Conservative Jews Deserve More than PR
by Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Rabbi Pesach Lerner/JNS.org
Responding to a dramatic decline in membership, the Conservative movement’s congregational arm has hired the Good Omen PR agency to survey hundreds of its members and “develop a new ‘position statement’ for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.” Explaining their need, United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick described “a level of uncertainty about precisely where the ‘brand’ of Conservative Judaism sits in our members’ lives.” The problem, however, is far more essential than branding.
According to the Pew Survey, the once-dominant Conservative movement has lost one-third of its members in the past 25 years. It now comprises merely 18% of American Jews – and only 11% of those under 30. The Avi Chai Foundation Day School Census determined that Schechter school enrollment plummeted 44% in the past 15 years. Rabbi Wernick responds to these daunting numbers by saying, “we need to stop shraying our kups about everything that is bad, and get to work.” But will they do what must be done?
The movement has traveled this road before. Less than 30 years ago, there were early indications that the movement was past its heyday. At that time, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), Rabbinical Assembly, and United Synagogue formed a joint commission to create a statement of principles for the future of the movement – a document called “Emet Ve’Emunah.”
It was hardly the success they touted it to be; the commission was unable even to agree upon Who or what it worships. Instead it validated perceptions of G-d as divergent as the Supreme Being found in the Bible, and a vague “god” who is “not a being to whom we can point,” but simply a force “present when we look for meaning.” The movement discarded previous standards and offered no guidelines – it simply endorsed the disparate views of its members.
Immediately prior to the establishment of JTS in 1886, Orthodox Rabbi J.D. Eisenstein wrote that “both the Conservatives and the Radicals are moving in the same direction. The only difference between them is time.” Throughout its history, the Conservative movement has attempted to span the chasm between the commitment to tradition of Orthodoxy and the open pursuit of American liberalism found in Reform — and has proven Rabbi Eisentein’s words prophetic. As the Reform movement moved inexorably further from the moorings of Jewish tradition, the Conservative “middle” followed it further out to sea.
Consider how Conservative Judaism has progressed from mixed pews to the present day. It now endorses same-sex marriage, and although it continues to prohibit intermarriage, it dropped its ban on interdating by United Synagogue Youth leaders just last year. If formal acceptance of intermarriage is subject to ‘rebranding’, is the conclusion in doubt? By following a poll of members, the PR-driven ‘brand’ of 2016 will be still more nebulous than the ‘principles’ of 1988. This may improve short-term retention, but will only hasten the movement’s decline.
This tragedy hits home. Just over a year ago, Daniel Gordis, grandson of the Chairman of the Commission that wrote Emet Ve’Emunah, authored “Conservative Judaism: A Requiem.” He wrote poignantly of the implosion of the Conservative movement, which he termed the direct consequence of “abandoning a commitment to Jewish substance.” In order to stand for something, a religious movement cannot rely upon “interviewing hundreds of [members]” to determine its standards. On the contrary, it must make demands.
In my youth, I (YM) was inspired by Solomon Schechter students who knew how to read Hebrew prayers. But in college I quickly realized that in order to find people who took Judaism seriously, you prayed with the Orthodox. And then I visited Jerusalem. The rest, as they say, is history.
Fifty years ago, much of American Jewry believed that the Orthodox were a dying vestige. Rather than accommodating its members, Orthodoxy did the opposite — expecting full-day Jewish education for every boy and girl. Every PR firm would have derided this as ridiculous. In just the past twenty years, however, enrollment in traditional Orthodox day schools has more than doubled.
The Conservative movement could still choose Jewish substance. At its founding, the movement unabashedly professed belief in the Deity Who gave our Torah, hired some of the greatest Talmudic scholars to teach at JTS, and expected a baseline of true Halachic observance from every Jew. Effort spent upon branding could be far better spent upon increasing the educational opportunities for its members, especially the declining numbers of young adults, to help them meet this standard.
Yes, returning to such high expectations will undoubtedly inspire the Jewishly uninspired to leave — but this has happened repeatedly throughout our history. Only those who retained “Jewish substance” retained Jewish grandchildren.
It would be tragic indeed if the movement were to try to hide its decline behind a marketing blitz, rather than refocusing upon the core tenets that have made Judaism relevant for thousands of years.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis – Torah.org, and the co-Editor of Cross-Currents.com, an Orthodox on-line journal.
Rabbi Pesach Lerner is the Executive Vice President Emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel.
Just to make sure your readers do not get the wrong impression, JTS was founded as an Orthodox institution. Its first graduate from the Rabbinical school was none other than Chief Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz z’tl.It wasn’t until many year later JTS became involved with the Conservative movement
This is partially true; but it understates matters to say JTS “become involved” with the Conservative movement — it created it. Initially, JTS was supposed to reflect a liberal/modern form of Orthodoxy. Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes, one of the three founders of JTS, was also one of the founders of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America — the OU — in 1898, and served as President. Yes, one of the founders of JTS became President of the OU! When Solomon Schechter took over JTS in 1902, the traditionalists disavowed JTS; it was Schechter who then created the United Synagogue of America (which changed its name to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in 1991) and the Conservative movement was born.
Though you didn’t mention it, the comparison to OO is obvious. And the result will be equally obvious. If JTS, which started with some orthodox rabbis of note, couldn’t stop the leftward spiral how can OO (which lacks rabbis of similar stature) hope to fare better?
The comparisons don’t hold any water. This was a time of massive Eastern European immigration to America. These immigrant Jews may not have been “observant” in the complete sense, but they wanted to have a Hebrew service that they were familiar with in a more diginified, Americanized space with English speaking rabbis.
Reform was far too “church-like” for them, and most Orthodox shuls at this point were at a very low socioeconomic level and mostly absent of anything American.
The current circumstance is far, far different since today just about every American Jew takes his/her “Americanness” for granted. We’ve made it (thank goodness)!
I’m confused. It seems that you are giving the Conservative Movement advice as to how to retain members and reverse its decline.
But your advice it to raise standards and create educational expectations which you admit will drive many members away from the movement.
Isn’t that a recipe for even further decline? It sounds like you are asking the movement to strip itself to the core and rebuild from that core. That’s a pretty steep request.
And what’s the point in encouraging the Conservative Movement to imitate the Orthodox Day School model and become “Orthodox lite” if they really want to retain their identity as Conservative Jews (whatever that means) and not be Orthodox nor Reform?
Why not just recommend a merger with Open Orthodoxy?
The conservative movement is destined to die regardless of what they may attempt. As the reform movement is paying greater respect to tradition, despite some theological differences, much of the US Conservative and the Reform movement will become indistinguishable. In Israel and in some isolated US communities, the boundaries between mesorati-like movements, the OO and the LW of modern orthodox despite theological differences become indistinguishable. We might like debating theology, but functional similarity will likely be determinative.
I highly doubt the Conservative movement will die. Instead it’ll just rebrand itself as the Open Orthodox movement and prolong its life cycle another 100 years and continue to lead tens of thousands of Jews astray that way.
dream on – compare the level of halakhic observance in the two communities.
I have made that comparison and it’s not that far off unfortunately.
Many of the OO laity are also not all that into it – a good number are not even Shomer Shabbos in the traditional sense. The clergy are more committed, but then again, that’s how it is/was in the Conservative movement too, for a long time.
When one compares to the early Conservative community, the comparison is even more spot on. Many were very traditional and Halachah was a factor in their early decisions [i.e. they had to find a way around it]. The same is true for OO. It won’t be long, however, for that to die down.
As it is often said, engagement is no substitute for commitment. OO seeks engagement, not commitment, and that will be its undoing.