The Conservative movement — not the political one, which is spelled with a lower-case c and is in fact conservative, as its name implies, but the Jewish one, which spells its name with an upper-case C and defines itself as more-or-less liberal — has found itself to be somewhat beleaguered during the last few years.
Unlike the movements to its right — modern Orthodoxy — and to its left — Reform — the Conservative movement is balkanized. Unlike the others, its leading institutions include two rabbinical seminaries — the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan and the Ziegler School in California — an independent congregational group, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, independent groups for men (the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs) and women (Women’s League for Conservative Judaism), and the Rabbinical Assembly and Cantors Assembly. These groups tend to jockey for position, using energy that in the Reform and Orthodox world might be aimed externally rather than internally.
According to the Pew Report, the large study that was published in 2013 and has been used as the Rosetta Stone for Jewish demographers ever since, 18 percent of American Jews are Conservative; only 10 percent are Orthodox, but that community skews younger and so shows more obvious potential for growth. The Conservative community, according to demographers, is shrinking.
Last week, the CEO and executive vice president of United Synagogue, Rabbi Steven Wernick, gave an interview to Lev Gringauz, a student journalist; it was published in New Voices. Rabbi Wernick talked about how the movement had to “reposition the movement as a platform,” and he said that it’s frequently seen as “Parve. Not milchig” and equally “not fleichig. You can eat it, but who wants to, right?” Rabbi Wernick talked about going beyond denominationalism as it is now; “I’m actually beginning to think about it in a meta-denominational way,” he is reported as having said.
He also talked about how United Synagogue was forced to shut down Koach, its program for college students, when it faced financial difficulties about five years ago. “What’s the right balance between strengthening and transforming legacy institutions, and scale, meaning college, young adults, and so forth and so on,” he said in the interview.
Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine, who heads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Israel, is a lifelong Conservative Jew, the son of a Conservative rabbi; he is also a historian with a doctorate from CUNY. His involvement with Koach goes way back too; he belonged to it when he was in college, and before and then during rabbinical school he worked for Koach as well as for Metny, United Synagogue’s Metropolitan New York region.
He remembers that funding Koach always was a challenge. “I remember at one point, in the early 90s, when I was in college” — he went to Wesleyan — “we had about a dozen Koach kids at a United Synagogue convention. That was a novel idea then, having students. We were asking for an extra twenty-five cents per year per affiliated member, as a special allocation for Koach.” It passed overwhelmingly.
“But since then United Synagogue’s overall funding has decreased, and the number of affiliated congregations has decreased, and the overall membership rates in every synagogue has decreased,” Rabbi Fine said. “And I know that every affiliated congregation is having more and more discussions about the question of affiliation with United Synagogue, so that it is not a given that United Synagogue is able to collect dues even from the affiliated ones.
“It is harder and harder to stay in business with the decreased number of dollars.
“And that is driven by a lot of different factors,” he continued. “We still haven’t recovered from the change in giving patterns from 2008. And there is a generational difference.
“The younger generation doesn’t take it as a given that they have to affiliate,” Rabbi Fine said. ‘This is something that we and the Reform movement are facing, and the mainline Protestant churches are as well.”
One of the points that Rabbi Wernick made in the New Voices interview is a point that Rabbi Fine thinks is important. It’s about the value of being in the center. We “are living now in a polarized reality,” Rabbi Wernick said in the interview. “And it’s hard for centrists to be centrists in that reality, because all the activity is taking place on the ends. But it’s not sustainable long term, so eventually people will realize that the poles are taking you to disaster.”
That’s true, Rabbi Fine said, and it’s true not only in the Jewish world, but in U.S. politics as well. “We have increased polarization; people on the fringes dig in their heels. But we have to build relationships across the aisles, and make reasonable compromises and move forward.”
In fact, Rabbi Fine says, this is a point about which he has cared for some time; in 2016 he published “Passionate Centrism.” It’s about Conservative Judaism, and the title expresses his feelings accurately. “We have to find a way to be passionate about it,” he said. “We don’t have to have a majority. Continuity is not a numbers game. We Jews have been around for a very long time — longer than anyone else — and it is not about numbers.
“You do need a critical mass, and you need a community and a philosophy that makes sense and excites people. And there will always be a need for Conservative Judaism, which represents the center of the Jewish community, with its commitment to traditional practice and moderate change.”
Rabbi Fine thinks that the nature of the millennial generation poses problems for synagogues, but he also thinks that it also presents great opportunities. The most obvious problem/opportunity comes from the generation’s disinclination to affiliate, and how that will help affect the inevitable financial restructuring that lies ahead. “A lot of changes have to be done on the local level, and our institutions are a reflection of that,” he said. “We have too many shuls. We have 10 buildings where we should have two, and it’s the weight of maintaining all those buildings that caused the defunding of Koach.
“The United Synagogue board had an impossible job,” he said; the choice to defund Koach rather than take resources from local synagogues perhaps was inevitable, given the Scylla and Charybdis it was navigating. The board did the best it could with what it had.
“We on the ground control the real assets of the Jewish community, and we have to do a better job of pooling them,” he said. “We have to put communal values over parochial values. And it might be a generation before we can make that change.
Millennials don’t tend to join institutions, he said, but on the other hand they tend not to be sentimental about them. “The new generation isn’t like the regnant one,” he said. “They might be better able to understand that yes, there is loyalty, but we have to be able to sustain all the Jewish people, not just the Jewish people in a specific zip code.
“We have to remember not to fetishize objects, and buildings are objects.”
Eric Leiderman, who grew up in Englewood — he went to Moriah and then to the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, and whose family moved from Ahavath Torah to Kol HaNeshamah, both in Englewood — is a co-founder of Masorti on Campus, the grassroots organization that has taken over some of Koach’s work.
Like Rabbi Fine, Mr. Leiderman, 26, feels deeply connected to Conservative Judaism. He is spending the year in Jerusalem, studying Torah lishmah — not for a degree or a certification, but for its own sake, for the joy of learning — at the Conservative Yeshiva there. He isn’t exactly sure what he’ll do next, but he does know that eventually he will become a Conservative rabbi. The movement is his home.
“Not because of the movement or its institutions, but because of Conservative Judaism as an ideology,” he said. “To this form of authentic Judaism that holds onto tradition and embraces both being fully Jewish and fully in the world.
“I definitely separate the movement as a series of institutions and organizations from Conservative Judaism, which is a series of ideologies and beliefs,” he continued. “Conservative Jews can exist without the movement, without the formalized structure.”
So Masorti on Campus “is an example of how without formal structure or big money we were able to come together and have a Shabbaton at the University of Pennsylvania and have 15 campuses represented there,” he said. It was an entirely grassroots effort.
He was infuriated by Rabbi Wernick’s dismissal of Masorti on Campus as having a “really minimal” reach. “Is Masorti on Campus at the table?” Rabbi Wernick is quoted as asking rhetorically. (It is not clear what the table is, but it seems to be a theoretical negotiating table, where important but vague issues are being discussed.) “I think that our partners at Hillel and JTS and Masorti Olami and the Conservative Yeshiva would disagree with that,” Mr. Leiderman said. “We have all these partners from across the movement.”
Beyond the specifics of funding Conservative college students, there is the larger issue of the movement itself.
“I find it frustrating when someone says it is hard to define Conservative Judaism, when all they can say is that it is not this or not that,” Mr. Leiderman said. “Conservative Judaism has its own set of beliefs. It is the belief that Judaism can exist in a fully egalitarian space, and that Jewish tradition can exist without having to be compromised and still live in the modern world.
“It’s about having a Jewish community where we can engage in intellectual conversations about biblical criticism and the structure of the Talmud and rabbinic literature without having our connection to Judaism feel threatened. We can be intellectually honest.
“I feel that Conservative Judaism is the most intellectually honest way to express our Judaism.”