Judaism and the Future of Religion in America: The Situation of Conservative Judaism Today

By Wertheimer, Jack | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer-Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Judaism and the Future of Religion in America: The Situation of Conservative Judaism Today


Wertheimer, Jack, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Conservative Judaism in the early years of the twenty-first century confronts a complex set of challenges. Whereas fifty years ago, it was the movement preferred by the plurality of American Jews, doubling and then tripling the numbers of its affiliated congregations in little over a decade, it has long ceased growing, and in fact now suffers from an erosion in its membership. According to the National Jewish Population Study of 2000-2001, some 35 percent of Jews raised in the Conservative movement identify as Reform Jews and another 9 percent as Orthodox. Not surprisingly, the movement is debating how to stem these losses. But since the outflow is bi-directional, a message directed at one part of this population may utterly fail to impress other segments. Can the Conservative movement simultaneously win over Jews who seek a more intense religious and communal experience, even as it speaks to those looking for fewer demands and greater latitude?

The movement's programmatic successes are fueling some of the defections. During the 1990s, day school enrollment soared among Conservative Jews, so that a quarter of young people receiving a Jewish education in the movement are now attending day schools. Ramah summer camps overflowed with campers during the nineties, and United Synagogue Youth activities and Israel travel programs thrived. But precisely because one sector of the movement intensified its engagement, those Conservative Jews who were less involved and afforded their children a less intensive Jewish education felt marginalized. And as the products of intensive Jewish education have entered their post-college years, they find their home congregations wanting and are attracted to Chabad, Orthodox synagogues, or post-denominational minyanim. (1)

These demographic dilemmas, in turn, are intertwined with ideological ones. The success of Reform, after all, has come precisely as it has shed virtually all semblance of religious ideology, and has rather cast itself as the "big tent" of American Judaism. (2) Some are urging the Conservative movement to follow suit. But what then will distinguish Conservative Judaism? Even more important, can a movement that says yes to everything inspire its adherents, let alone transmit a strong identity to the next generation? Further complicating the question, the Conservative movement already is split over matters of ideology. Despite the shedding of its left-wing, when the Reconstructionist movement went its own way in the 1960s, and of its right wing with the departure of the Union for Traditional Judaism in the 1980s, the Conservative movement still lacks ideological consensus. Neither its right nor its left in fact wants it to be a "big tent:" the right, which insists on halakhic fidelity, argues that the movement can thrive only if is clear about its expectations and boundaries; the left favors egalitarianism over pluralism, unabashedly arguing for the movement to part company with congregations that do not grant complete equality of religious status to women. (There also are some who want the movement to extend complete equality to gays and lesbians, and perhaps also to patrilineal Jews, who suffer discrimination because their father and not their mother is Jewish.)

Underlying these debates over religious policy are fundamental theological and ideological disagreements. Is the Conservative movement bound by Jewish law (halakha)--and if so, what is the proper Halakhic process of the movement? Given the strong historical commitment to open-minded scholarship and free inquiry, how is Conservative Judaism to bridge the conflicting world views presented by contemporary thought, on the one hand, and the assumptions of traditional texts, on the other? How should Conservative Judaism function in an American environment that encourages unfettered individualism and self-expression, that values private spirituality over public prayer and engagement, and that privileges personal experience at the expense of peoplehood and ethnic ties? …

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