Conservative Judaism: A Community Conversation
The Jewish Theological Seminary

Response to "Looking Back, Looking Forward" From Steven M. Cohen

As is befitting the intellectual leader of the Conservative Movement, Chancellor Eisen reminds us of the inherent value, appeal, and necessity of Conservative Judaism to Judaism and, indeed, to the societies of North America. He compellingly urges his students to advance the rethinking and rebuilding of Conservative Judaism.

But to undertake this awesome task, today’s students—and all of us—need not only wise thinking and powerful motivation. We also need a firm grasp on the daunting realities confronting Conservative Judaism today. To be clear, the Movement has been diminishing in all metrics of size—in the number of congregants, the number of congregations, the number of clerical positions, and probably even the number of USY members. There are some bright spots, to be sure. Camp Ramah is among the most prominent, and there are some others as well. But, make no mistake: the demographics are distressing at best, daunting at worst.

Moreover, in terms of their age, Conservative congregants are the oldest of all three major denominations, with funerals far exceeding bar/bat mitzvahs in many congregations. The geography of the Movement is "old" as well. Conservative congregations are heavily concentrated in veteran areas of Jewish settlement, the older suburbs of major Northeastern and Canadian cities. Marshall Sklare viewed Conservativism as an "ethnic church." Unfortunately, Jewish ethnicity in North America has been in decline, as fewer Jews have Jewish spouses, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. A less ethnic American Jewry means (or has meant) a less populous Conservative Movement. And numbers are indeed important. Their decline suggests fewer resources, lack of critical mass for certain local and national endeavors, and fewer paid positions for rabbis, cantors, educators, and executive directors.

But, while the numbers of Jews identified with the Conservative Movement is in decline, we see numerous clusters of highly engaged "post-Conservative" Jews. They have established dozens of independent minyanim and rabbi-led emergent communities. Along with their age-peers, they have brought about new initiatives in social justice, self-empowered Jewish learning, pro-am Jewish cultural endeavors, and a Jewish vibrancy on the Internet. These Jews speak to new signs of vitality and creativity in Jewish life in the ideological domain heretofore inhabited principally by Conservative Judaism.

The shrinkage of the Conservative Movement, then, has been accompanied by the efflorescence of Jewish innovations initiated and led by the non-identifying products of the Movement. The development means that the once neat, nearly tri-partite denominational spectrum is taking on a very different shape in the early 21st century. Adjoining a numerically shrinking and institutionally challenged Conservative Movement is an energetic and growing terrain of Jewish life and activity that bears striking resemblances to Conservative Judaism, but important differences as well. For the moment, perhaps we can speak of a "Conservative landscape" or an American Jewish center. It consists of one segment (with many parts) that is officially Conservative, alongside and interlocking with a segment (also with several parts) that has grown out of Conservative Judaism—and, to be sure, other progenitors or Conservative "allies."

How these various pieces relate to one another, and how the official leadership and institutions of the Conservative Movement relate to the flowering of innovation in its ideological neighborhood, will influence not only the health of Conservative Judaism. They will also influence the potential for the emergence of a magnetic American Jewish center that takes its place alongside the other major camps in Jewish life, those situated to its "left" and those situated to its "right.”"