The Conservative movement, once the great center of American Judaism, has fallen on hard times, as have many sectors of modern Judaism. In 1971, the Conservative movement was the largest denomination, with 41 percent of American Jews affiliating. Today, the movement is down to 18 percent of American Jews, less than that among Jews younger than 30.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there was or is anything wrong with the essential theology or experience of Conservative Judaism; the denominational choices that American Jews have made are rooted in tens of thousands of individual reasons, personal responsibility and cultural trends, hardly the singular fault of any rabbi or institution. On any given Shabbat, the Conservative services are still as melodic and inspiring as they were in decades past; at any given lifecycle event, an affiliated Jew is never alone. Nevertheless, there has been an introspection in Conservative precincts, a concern that something has to be done. After all, it doesn’t really matter whether the iceberg hit the ship or the ship hit the iceberg. Rather, what do we do now?
The Conservative movement is doing plenty. Its centerpiece, the Jewish Theological Seminary, recently announced it would be selling $96 million of real estate to give it the wherewithal to build a new library, dormitory, conference facilities and auditorium. Also, the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has published a new Siddur Lev Shalem prayer book, with new instructions, explanations and transliterations.
The siddur reflects a turbulent religious milieu. “You can’t describe G-d as awesome anymore,” said Rabbi Edward Feld, Siddur Lev Shalem’s senior editor, who in that one sentence reflects the traditionalists, with “G-d” hyphenated, as per the traditionalist reverence that refrains from even spelling God’s “name” with all its letters; and on the other hand, the modern sensibility that you can’t describe the creator of the universe “as awesome anymore.” This is a movement in which everyone is welcome.
The greatness of old-time Judaism centered upon the truth that a Jew in Morocco can walk into a shul in Mamaroneck and feel at home. In that spirit, when it comes to this siddur, everything old is new again: There are traditions dating back to Israel and North Africa, Sephardic and Ashkenazi; and yet, gender-neutral prayers, and wording appropriate for gay couples, and for home life, however your home may be.
As JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen said of the Seminary project, “This is a bet on the future.”