it must learn to do that as well.
I was pleased to attend the recent convention of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in Baltimore. Over 1,000 people attended: people of all ages, including teens and college youth. The discussions were of a very high nature, concerning Jewish life, law and thought, with great concern for the future and looking for creative answers to difficult problems.
I have been to conventions before, but this was probably the liveliest and most inspirational that I have seen. Anyone viewing it would never have thought to write an obituary for this group.
So to all those who are lamenting our demise, I say – save your pity. I am sorry to disappoint you, but we are here.
Conservative/Masorti Judaism has contributed greatly to Jewish life since its founding nearly 200 years ago. It is not about to disappear, not so long as there is a need for a Judaism that is devoted to tradition yet open to needed change; that is committed to Halacha, but to Halacha that is not moribund; that does not deny truth when it sees it, and welcomes challenges that will only make us stronger as committed Jews, lovers of Zion and lovers of the Jewish people. The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a twotime winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).