n early March, American Judaism’s Conservative Movement took significant action on two matters. First, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the loose governing body of the movement’s places of worship and study, overwhelmingly approved a new standard allowing individual synagogues to grant membership to non-Jews. This new standard is largely the result of a decades-long conversation within Conservative Judaism about outreach to intermarried couples. Second, the Jewish Theological Seminary—the fundament of the movement—announced that it had joined an amicus brief filed in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of religious leaders and institutions supporting the rights of transgender students to use the public-school restrooms of their choice. The seminary stated that its motivation to weigh in on this secular legal issue, which is no longer before the Supreme Court, was based on the Jewish principle of human dignity.
Taken together, these events underscore what those Jews involved in American Conservative and Reform Jewish communities already know: The institutional structures of both movements and their affiliated members increasingly share the same cultural norms, particularly with respect to liberal social issues. Studies have shown that a growing number of Conservative and Reform Jews agree on hot-button social issues such as interfaith and same-sex marriage, ordination of gay rabbis, and descent—the latter being the idea of granting Jewish status to people who have only one Jewish parent of either sex. (According to halacha, or Jewish law, Judaism passes solely from mother to child, not from father to child.)
The fact that many members of the Conservative movement share a socially liberal agenda with their Reform brethren is not what threatens the movement’s future. The seminary’s support of transgender rights was about secular law and civil rights, and is largely irrelevant to the movement’s religious focus. But the United Synagogue’s decision to allow non-Jews to become synagogue members could severely compromise the movement’s ability to fulfill its legacy as a distinct way to follow Jewish tradition in the modern world.
Given the convergence between the movements, the real question is whether Conservative Judaism can maintain and further a religious identity and mode of observance distinct from that of Reform. The matter is critical, because according to the 2013 Pew Report, while Reform Jews now constitute 35 percent of the overall American Jewish community, practicing Conservative Jews in the United States make up 18 percent, which represents about a one-third drop over the past 25 years.
If Conservative Judaism becomes one with Reform in both theory and practice, how can it survive as an independent movement?
lthough Solomon Schechter (1847–1915) became the president of the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1902 and is considered the founder of Conservative Judaism, he did not think he was establishing a distinct movement per se. Instead, Schechter’s intellectual and organizational project sought to “conserve” Jewish tradition by establishing a cross-denominational movement for all traditional synagogues united in opposing the Reform movement’s rejection of traditional practice.
The norms of practice Schechter advocated were traditional, which is why, aspirationally, the classic Conservative synagogue service is almost identical to an Orthodox service and why the classic Conservative home life revolves around keeping kosher, keeping the holidays, and maintaining a strict division between the Sabbath and the rest of the week. Schechter spoke of a “Catholic Israel,” made up of “the committed people.” Where he differed from Orthodoxy was in the realm of belief. Schechter’s traditionalist approach grew from a historical perspective, one that situated the study of both biblical text and halacha in the overall cultural context in which they developed. This approach was highly problematic for those who viewed Judaism as God-centered and the Torah not as a historical document but as literally a gift to the world from the Lord to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Still, as the historian Jonathan Sarna has observed, Schechter’s original vision of two branches of Judaism—Reform and traditional—was reflected in the actual daily practice of Judaism in much of the United States until the 1930s, at which point the traditionalist camp openly fractured. The most open area of conflict became mixed seating in synagogues, which had been the common practice of Reform temples since the late 19th century. Increasingly, Conservative Jews wanted synagogues that allowed families to sit together, and the debates grew so heated that the matter was actually litigated in American courts in the 1950s in a series of cases. This situation provided Orthodox authorities with the opportunity to denounce publicly mixed seating as incompatible with halacha and established the differentiation between the norms of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism.
As all this was happening, Conservative Judaism’s middle-of-the-road message proved to be a good fit for many American Jews wanting to live a modern but still traditional life, and the movement was the dominant force in the community from the end of World War II through the 1960s. But as the second half of the 20th century progressed, Orthodox Judaism began to carve out a more distinct identity defined by much stronger norms of traditional practice. This phenomenon, documented by Samuel Heilman in his book Sliding to the Right, explains how the religious and cultural standards of Orthodox and Conservative Judaism began to diverge even more substantially. For Conservative Jews who were interested in living a Torah-centered life, Orthodoxy became more attractive. Aggressive outreach by pockets of Orthodoxy, notably Chabad-Lubavitch, contributed to the appeal of a Judaism perceived as more authentic than the normative practices characteristic of Conservative Judaism.
In the latter decades of the last century, Reform Judaism took a turn toward the more traditional. Some of its adherents began embracing once-discarded practices such as Hebrew prayers, the celebration of life-cycle events, and the wearing of yarmulkes, tallitot and even tefillin. To some Jews who had been raised Conservative, Reform no longer felt “churchy.” Even more important for its growth, the Reform movement began to attract a portion of the growing number of intermarried couples—in part because Reform clergy were open to performing such marriages. The Reform movement also changed the halachic standards for “who is a Jew” by adopting the Patrilineal Resolution in 1983, allowing the determination of Jewish status to be based on either parent. In practice, this new resolution created the presumption that children of mixed marriages are to be considered Jewish as long as they publicly manifest a positive and exclusive Jewish identity. Taken together, these reasons may help explain why the Pew Report found that 30 percent of Jews who had been raised Conservative had migrated to Reform over the previous four decades.
Unlike Reform Judaism, the Conservative movement is composed of discrete institutional arms with parallel authority. The United Synagogue governs synagogue-related matters, and the affiliated educational institutions train the clergy and other professional leaders. Regarding matters of halacha, however, the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly—the international association of Conservative rabbis—has the final say. The RA has established a lawmaking body known today as the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which governs the movement outside of Israel. This committee is charged with the responsibility for adopting legal positions that are considered halachically acceptable as well as promulgating Standards of Rabbinic Practice. Individual congregational rabbis may look to the committee’s decisions for guidance, but they have considerable latitude in making their own halachic decisions for their respective communities. But they are strictly bound to a set of official rules called the Standards of Rabbinic Practice.
Two of the three Standards of Rabbinic Practice relate to intermarriage. One prohibits a Conservative rabbi from performing an intermarriage. Another defines Jewish membership according to the mother’s religion or a halachic conversion. (The third requires a get, a Jewish writ of divorce, before remarriage.) The new United Synagogue standard allowing non-Jewish members was designed to avoid conflict with the Rabbinic Standards of Practice, since it does not change the current legal definition of Jewish status. In other words, the United Synagogue draws a theoretical distinction between membership in a shul and the traditional halachic standards for defining who is a Jew.
That said, the real issue is not whether the United Synagogue Standard can be aligned in theory with the movement’s Rabbinic Standards but what impact this, and other initiatives concerning intermarriage, will have on how Conservative Judaism is practiced on the ground.
Simply put, a wide embrace of certain types of outreach measures to intermarried couples by Conservative synagogues has the potential to dissolve the movement down the road. Clergy, staff, and lay leaders need to weigh carefully just what will be gained—and lost—before they move forward on initiatives directed toward the intermarried.
As intermarriage escalates, it will be difficult enough for the Conservative movement to maintain its 73 percent in-marriage rate.
Thus, while it is highly questionable whether Conservative synagogues will gain members by greater outreach to intermarried couples, it is almost certain that there will be losses of both a qualitative and quantitative nature from doing so. It is already the case that some Conservative rabbis allow an interfaith couple to have an aufruf—a pre-wedding honor—in their synagogues and allow public congratulations to interfaith couples on their engagements and weddings. Has this helped the movement gain adherents? There is no sign this is the case.
Parents who feel strongly about their children marrying Jews will lose the support of a synagogue community that reinforces their views on this matter. These parents will have to work twice as hard to buck the growing trends. As intermarriage escalates, it will be difficult enough for the Conservative movement to maintain its 73 percent in-marriage rate without synagogues acting in ways that seem to suggest there is no greater virtue in two Jews marrying each other than in a Jew marrying a non-Jew.
In areas with large Jewish communities, parents seeking to pass on some form of traditional Judaism to their children and grandchildren may simply go elsewhere if their synagogues go too far down the intermarriage outreach path. We can assume that these parents will be among the most dedicated and serious members in a Conservative synagogue, those who often form the core of Shabbat attendees and exert an influence on the religious norms of the community. Their departure will alter the spirit of Conservative synagogues considerably.
Finally, assuming these outreach efforts become common in Conservative synagogues, rabbis who stand their ground and refuse to go along will have a more difficult time getting hired and retaining their jobs. The same phenomenon occurred in the Reform movement when it decided to give rabbis the choice of performing intermarriages.
Realistically, as long as Conservative Judaism retains its existing halachic positions prohibiting intermarriage and retaining matrilineal descent, most intermarried couples wanting to seek out Judaism still will gravitate to Reform. Moreover, given the escalating rates of intermarriage and the documented lack of interest among Jewish millennials across the board in joining synagogues, Conservative affiliation will likely continue to decline despite these outreach efforts. If the movement’s next steps to counter this decline will be eventual permission for its clergy to perform intermarriages and the adoption of a version of the Patrilineal Resolution, Conservative Judaism will then be indistinguishable from Reform except for the makeup of the prayer book and the length of the Torah services.
The Reform movement already provides a much-needed space for intermarried couples to grow together regarding Judaism and raise Jewish families. “Under the Chuppah,” a recent study by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, shows that intermarried couples wed solely by a Jewish clergy officiant are more highly engaged than other intermarried couples, more likely to join a synagogue, and based on early data concerning childrearing, significantly more likely to raise their children as Jewish.
Still, the Brandeis study also provides evidence suggesting that observance on the part of intermarried couples is not the same as that of mainstream Conservative Jews. Compared to in-married couples, intermarried couples married by a sole Jewish officiant are less likely to raise children as Jewish by religion, select a Jewish preschool, have a special meal on Shabbat, attribute importance to keeping kosher, discuss Israel and Judaism with friends and family, and donate to Jewish or Israeli causes.
These findings by the Brandeis study can be profitably compared with a study just released about levels of Jewish engagement among alumni of Camp Ramah, the Conservative movement’s network of summer camps. This study, based on over 5,000 Ramah alumni, provides ample evidence that institutional efforts to develop traditional norms of Conservative Jewish observance can be highly successful. The study found that Ramah alumni reported significantly high levels of Jewish identity, ritual observance, and connection to Israel, as well as extremely low rates of intermarriage. Significantly, nine out of 10 respondents stated that it is very important or essential for their children to marry Jews.
This survey may contain some “upward” bias based on the reality that the most Jewishly connected Ramah alumni are also the most likely to have participated in the study. Still, it cannot be denied that the Ramah culture has proven effective in keeping former campers strongly attached to Conservative Jewish practice. It is telling that about 70 percent of Ramah alumni belong to Conservative, Masorti (the name used for Conservative Judaism outside North America), or so-called traditional egalitarian congregations.
Through its camps, day schools, youth groups, synagogues, and part-time Hebrew schools, Conservative Judaism has sustained a core community of American Jews whose daily lives substantially revolve around Jewish tradition, even if not in a way that conforms completely with strict halachic observance. There are indeed standards of observance among rigorous Conservative Jews. These include Shabbat dinners and attending services, especially on Shabbat morning. Such Jews celebrate all the festivals, even if synagogue attendance is lighter on the second days of Pesach, Succot, and Shavuot. They attend services on the evening of Tisha B’av, the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple, even if most Conservative Jews do not fast the entire day. Traditional Conservative Jews still hold a seven-day shiva for a deceased parent, and many go to a minyan once a day for 11 months to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, even if fewer observe all the mourning customs such as refraining from listening to live music and buying new clothing during the year of mourning.
Traditional Conservative Jews may not daven three times, or even once, a day, but by and large they do keep kosher homes with two sets of dishes and they refrain from eating nonkosher meat when outside their homes. Of course, not all self-identified committed Conservative Jews maintain these norms, but anyone who spends time in Conservative Jewish communities in this country will see these general patterns of observance common among the core. And many Conservative Jews who do not follow these patterns will readily acknowledge that they probably should.
Significantly, most Conservative Jews also insist on, or at least prefer, an egalitarian worship community and feel strongly about gay rights from a ritual perspective. The Conservative movement essentially represents the only realistic alternative for this group, a reality reaffirmed by recent rulings by the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America proscribing roles for female clergy. The ability to offer traditional, egalitarian services provides the Conservative movement with a ready-made niche.
The Pew Report showed that Conservative Jews in general have higher measures of engagement with the tradition than do Reform Jews.
The Responsum justified its leniency on these matters of Jewish law by applying halachic precedents to the science governing the production of electricity and the operation of automobiles. In practice, however, embracing such leniencies only provided a reason for further criticism of the movement by the Orthodox—and made no practical difference to the majority of Conservative Jews who were going to drive on Shabbat regardless of whether they received permission.
Committed Conservative Jews, regardless of whether they drive or use electricity on Shabbat, have always appreciated the benefits of keeping its 25 hours holy. Such benefits were emphasized by Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, who wrote a strong minority opinion to the Responsum emphasizing the importance of a Shabbat experience grounded in home and quality family time. In language that is still remarkably relevant today, Bokser spoke of the importance of Shabbat as freedom from machines and modern life’s complexities. His opinion did not parse the halacha but rather presented a sociological and psychological argument for why a normative, traditional Shabbat experience matters.
Conservative Rabbinic leaders should follow Bokser’s lead. They should focus on developing, communicating, and selling to their membership a set of ritual norms of observance currently being practiced by the movement’s most dedicated Jews. An emphasis on thicker forms of traditional practice will provide the best path not only for retaining the core but also for reclaiming other traditional Jews who feel that Conservative Judaism has lost its footing.
It is not too late for the Conservative movement to right its direction. The Pew Report showed that Conservative Jews in general have higher measures of engagement with the tradition than do Reform Jews. Rates of intermarriage among Reform Jews are almost double those of Conservative Jews. Conservative Judaism needs to build upon and strengthen these distinctions rather than competing with Reform in areas in which it is bound to lose ground.
In short, the Conservative movement needs a return to Schechter’s mission of conserving Jewish tradition by focusing its educational and spiritual energies on enlarging and strengthening a root group of Conservative Jews who are drawn to tradition. The movement should refrain from attempting to widen a tent that is already losing its shape and structure. Instead, it should commit itself to a collective effort to develop a stronger, distinct, religious identity based on what it can legitimately claim as its unique legacy. Such a path may not result in an explosion of new adherents, but it will maintain Conservative Judaism’s distinct definition—and chart a course away from its self-destruction.