The recent plethora of blog posts and articles written about the Conservative movement would force even the most casual reader to understand the challenges being confronted by this segment of the Jewish community. Because numbers within the movement have declined, and synagogues and day schools have been forced to either close doors or merge, some observers have predicted the death of Conservative Judaism, with others acknowledging the challenges and proposing various solutions to increase the number of adherents.
While I firmly believe that increasing the number of Conservative Jews would be beneficial both for Judaism and Jews, I wonder whether achieving that long-term goal requires a new strategy that may, as an unintended consequence, force the movement to shrink temporarily.
Let’s not delude ourselves: Size does matter. Yet, there is ample evidence that sometimes a temporary reduction in size — planned or unplanned — can result in renewed and stronger growth.
In the middle of the last century, the Conservative movement made the decision to become the “Movement of the People.” Conservative synagogues opened their doors and welcomed a broad base of Jews who were seeking to identify with a congregation that blended tradition and modernity. Although the Conservative movement had a distinct theological and ideological approach, it was not theology or ideology that motivated most adherents. It was, rather, the “style” of the religious services and programs that generated enthusiasm. In order to make themselves attractive to the widest possible segment of the community, many congregations made an implicit decision not to define themselves too precisely. The prevailing attitude reflected the belief that every Jew should be able to find something within the congregation with which he or she felt comfortable. More significantly, however, the premise that reigned was that as few members as possible would feel uncomfortable. Rarely was there an attempt to define the synagogue vision, mission, ideology or approach to religious life too specifically for fear of causing people to feel excluded.
As a result, leaders often made decisions based upon programs or positions that had the potential to attract the greatest numbers. Compromise and consensus frequently governed choices. Those who were satisfied with this approach retained their membership, whether or not they actively participated in congregational life. Those who wanted that which Conservative Jewish ideology promised but often did not deliver, however, went elsewhere. Ironically, many adults who have studied traditional Jewish sources and were moved to seek a serious Jewish community, committed to what Conservative Judaism promoted in terms of Jewish living, were forced to find it outside of the movement.
To regain its vitality and become a central force for meaningful Jewish living, Conservative Judaism must focus on shaping Jews who will live the values, ideologies and teachings that are the core of its mission. This will require a radical shift in redefining what it means to be a Conservative Jew — from one who is merely a member of a Conservative synagogue to one who is committed to living an approach that is implicit in our vision.
There are many organizations to which I might choose to belong that annunciate a set of obligations in order to be a member. These might include active attendance at meetings, service to the community, working within the organizational structure and practicing the values for which they stand. I am required to make a decision as to whether or not I accept those expectations. Most Conservative Jews feel no requirement or obligation to the Conservative movement except to pay dues to their synagogues.
I am suggesting here the importance of Conservative synagogues developing a strategy that sets forth expectations of membership. It might include, for example, a commitment to study traditional Jewish texts for a period of time each week. Until we motivate Conservative Jews to make a serious endeavor of learning the Jewish sources that should guide their lives, Conservative Jewish ideology will remain a vague concept.
A Conservative Jew should be expected to strive to live a life defined by halacha. Conservative Judaism is unique in its approach to halacha and mitzvot. In Reform Judaism, halacha is not binding. For most Orthodox Jews, halacha is not evolving. For Conservative Judaism, halacha is both evolving and binding. The Conservative movement has been fairly effective in educating congregants as to the evolving nature of halacha. We have not yet met our goal of inspiring them to understand that halacha is, indeed, binding.
Until we clearly and unequivocally articulate the expectation that Conservative Jews will devote meaningful time to study, grow in their commitment to living a life of halacha, devote themselves to regular prayer, etc., Conservative Judaism cannot possibly nurture the Jewish soul as envisioned by its founders.
I have been involved in the movement long enough to recognize that it will not be easy to set forth meaningful expectations and obligations, and for both lay and rabbinic leadership to actively and — sometimes — aggressively promote them. I know some will object, others will ignore and large numbers may choose to leave.
Ironically, however, that action would afford the movement the best chance of reaching its potential. It is through this new strategy — in which Conservative Judaism sets forth expectations and pronounces them forcefully and frequently enough — that a new core of people, sharing a commitment to Jewish living, could help our mission blossom and grow. Although this new nucleus would certainly be smaller than the current number of people who currently identify as “Conservative,” this reduced core could, over time, attract a steady stream of new members who would want to associate with this community of Jews adhering to the intended values of our movement.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein is executive vice president and CEO emeritus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.