The First Word: What Conservative Judaism conserved

The movement allowed American Jews to hold on to their connection with traditional Judaism.

torah reading 88 (photo credit: )
torah reading 88
(photo credit: )
Reading the March 12 issue of The Jerusalem Post one would think that the only or major problem facing the Conservative Movement today is whether or not to ordain gays and lesbians as rabbis ("Jewish Theological Seminary students struggle with movement's delay on gay rabbis, marriage"). Another problem facing the Conservative Movement, namely its dwindling share of the shrinking American Jewish demographic pie, was referenced as an aside. Such problems facing the movement are, of course, not new. As early as the late 1970s when I was Midwest regional president of the United Synagogue of America (the congregational arm of the movement), I, along with Dr. Saul Shapiro, then a senior statistical analyst for IBM and regional president of the Metropolitan New York Region, conducted a survey of 10 percent of the member families in the US and Canada. Our goal was to find out enough about the religious needs and aspirations of the movement's membership to chart a strategic program for the continued growth of what was then the largest religious movement in the North American Jewish community. The results of the survey were devastating to those of us who conducted it as well as to the movement's leadership. We were able to show, with a high degree of statistical accuracy, that the movement in the US had no long-term capacity to replicate itself. We found that while many adult members of the movement came from more observant backgrounds, they, in the absence of any long-term commitment to religious observance, had not been able to convey the same level of religious feeling to their children. As the Post article so rightly points out, the movement was and remains composed mainly of observant clerical leadership with very few observant lay followers, even among the lay leadership itself. I recall speaking in 1979 at Chicago's Rodfei Zedek Congregation, a pillar of Conservative Judaism on the South Side, and being introduced not only by my title, but as "a Sabbath observant Jew" - as if this were a novelty. At the time I remarked to the assemblage that our future as a movement was bleak indeed when it could not be taken for granted that the lay leadership was observant. In an article which I penned for Commentary in the spring of 1984, I predicted that, as a result, the traditionalists in the movement would move to the Modern Orthodox camp while the reformists and those anxious for further change would move toward the Reform Movement which, itself, would become more traditional. All that, of course, has occurred, although modern Orthodoxy is also in danger of being eliminated as not sufficiently observant. The continued reluctance of the movement to take unequivocal stands on major issues of religious import coupled with the desire to be all things to all people, in the end, has simply accelerated the defection of the movement's members. Efforts to now redefine or rename itself (e.g. the suggestion of Rabbi David Wolpe to call it "covenantal Judaism"), or to become more politically correct by ordaining gays and lesbians will be akin to closing the barn door after the cows have left. HAVING STATED all of this, the movement should be acknowledged by one and all, especially by today's Orthodox, as having been a transitional movement that "conserved" American Judaism for the resurgence of Orthodoxy. Recall that at the end of World War II nobody thought there was any longer a future for Orthodoxy. The religious communities of Europe had been decimated by the Holocaust, American Jewry was suburbanizing itself with little interest in traditional observance, and those who arrived in Israel from Europe were little more than a thread of Orthodoxy. What the Conservative Movement in the US did do, and for which it should be eternally proud, is establish a framework in which American Jews could hold on to their connection with traditional Judaism while being permitted to live a lifestyle concomitant with the social mores of the times. To accomplish this, the movement established large synagogue/community-center complexes, encouraged family prayer, organized a most successful youth program (USY), a first-rate Hebrew-speaking camping experience (the Ramah Camps) and an Americanized day-school system (the Solomon Schechter Schools). Thirty years later, when Orthodoxy began to take hold once again and increased learning and observance became the norm, there were Jews in America for Orthodoxy to recruit. One would be very surprised to find how many of the leaders of Modern Orthodox synagogues in America grew up in Conservative homes. Sitting around the Shabbat table in Los Angeles late last year, I noted that 80% of the people there, all members of an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area, grew up in Conservative congregations. I don't expect that any of the mainline Orthodox organizations will ever send the Conservative Movement a letter of thanks for having preserved American Judaism for the successful re-emergence of American Orthodoxy. But the Conservative Movement does deserve such accolades for holding the middle ground during an era of religious uncertainty. As far as the Conservative Movement is concerned, it should admit that it was indeed a transitional movement and that, in the future, it will be a shrinking element of the mosaic that is American Judaism. But it need not be ashamed of what it accomplished during a most difficult period in American Jewish life. The writer, a 22-year resident of Israel, was formerly chairman of Council of Regional Presidents of the United Synagogue of America. He is also a past national president of the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.