I’m in the process of converting to Judaism. I’ve wanted to convert for a long time, but always felt as if something was in the way. Such as not believing I would be good enough to join such an ancient tradition, struggling with parts of Torah that kids today would call “problematic”, a strong agnostic atheism throughout my high school and early college years, and being gay certainly did not help matters. Yet, despite efforts to ignore it, the decade long walk towards Zion is well on its way and I hope to finish later this year.
Whenever I look at religion — any religion — there are is a prerequisite which is an absolute must: engagement with both tradition and an ever changing modern world. Luckily for me, there is a branch of North American Judaism which does just that: Conservative Judaism. A balancing act of maintaining Jewish traditions and keeping up with an ever changing world, Conservative Judaism fits like a glove. Or, more accurately, is like a piece of a puzzle which has been missing my entire life.
Yet, look anywhere online and there is no shortage of sounding the death toll for the Conservative movement. Might as well go Orthodox or Reform, as Conservative Judaism is bound to die any day now.
I don’t want to come across as placing my fingers in my ears in order to ignore all of these criticisms. Because, in many respects, there is validity in the criticisms of institutional Conservative Judaism. There are a lot of internal issues within the movement that can’t be ignored. Issues such as a dwindling “Ellis Island” generation which made up the bulk of the movement post-WW2 and maintained it by sheer luck. A struggle to find and maintain an identity. Absolutely awful PR from the movements leaders. There is no sweeping under the rug when it comes to the problems that Conservative Judaism faces.
Let’s look at the biggest focal point for Conservative Judaism’s detractors: numbers and demographics. Everyone loves a good statistic or two.
Once upon a time, Conservative Judaism was the largest denomination of Jews in the United States. Now this title belongs to Reform. In 1990, there were approximately 723,000 Conservative Jews who belonged to a synagogue. In 2013, that number was a little under 600,000. Unaffiliated Conservative Jews (Jews who identify as Conservative but don’t belong to a synagogue) had a much larger drop. From around 739,000 to a little under 400,000 respectively. Estimates put the current percentage of Conservative Jews at around 18% of American Jewry.
Denominational switching and retention rates are something else which is focused upon. According to a Pew Research survey from 2013, about 36% of Jews raised Conservative will stay Conservative. 30% go Reform and 4% go Orthodox. A little over half (52%) only attend synagogue a few times a year. With about 39% going regularly. Apparently Conservative Judaism is so bland and middle of the road that many people can’t find that identity in the middle way.
But the biggest screams of downfall come with the numbers of intermarriage. Intermarriage is a controversial issue in the Jewish world. Among American Jews, 58% have a non-Jewish spouse. Among Conservative identified Jews overall, about 27% had a non-Jewish spouse (the numbers are lower among Conservative Jews who are members of a synagogue). Combined with a relatively low-to-average birth rate, and you have a perfect recipe for a movement on the decline.
Pack it up. Send it home. Say Kaddish for the Conservative movement. It is done.
But is it though? Is it truly time to say goodbye to the Conservative movement? Or, least, to the values and ideas of Conservative Judaism as a whole?
I’m not going to sit here and write that demographic shifts don’t matter. They do. Based on numbers alone, the Conservative Movement is no longer as strong as it was. The Reform movement is the largest in the United States, and Orthodoxy is growing at a strong rate. Especially among the Haredim. But these divisions in the Jewish world are very new; only appearing in the past couple of hundred years and pretty much exclusively in the Ashkenazi world. Something so new in the long history of Judaism is no doubt going to wax and wane in its demographics.
Yet, something that I think the Ashkenazi world has unfortunately picked up from its Christian neighbors is that it treats Judaism as a numbers game.
Looking back at the declining numbers in the Conservative Movement, while it may not be as large as it used to be, those who stay are incredibly strong it their commitment. 94% feel that being Jewish is very important. 94% attend a Passover seder. 91% fast on Yom Kippur, with 96% attending synagogue for the High Holy Days. Regular synagogue attendance is around 57%; an increase from a couple decades prior.
This also goes for the Masorti (Israeli Conservative) movement. Conservative Jews only constitute a small amount of Israel’s population. Most statistics will put Masorti Jews in Israel at around 2%. However, according to a personal response from the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel, there are about 250,000 self-identified Masorti Jews across 80 synagogues and minyanim. This doesn’t include the non-Masorti Jews who participate in events as well as international Masorti/Conservative Jews who join for shabbat services. Additionally, some Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews are involved with these communities and congregations. The Masorti movement also has a large number of B’nai Mitzvah annually (around 5,000 from what I was told) with about 1000 overall held at the Egalitarian Kotel. There have also been a few hundred conversions performed. In the larger context of Israeli society, these aren’t huge numbers. But still doing well enough in a country where the Orthodox Rabbinate has a massive stronghold on religious life.
If people wish to focus on demographics and numbers in American Jewish life as an indicator of denominations survival, let’s take a look at Orthodoxy. Overall, about 70% of those raised Orthodox remain Orthodox later in life. The number among the Haredim is around 78%. While Modern Orthodox is around 56%. “The Future is Modern Orthodox and Haredi” we hear from the rooftops, but 30% is still a significant minority of people to leave their Orthodox upbringing. Even the 22% who leave an Ultra-Orthodox fold is telling. Just as there are those who await for the Conservative movement to die, you can find many articles and writings online about the stagnation and eventual decline of Modern Orthodoxy in the face of shifting demographics.
With all of this said, the fact of the matter is, these numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the far off future. Only what is happening now. Sure, the near future of Judaism will very likely be more to the right and religious, but in an ever connecting digital age, with more and more people putting less importance on the role of religion in their life, and with it becoming harder for groups to stay isolated from the modern world, how long will this be a supposed truism? People have been predicting outcomes like this since the Haskalah, but Judaism of all streams and styles have made it through the centuries since, which each camp seeminglingly awaiting the demise of the other. It didn’t happen then and it likely isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that in less than 100 years, or even in 10, 20, 50 years, the official Conservative Movement goes away. The USCJ falls under and now there is an empty void of once affiliated synagogues about in the world. Does this mean that Conservative Judaism has finally died?
No. No it doesn’t. At least, not as an ideology or way of engaging with Judaism.
Conservative Judaism as a Haskafah, whether you call it Conservative or something like “Traditional Egalitarian”, will always be around. There will always be Jews who don’t fit into false dichotomy of “Torah True” Ashkenazi religiosity and outright unobservant secularism. Outside of the boundaries of the USCJ, we see a number of Independent and partnership Minyanim, unaffiliated Conservative, Open Orthodox, liberal-leaning Modern Orthodox, and institutions like Hadar. Even Reform Judaism, so often criticized for being far too focused on Tikkun Olam and being Judaism-lite, is seeing an increase of embracing tradition; especially among the younger generation.
Will these alone make up for declining demographics? Of course not, but it goes to show that a middle way and an actively religious life — within and outside of institutional boundaries — are alive and well. People will find meaning and a middle way where they can, and traditional egalitarian worship is not going to disappear even if the Conservative Movement goes to the wayside.
Of course, this is all speculation on my part. Sociological statistics can only tell us so much. I have no idea what the future holds. Maybe the Jewish world will go fully Orthodox and liberal Judaism becomes a blip on the radar. Maybe denominational lines will blur and disappear entirely, leaving behind ideals and communities rather than umbrella organizations. On a personal note, perhaps I will remain Conservative until the day I die. Or I may find myself veering towards Open/Liberal Orthodoxy. Or Reform. I can’t see the future, as I’m not the One who created all.
So, until that day comes — if it ever comes, anyway — I will continue to engage with modernity and tradition, build up a life of observance, worship God, and be in community with my fellow Conservative Jews. Even if we are destined to be a small, but faithful, minority.