About twenty years ago I served as Scholar-in-Residence at a convention of the Seaboard Region of United Synagogue Youth. The theme of the convention was “Exploring what it means to be a Conservative Jew,” so to get the conversation rolling I asked the staff members to circulate among the kids and ask them for their definition of Conservative Judaism. But in order to make the question a little tougher I added the proviso that the answer could not include the words “Orthodox” or “Reform.”
As I predicted, doing this left most of the teens uncharacteristically tongue-tied. Most of them would have defined Conservative Judaism as “not Orthodox and not Reform” or “halfway between Orthodox and Reform” or “less religious than Orthodox but more religious than Reform.” A few of the students tried to be clever by using synonyms like Liberal or Progressive instead of Reform and strict or traditional instead of Orthodox, but since it was my exercise I ruled that out of order.
A couple of the students did try to define Conservative Judaism without using the terms Orthodox or Reform and came up with something along the lines of “that branch of Judaism which encourages you to observe only those practices you find meaningful and to not observe what you don’t find meaningful.” This is actually a very good definition, but there’s one problem – it’s actually a definition of Reform Judaism, not Conservative
Over the last decade or more, there has been a general perception that Conservative Judaism is in decline. One measure, but only one, of a religious movement’s well-being is the number of actual members it has. Public opinion surveys tend to overestimate the adherents of a particular denomination because in America belonging to a congregation is the respectable thing to do, and many people will tell pollsters – or their neighbors – that they are members when in fact it somehow slipped their mind to actually join and send in their dues. At its height in the 1950s, about 900,000 people were dues-paying members of United Synagogue affiliated congregations. Today, the number seems to be somewhere around 500,000, so we’ve lost more than a third of our members.
In the 1950s and 1960s, as Jews moved en masse from the cities to the suburbs, it was not unusual for 100 new Conservative synagogues to be founded in a single year. By contrast, there are about 125 fewer Conservative synagogues now than there were a decade ago. Some have merged and some have simply folded; others have changed affiliation or consider themselves post- or non-denominational.
Where are former Conservative Jews going? Those who are not disappearing are going mostly to Reform temples. According to the most recent available figures from the National Jewish Population Study, fully one third of Reform temple members claim to have been raised Conservative. At the same time, about ten percent of Orthodox synagogue members also claim to have been raised Conservative.
I believe that the reasons we lose members both to our left and to our right are similar. It is the inability to articulate the essence of our movement in ways which allow us to create vibrant communities of meaning.
As a movement and as a synagogue, we uphold certain mitzvot. But there is a disconnect between what goes on in the synagogue and what the majority of our members do in their own lives. For example, food served in the synagogue must be kosher. Furthermore, most Conservative rabbis will not attend an off-site Bar Mitzvah or wedding reception unless the food is kosher – not just the food served to the rabbi and his or her spouse, but all the food.
We insist that a child reach his or her 13th birthday according to the Hebrew calendar before a Bar or Bat Mitzvah can be held, even if it would be more convenient to schedule the ceremony some weeks earlier. We have restrictions about the use of musical instruments on the Sabbath, about what time a Saturday night reception in the synagogue can start, about who can have an aliyah or other Torah honor. We do not consider the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother fully Jewish without a formal conversion ceremony, though we attempt to make it relatively easy to convert such a child. And Conservative synagogues require more hours and more years of religious school attendance than Reform temples usually do.
All of these make perfect sense to me, because I buy in to the system. I would be deeply uncomfortable attending a non-kosher Jewish celebration, where I would most likely be asked to lead those assembled in thanking God for food which I believe God has commanded us not to eat. But if you do not buy into the system, these rules and regulations, these mitzvot, can seem incredibly burdensome. So unless you have some particular reason to stick with your Conservative congregation – family tradition, friends, you like the rabbi or there isn’t a Reform congregation conveniently located – why not make things easier and go Reform? Particularly since Reform Judaism in recent years has adopted some of the trappings of tradition – kippot, more Hebrew in worship, and so on – and is thus more comfortable than it used to be for those who may not be committed to Conservative ideology but are most familiar with Conservative-style worship.
While we are losing many of our least traditionally-observant members on the left, we are also losing some of our most traditionally-observant members on our right. Imagine a young man or woman who has grown up in a Conservative synagogue. They may have graduated from a Solomon Schechter day school, attended USY or Camp Ramah, and gone to a college where there is a strong and vibrant Conservative minyan. They observe Shabbat, they keep kosher, they put on tefillin – all of which they have been taught are mitzvot. Now they have graduated college and are looking for a community to join. If they walk into many typical Conservative shuls, their level of observance will immediately earn them the label “Orthodox.” They will not find too many other congregants whose observance level is similar to theirs. When they have children, how many other Shabbat and kashrut-observant playmates will their kids have?
Lest you think this is far-fetched, I can tell you that when I lived in the District twenty years ago, I had a friend who later became a senior White House official. You have probably seen him on “Meet The Press” or one of the other Sunday talk shows. We belonged to the same Conservative synagogue and, since I was single at the time, I often had Shabbat lunch at his home. Both he and his wife had been raised in Conservative synagogues, they sent their kids to a Conservative day school and identified with the ideology of the Conservative movement. But eventually they moved from DC to Potomac where they joined Beth Shalom, a modern Orthodox shul. At the time my friend said that while he still considered himself to be a Conservative Jew, there were no kids for his children to play with on Shabbat. In their new Orthodox shul, there were lots of other Sabbath observant families and he did not have to worry about his children being given non-Kosher food by a playmate’s parents or being invited to a birthday party on Shabbat.
I am less troubled by the defections to Orthodoxy than to Reform. I am a Conservative rabbi and a Conservative Jew, but before I am Conservative I am a rabbi and a Jew. When people like the friend I just spoke about leave Conservative Judaism for Orthodoxy, we can be relatively confident that they will stay Jewishly active and give their children Jewish educations. There is a strong likelihood – not a guarantee, but a strong likelihood – that their children will have a Jewish partner and raise a Jewish family. When our members leave us to join the Reform community, the likelihood of them doing all of these things is much smaller. Many of the young people raised in Reform temples grow up to be involved Jews – some of them, like me, grow up to be Conservative rabbis. But as one moves along the Jewish spectrum from Orthodox to Conservative to Reform, the likelihood of any specific Jewish behavior – lighting Shabbat candles, visiting Israel, giving to Jewish causes, having a Jewish partner whether by birth or conversion – decreases.
On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the need to be open to a wide variety of expressions of Jewish spirituality within the walls of our own institution. This does not mean we can please everyone, nor should we attempt to. The Rolling Stones did not attempt to write songs that everybody liked; they left that to the Bee Gees. We need to articulate a vision, live it, and present it in an attractive and compelling manner.
For one thing, I am becoming more and more convinced that our movement would be well-served by getting rid of the name “Conservative” Judaism. It makes no sense in a country where “conservative” brings to mind a political philosophy that around 75% of American Jews don’t subscribe to, and causes non-Jews to think we wear black clothes and straw hats while riding around in our horse-drawn buggies.
One hundred years ago we took the name “Conservative” because unlike the Reform who were trying to “Reform” tradition, we were trying to “Conserve” it. Yes, our movement is actually a split-off from Reform. Before we were known as Conservative we were called Positive Historical Judaism. “Historical” because we believe in studying Judaism with the best academic methods available, and we therefore understand that Jewish thought and practice has a history, that it did not just drop wholesale from the sky. It has changed over the years and we no less than previous generations have the right and the duty to change when change is necessary. And Positive, because our predisposition is to view inherited texts and practices in a positive light, and to change or drop them only when there is a compelling reason to do so.
On Selichot night some of us heard a talk by Prof. Benjamin Sommer of JTS. He spoke about Psalm 24, the psalm we chant when parading the Torah around the sanctuary before returning it to the Ark on days other than Shabbat. This processional is one of the first things classical Reform Judaism did away with, viewing it as pagan and undignified.
Prof. Sommer showed us that this processional indeed originated in a pagan practice; the Babylonians paraded a statue of their god Marduk from the river to the temple. But Psalm 24 radically redefines this practice. It teaches us that unlike the pagan gods, the God of Israel is a God of justice and ethical behavior. So our ancestors, instead of parading an idol paraded the Ark of the Covenant. And today, we parade the Torah scroll which teaches us how to live a life of justice and ethics and communion with our God. Imagine that! A bunch of mostly college-educated, suburban middle-class Americans are practicing today in Gaithersburg a 5000-year-old- Northwest Semitic cultic parade -- but completely transformed into a celebration of just and ethical living. Knowing this, who would want to get rid of it?
This teaching of Prof. Sommer has totally transformed my understanding of both the Psalm and the practice. It is an example of Positive Historical Judaism at its best. We use the best tools we have -- archaeology, philology, anthropology -- to understand the history of our people and our tradition. Understanding this psalm and this ritual through scientific study, we actually take greater pride in them -- pride at their antiquity, and pride at the tremendous strides our ancestors made in transforming a pagan cultic ritual into a celebration of study and of good deeds.
So one of the things that makes us who we are as a movement is our open-mindedness and our willingness to use all of the tools at our disposal to strive for greater enlightenment.
But while our particular approach to Jewish belief and practice is important, there is another element which is needed to truly make our synagogues thrive.
A few years ago Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam published a book called Bowling Alone. In it, he describes the decline of what he calls “social capital” in America since the 1950s. We join organizations and clubs less, we volunteer less, and we vote less.The problems besetting many synagogues are not unique. Churches, clubs and even towns are facing similar problems.
In the last couple of months we’ve begun some initiatives that have brought over a dozen new member units into our congregation. This is great news; without members we don’t have a congregation.
But the question we still need to grapple with is what does it mean to be a “member?” After all, most of us are “members” of a lot of different groups. I’m a member of AAA for travel discounts and roadside assistance; I’m a member of AARP because it costs next-to-nothing and offers some discounts that AAA doesn’t; and I’m a member of Costco too. But I have no real loyalty to them; if someone offers me what AAA does, equally effectively but for less money, I’m gone. So these are basically commercial transactions that use the language of membership for marketing reasons.
But what of other types of membership? Putnam writes that even when we join an organization we may not feel particularly connected to it. If you are a member of the ACLU, Greenpeace or the NRA, you do not necessarily going feel deeply connected to other members of the same organization. You may not even know that your next door neighbor, your cousin or your best friend belongs to the same organization as you, because your activity consists primarily of writing an annual check. This is what he calls a “thin” affiliation. But he contrasts this with organizations like Rotary, which are “thick” affiliations. If you are a Rotarian, your connection is not exclusively and not even primarily with the international Rotary headquarters. It is with your local Rotary club and more importantly with your fellow Rotarians. You may have originally joined because you identify with the goals of Rotary, or as a social outlet, or to make connections. But you stay and you participate, you fulfill what is expected of you, because of your ties to the other members of your club. Yes, there are Rotary “mitzvot”, and they do not need to claim divine sanction, because the source of commandedness is ultimately your fellow members.
As long as synagogue affiliation is “thin”, or worse yet a commercial transaction where we are selling lifecycle events or high holiday tickets, we will struggle to create thriving communities. When your synagogue asks nothing more of you than to send a check, you have the right not to be chastised for failing to do more, because, in fact, you have done everything you have been asked to do. Are there more mitzvot which bind us as Conservative Jews beyond “thou shalt pay thy dues?”
The ancient sages raised the question of how many covenants were enacted at Sinai. One sage said there was one covenant, between God and the People of Israel. Another said, no, there were 600,000, because there was a covenant between each individual Israelite and God. But a third said, no, 600,001 times 600, 001, because each Israelite at Sinai covenanted not only with God, but with every other Israelite as well.
A covenant is a contract, it is an agreement. It is mutual. As Jews, we have a covenant with God, but we also have a covenant with each other. Each Jew has his or her own understanding of their covenant with God. But our covenant with each other has become murky and it has become weakened. We need to renew it, and we need to revise it.
The Torah is called “torat Hayim,” the Torah of life, the living Torah. Our community and our congregation can be a source of life, if we commit ourselves not only to God, not only to our congregation as an entity, but to each other as well. A conversation about mitzvot, about the commandments that tie us to God and to each other, is a way to begin.