Conservative Judaism: The Beginning of the End? | Sam Lehman-Wilzig | The Blogs – The Times of Israel

Posted: February 19, 2022 at 9:25 pm

For Conservative Judaism in America, the news lately has been ominous. Looking back over the years, its even worse! Which raises the question: does it have a real future?

I started thinking about this when a friend sent me some news from my old Washington Heights neighborhood (in Upper, Upper Manhattan) where I grew up. The main Conservative synagogue there, Fort Tryon Jewish Center, had to sell off its building to a condominium contractor. A minor piece of news, I thought and then a larger item appeared a few days ago: the American Jewish University in Los Angeles (other than the JTS, the only Conservative Rabbinical Ordination school in the US) was selling off its lovely campus! Yes, it plans to continue working, as the JTA reported: American Jewish University announced the decision in a letter to its students that said the sale would help pay for more academic offerings and community programs as the institution increasingly turns digital. Virtual education might help future rabbis to deal with Zoom prayers, but thats not what minyan Judaism is all about.

And then the true shocker appeared in the news: next year there wont be enough new Conservative rabbis to fill all the vacancies in the movements American synagogues!If the most important role in an organization cant find enough workers, that sounds like the beginning of the movements death knell.

In a sense, none of this should surprise anyone. As a PEW survey in 2021 noted: a quarter of adults who are currently Jewish or were raised that way say they were brought up in Conservative Judaism, while 15% identify as Conservative Jews today. For every person who has joined Conservative Judaism, nearly three people who were raised in the Conservative movement have left it.In short, the Conservative movement has been losing adherents for several decades. It was by far the largest of the three main Jewish-American denominations in the 1950s and 1960s. It barely beats out Orthodoxy today and has fallen far below Reform Judaism.

What happened? The short answer is that for any religious sect or denomination its tough to be caught in the middle. Religion has a tendency to push people to extremes: either liberal universalism (Reform Judaism; Christian Unitarianism) or dogmatic particularism (Orthodox Judaism; Catholicism). Put another way, its easier to either go with general societys zeitgeist flow or hunker down and adhere to strict traditionalism. Finding a middle way is fraught with compromises not something that religion excels in.

Perhaps the best example of this conundrum in which the Conservative Movement found itself was the mass Jewish migration after WW2 from the cities to the suburbs. The problem: in the suburbs people tended to live much further away from the synagogue not in walking distance for most congregants. The question became: should the Conservative movement go along with Reform Judaism that permitted driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, or stick to age-old halakhic proscriptions that traditionally forbade this (because the autos internal combustion engine involved fire)? After much internal, earnest, halakhic debate, a decision was issued to split the baby in half: only driving to synagogue was permitted, but not to anywhere else on the sabbath. It doesnt take a social psychologist to understand that this distinction would not be understood by the movements parishioners, nor adhered to.

Worse yet, not only was the decision halakhically untenable (using fire is one of the 39 totally strict prohibitions regarding Sabbath activity), but this only further encouraged the movements adherents to live further away from the neighborhood where the synagogue was located thereby distancing Conservative Jews from each other even during the week! Any sense of a tight Jewish community quickly evaporated.

Whether because of this decision or not related at all, the ensuing decades were witness to a growing sociological gap between the Conservative leadership (rabbis, etc.) and the laity. Whereas the former (the Jewish Theological Seminary leading the way) continued to try and adhere to Jewish halakha in its decisions (most of the time successfully), many and then most of its Jewish constituency lived lives increasingly disconnected from Jewish law for example, at first eating non-kosher only outside the home, and then also inside the home. There was a limit to how liberal the JTS could be (even the School of Hillel 2000 years ago was flexible only up to a point), and the laity either jumped ship or simply ignored the JTS strictures from on high. Indeed, one of the reasons that there arent enough Conservative rabbis today is precisely this disconnect: who would want to shepherd a flock that refuses to follow the path?

Let it be said that the Conservative movement has done some wonderful work. Its Camp Ramah network is a jewel (I worked there for several years as sports director and educator). The Solomon Schechter Jewish Day School chain has provided great Jewish education to tens of thousands of the movements youngsters. But neither could fully service the million or more congregants that Conservatism had decades ago.

Of course, if the Conservative movement ultimately disappears, that is not to say that its adherents would stop living Jewish lives. Many will continue to move leftwards to Reform Judaism, itself becoming more Jewishly traditional over the years; others will move rightwards and find common cause with Modern Orthodoxy especially its more egalitarian wing that is making mighty efforts to square Orthodoxy with the circle of womens equality. It is questionable whether American Jewry will really suffer in any way if only two major denominations survive (three, if you want to count ultra-Orthodoxy as distinct, which in many ways it certainly is). The future of American Jewry is not a question of how many denominations survive; rather, its a matter of how many Jews remain altogether within the Jewish fold, living lives that can be said to have significant Jewish content.

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. His new book is VIRTUALITY AND HUMANITY: VIRTUAL PRACTICE AND ITS EVOLUTION FROM PRE-HISTORY TO THE 21ST CENTURY (Springer Nature, Dec. 2021): The book's description, substantive Preface and full Table of Contents can be freely accessed here: https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-981-16-6526-4#toc. For more information about Prof. Lehman-Wilzig's publications (academic and popular), see: http://www.ProfSLW.com

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Conservative Judaism: The Beginning of the End? | Sam Lehman-Wilzig | The Blogs - The Times of Israel

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