Saving Conservative Judaism: A Response to the Religious Landscape Survey

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Posted on October 15th, 2013 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Congregation, Intra-Faith, Social Issues
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Gottlieb

This essay was inspired by the following article: "Conservative Judaism turns 100 and Works to Reverse its Decline."

Back in 2009, when my fiancé and I were searching for a synagogue to attend in New York, the experience was a little reminiscent of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” The Reform temple around the corner? Very welcoming, but the use of musical instruments during services threw us off. The Conservative shul (synagogue) in the Village? Very pretty, but the average age of attendants was about 65, no twenty-somethings in sight. After countless Friday nights in synagogues all around the city, we finally found our “just right”: Town and Village Synagogue in the East Village. The rabbi was welcoming and happy to work with us as I studied for conversion and my fiancé and I prepared for marriage. The community was friendly and open; we were even invited to stay for a young adult dinner the first night we attended services. Perhaps most surprising to me, who grew up Christian, and to my fiancé, who grew up Reform, is that what made us say this synagogue was “just right” had a lot to do with the fact that it was affiliated with the Conservative movement. Services were led in Hebrew, and in general, congregants were observant of laws such as kashrut (dietary laws) and Shabbat (the day of rest). This commitment to Jewish tradition and Jewish living was inspiring to my fiancé and me. As we prepared to start a new life together, we knew we wanted Judaism to be a fundamental cornerstone of that life. Town and Village seemed perfectly situated to set us on the right path.

Conservative Judaism was the right match for me. Yet, it appears that I am part of a rapidly diminishing minority. According to a recent Pew Forum report on Religion and Public Life, only 0.5% of Americans identify as Conservative Jews. While this small number is unsurprising, as Jews represent less than 2% of the total population of the United States, it is significant because for much of the 20th century, the Conservative movement dominated American Judaism. Today, Conservative Judaism accounts for only 18% of America’s Jews. Those who were raised Conservative tend to move towards Reform Judaism, or non-affiliation. Their children are extremely unlikely to return to a Conservative community. (See "A Portrait of Jewish Americans.")

The question must be asked: Is Conservative Judaism worth saving? My answer is a resounding YES. Conservative Judaism represents an important middle ground between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. It preserves thousands of years of tradition while being open to change in the face of modernity. When I was studying for conversion, I was deeply satisfied that I was receiving a thorough Jewish education. I studied the Hebrew prayers, experimented with different levels of observance, and celebrated dozens of holidays, some of which I had never even heard of before. At the same time, I was welcomed as a full and equal member of the community, regardless of my gender, and I was enriched by the congregation’s diversity of ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and income levels. Today, I am a member of Congregation Kehillath Israel, a Conservative synagogue in my new home of Boston. I can happily say that it is a place that honors the past while welcoming all the questions and opportunities that the present holds. It is a home that I don’t know if I could have found in a Reform or Orthodox community.

In a world in which our choices for religious communities are endless, and there is little tethering us to the communities of our parents and grandparents, Conservative Judaism must reconsider what it needs to do in order to guarantee its survival. My first recommendation: Break down barriers. The Hebrew language and ritual observance can seem daunting to outsiders. Congregations should take steps to accommodate those who are new to Conservative Judaism, such as offering transliterated prayerbooks and hosting classes on important concepts, such as keeping kosher or observing Shabbat. Second: Consider the converts. Converts to Judaism are excited about Jewish life and open to trying new things. And, they don’t have the suspicion of Jewish institutions held by many people who were raised Jewish. Congregations should welcome and celebrate those who choose to be Jewish. In return, Jews-by-choice are likely to become new leaders of their chosen Jewish communities. Third: Make Judaism fun and relevant. Many congregations already have young adult groups that host events such as dinners and outings, to which I say, keep it up! These sorts of things encourage Jewish friendships and establish the synagogue as a place to enjoy yourself, not just fulfill your obligations. The danger here is the tendency of these groups to become clique-ish: congregations should take steps to ensure that new people are welcomed and included. Finally, and most importantly: Don’t judge. My worst Jewish experiences have occurred when someone has, either explicitly or implicitly, insinuated that I wasn’t Jewish enough. In every congregation—especially Conservative congregations—there is an enormous range of Jewish knowledge and observance. Making judgments about another person’s Jewish life is a surefire way to ensure that he or she will never return to your community. Instead of judging, offer to teach. Share your own practice. Be a role model. Perhaps others will be inspired to try something new. And even if they are not, they are still likely to remain in your community and contribute their strengths and talents to it.

In choosing Conservative Judaism, I found my spiritual home. What would make others find theirs?

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Sarah Fein is a PhD student in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Her work focuses on the role of women and gender in the Hebrew Bible and its later interpretation.


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