The Conservative Movement’s Journey

My father was ordained as a Reform rabbi. I grew up as a young child going to the local Reform temple. I am a committed Conservative rabbi, but truthfully, I became a Conservative Jew by accident.

Growing up in Central New Jersey, my family and I would often drive twenty plus minutes to the Reform synagogue. I didn’t know any of the kids in Religious School so I begged my parents that if they were going to drag me to services Shabbat morning, the least they could do was bring me to the synagogue that was much closer, where all the other children in my neighborhood also belonged. This way, at least, I wouldn’t be getting into mischief by myself. From there, I got involved in USY, switched to a Solomon Schechter Day School, attended Camp Ramah, and eventually, the Jewish Theological Seminary. Yet, I became a Conservative Jew by accident because, as a child, I wanted to go to synagogue with my friends. I became a Conservative Jew first, because I was engaged.

I am a Conservative Jew. I believe in Conservative Judaism. As Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, of blessed memory, once said: “Conservative Judaism is where Tradition meets Change.” Yet, it seems that that crossroads where these two concepts meet is also at a crossroads.

The Pew Study on the American Jewish Community that came out last week, gives insight to the challenges facing the American Jewish community, but even more specifically, facing Conservative Judaism. According to the study, only 18% of American Jews identify with the Conservative movement. Additionally, over 30% of those raised in Conservative institutions have chosen to affiliate with another movement. Furthermore, the median age of Conservative Jews according to the study is 55 years old, the oldest of all Jewish denominations and movements in this country.

The movement – with United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism at its head – must reestablish itself if we are to be a movement that offers anything worthwhile a generation – even a decade – from now. I am proud of the thriving, ever evolving, and innovative institution that the Jacksonville Jewish Center is, but as the only Conservative synagogue on Florida’s first coast, it’s easy to see our vibrancy and ignore the struggles of the movement outside outside of Northeast Florida.

Part of the struggles have to do with the evolution of the movement juxtaposed with the ever changing U.S. Jewish community. Some worry that the Conservative Judaism of today is not the Conservative Judaism that they once knew. That is true, but that is because movements move. Chancellor Arnie Eisen of the Jewish Theological Seminary highlights this idea by explaining that the Judaism he practices is different from the Judaism that his parents practiced and the Judaism that his children practice. Movements move. So where will the Conservative Movement move to?

This past Shabbat, we read Parashat Lech Lecha, which focused on Abraham and Sarah’s journey. The Torah portion begins:

Lech Lecha me’artzecha u’mimoladtecha u’mi’beit avicha el haaretz asher Ar’eh’ka

Go out, for yourself, on a new journey, from your land, from your birth place, from your father’s house, from what you know, from what you are used to, from what is most comfortable, from how you grew up.

We aren’t sure where we are going to go to. El Haaretz Asher Ar’eh’ka.  To a land that God will show us. But we will get there eventually. That place may look different from where we started. But it is where you are meant to be. It is where you will find God.

Like Abraham, the Conservative Movement is going on this journey, unsure of where the movement will end up, but knowing that we must take this journey.

USCJFriday October 11th, 2013 began the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s Centennial Conference and Celebration, a celebration of USCJ’s 100 years. This centennial conference is the beginning of this journey, figuring out where the movement will end up. This centennial, which includes over 1200 participants, is being called the “Conversation of the Century.”

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism,  has described the centennial as “a big reset button for United Synagogue, and in turn the Conservative Movement.” How big? The conference is offering a wide variety of worship options including egalitarian and non-egalitarian, musical services, “retro” services, renewal services, Carlebach services, and “dynamic” services. Additionally, it will also host honest and essential conversations about the struggle to engage college students, continuing to embrace feminism, welcoming men back into our communities, engaging 20 and 30 somethings, the role of halakha in the future of the movement, the role of music in services, how to reach out to young families, how to engage those who have grown children or no children, and the relationship between Israel and our movement

While I’m unfortunately unable to attend this conference, I’d like to add my thoughts to the conversation. If we are to press the reset button, then these are the five areas in which we must emphasize in order to truly reset the Conservative Movement:

  1. Spirituality. We, as a movement, lack spirituality. Statistics show that while the affiliation rate among Jews in this country is down considerably, the rate of those who seek spiritual connection and meaning has greatly increased. As I said on Kol Nidre and will repeat again, we do plenty of davening, but not enough praying. If the synagogue is to thrive as a House of God and a House of Worship, then we as a movement must create multiple entry points to find God and wrestle with the Divine.
  2. Literacy. For most of the twentieth century, there was an assumption that education would take place at the synagogue school and reinforcement would take place in the home. Now, we need to make our institutions the home base for not just education, but for the experiences that reinforce the education. Furthermore, we need to remember that education does not end at Bar or Bat Mitzvah. In fact, for many of us, Jewish education didn’t start until adulthood. Talmud Torah is a lifelong process. In order to ensure the engagement of all affiliated with all our communities, we cannot only emphasize teaching our preschoolers. We must also emphasize learning with – and learning from – our adults.
  3. Stand for something. This is the struggle of being perceived as being “stuck in the middle.” We are the bridge, it seems, between those on the left of us in the Reform movement and those who practice Orthodox Judaism on the right. We, as a movement, for too long feared that if we were to take a stand, we would upset those on our left and those on our right. As a result, the movement rarely took such a stand. The truth is, those to the left may never appreciate the tension between tradition and modernity that we wrestle with and those on the right will never accept our evolving halakhic process as truly authentic. We are who we are, yet if we don’t stand for something, then we stand for nothing. We must take a stand as a movement for what we believe in, even if others disagree.
  4. Social Justice. This is something that the Reform Movement does exceptionally well. We can certainly learn much from them. As I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah, Social Justice is one of the pillars that define us as Jews and yet, our institutions and synagogues often focus on insular education and tefillah before we roll up our sleeves and take action. Social Justice and Social Action are the avenues in which the ethics and values, which are the core of who we are as Jews, are put into practice. According to a study prepared by the Nathan Cummings Foundation, “sixty-four percent of Jewish young adults report that ‘making the world a better place’ is an essential element of their Jewish identity, and fifty-six percent report participating in some kind of community service or volunteer activity in the past year.” We must make Judaism not just about what happens in our buildings. Judaism is also about what happens in this world and through Social Justice, Judaism allows us to act on what happens in this world.
  5. We must create Welcoming Institutions. It is one thing to say that we are welcoming. It is a whole other to prove it. Do our institutions truly welcome all who come through our doors? Do our websites and synagogue brochures reflect the diverse spectrum of what a Jewish family looks like in 2013? Are we reactively welcoming or are we pro-actively welcoming? This is the simplest act and yet the most difficult, for if our institutions aren’t welcoming, then no one will walk through our doors.

Some of these issues must be addressed more in-depth in individual synagogues, including where I serve as rabbi. All of these areas need to be addressed by the Conservative Movement. If we are truly pressing the reset button, and prepared to start over, then this is where we must start. This is how we reset. This is how we reengage.

Like Abraham and Sarah, we are unsure of where this journey will end, but we know where we must start. Lech Lecha. Together, if we, as a movement, are brave enough to move, then we will get to that land that God will show us.

– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky


Filed under Conservative Movement, Uncategorized

16 responses to “The Conservative Movement’s Journey

  1. Excellent! You will be instrumental in the success of the “reset”. You understand the issues and I have confidence in your ability to preserve what is important in our tradition and embrace that which is new in our changing society.

  2. Bernie King-Smith


    I think you have captured the core of the Conservative Kehilla and it’s challenges. Many of our Kehillot have much work to do to get there as I think you saw when you were our Student Rabbi in Kingston. Sitting here at the Centennial, we need to help move out conservative communities to what you describe here, and also have done in Jacksonville.

    Building sacred and welcoming communities as you describe is keep to Conservative Judaism in the future. Thanks for your wonderful words.


    Bernie King-Smith

  3. Mike Eisner

    Yasherkoach on an excellent piece of thought leadership for the Conservative Movement (which is much larger than just USCJ, by the way). The one essential area you omitted (imho) is that of building deeper personal relationships. Dr. Ron Wolfson’s recent book “Relational Judaism” does an excellent job of pointing out the challenges we face by ignoring this area as well as an easy-to-read roadmap for organizational sustainability. Why will we preserve and improve the Conservative Movement? Because a friend asks us to! Keep up the good work.

    • Mike,

      You are absolutely right! Relational Judaism is the key for all synagogues in all movements and denominations. Personal relationships is why people join a synagogue. My father’s parents (my grandparents) joined the Reform synagogue instead of Conservative synagogue when he was a child simply because they were nicer to them and reached out to them. Building relationships is key to success. I think it starts with creating welcoming institutions (as Dr. Ron Wolfson explains in his previous book, “The Spirituality of Welcoming.”) We must make them feel welcome and included in our institutions before we can build relationships, but once they are here, you are right – relationship building is key! That is what keeps congregants involved, invested, and connected. Thanks for your thoughtful comments!

  4. Elly Egenberg

    I will share with you a mother’s heart-ache of raising my children in a Conservative shul. Mistake number one was when we believed that the hebrew school could teach my children how to read hebrew. Mistake number two was when we believed the hebrew school could teach my children how to daven.
    when I went to Hebrew school it was a three times a week commitment and twice a month mandatory junior congregation. and you know what, we all went. Women my age ,(53) who went to Conservative shuls can read hebrew and can follow the prayer service. My own kids alas can not because the Conservative shul got rid of 3 times a week hebrew school.

    • Elly,

      You are right about the challenges of supplementary education. As I mentioned, hitting the ‘reset’ button on Literacy (for children and adults) is key! While I don’t have statistics in front of me to prove it, I would imagine that only a small minority of Conservative synagogues still have a Religious School that meets three days a week. Sometimes, it is not about the amount of hours (many synagogues have argued that the amount of classroom time in a two day a week school is roughly what is was in a three day a week school) but about the repetition, especially when it comes to language acquisition. As Isa Aron has been writing for years, we need to rethink and rebuild Religious Schools. Part of the issue is that the Religious School of today often looks exactly like it did a generation ago. For many, as I wrote, the reinforcement of what was learned in Religious School happened in the home. That is no longer the case. Additionally, our kids are way too over-programmed and it seems that they participate and way more extra-curricular activities than they did a generation ago. Religious School is just another thing on their plate, in addition to soccer, dance lessons, piano lessons, etc. We need to rethink the Religious School model to ensure the success of our learners!

      • Mike Eisner

        Change programs from “parent drop-off” to “parent participates” and we’re almost home free!

      • Elly Egenberg

        But my children did grow up in a home where what they learned in Hebrew School was re-inforced. It never occurred to me until it was too late, that hebrew school FAILED to teach my children how to read and daven in hebrew.

      • Elly, you are correct. I was stating one of the general challenges, even if it didn’t speak specifically to your family. However, you are right that there are significant challenges to a two day or one day a week religious school (or even a three day a week school) that only meets for 5-6 hours a week. There are some really innovative models out there that both deal with scheduling challenges of many parents, acquisition of knowledge, and making religious school fun! Check out Jewish Kids Groups based out of Atlanta for an example: Additionally, I think some choose religious school, even if they would prefer Jewish day school, because of the huge expense of day school. Part of the conversation concerning reinventing religious school must be a conversation about how to make Jewish Day Schools more affordable.

  5. Yishai Kohen

    And now for some tough love:

    The reason why the Conservative movement is dying- and there is no sign of recovery, is that you are NOT like Abraham. G-d led Abraham and Abraham trusted G-d. Unfortunately, G-d is not leading the Conservative movement; popular culture is, and rather than trusting G-d, the movement as a whole is trusting in popular culture; following popular culture- emulating popular culture.

    1. You, as a movement, do lack spirituality. You lack it because American popular culture lacks it. And while it is true that the Orthodox in the US also lack it (see Haym Soloveitchik’s 1994 article in the Journal, “Tradition”: Orthodox look to the Torah- written and oral, for inspiration and direction. Jewish spirituality cannot come from elsewhere.

    2. Literacy: Unfortunately, it’s a top-down issue. A huge percentage of Conservative rabbis don’t have it. How can they expect their congregants to? Many didn’t grow up in homes with any religion, and their first taste of any Jewish literacy came once in college (maybe at Ramah) and they decided to become a rabbi. JTS is full of people who can’t even learn a daf of Gemara- much less understand the Rishonim. That’s a fact. I grew up and went to college with many such people- and took courses with them. By and large they’re social workers with a little gefilte fish thrown in.

    3. Standing for “something” isn’t enough. What you stand for must come from the Torah; the Torah as it is; not misshaping it to reflect what you want it to be (almost always following popular culture).

    4. Social Justice: Same thing. For the Conservative movement, the real religion is liberalism mixed with popular culture (with a little gefilte fish thrown in). Judaism is not liberalism- nor is it conservatism: It is Judaism. Torah is the starting point; the ONLY point, as to what is and isn’t real social justice.

    5. Create welcoming institutions: Absolutely. The Torah demands it. But by the same token, it also demands that we differentiate between right and wrong, striving for the former. The term “diversity” has unfortunately come to mean amoral chaos; even immoral chaos. The first challenge of a synagogue rabbi who wants to lead is to welcome all- but at the same time, challenge each and every member of the congregation to live a moral upstanding life; a Jewish life. A rabbi who doesn’t both welcome, but also set moral guidelines fails in his mission.

    Is the Conservative movement up to that- and more? Right now, I don’t see it.

    • Sir,

      Clearly you and I have very different views and that is fine. However, I am interested in comments from those who believe in Conservative Judaism and are committed to what Conservative Judaism is, to criticize constructively, dream big, and be will to be innovative. You clearly are not. Based on your language, you are not interested in Conservative Judaism’s success. So why spend all this time commenting about where it is wrong? I appreciate your view point, but the tone in which you offer it (“social workers with a little gefilte fish thrown in”) is rude, offensive, and incorrect. I will not get into an argument of words with you regarding denominations or movements. That is not my goal. I will, however, correct you on a couple of areas: first, I believe you are using “pop culture” incorrectly. Pop Culture refers to music, movies, and television. While I do in fact believe that this can be used as an entry point to learn Torah (anything can be a conversation starter,) I don’t think that this is what you are referring to. I believe you are referring to being ‘led’ or ‘influenced’ by societal norm and evolution. You are correct. I don’t deny that. I embrace that. I believe that society influences religion and religion influences society. Look at examples through history: All you have to do is look at Rashi, Rambam, and Isserles. Three different rabbinic thinkers and leaders who lived in three different centuries in three different parts of the world. The way they thought, the way they dressed, the way they interacted with those of other faiths, and the way they interacted with the local government are all different — they are all influenced by their societal norms.

      Furthermore, I also take an insult to you comments about literacy. There is a base level of textual knowledge (including Gemara) that one must know before entering rabbinical school. Andf yes – throughout rabbinical school Gemara is studied (with Rishonim). You did not insult me with such a comment, but it is certainly an insult to some of my colleagues who truly are talmidei chachamim. Furthermore, while textual knowledge is important, I am not referring to the leadership as you are. I am referring to making more of an effort to teach our communities. Clearly the things I stand for and believe the Conservative Movement should stand for are different than you — that is fine since you have no interest in affiliating with the movement or believing in the future of the movement.

      • Yishai Kohen

        Dear Rabbi,

        We both want to see the continuation of the Jewish people. That’s the starting point. We both know that the Conservative movement has serious problems. That is evident from the high intermarriage rates, high dropout rates/shrinking of the movement, and low birthrates- to the point that every Jew who dies or drops out is not being replaced.

        The issues are: What are the root causes and what are the solutions?

        I am trying to look at it objectively, and this is what I see. As an example, when the Conservative movement approves the ordination of gay, bisexual, and lesbian rabbis and of same-sex marriage ceremonies under the guise of Jewish law, there is something fundamentally wrong. Torah is not your movement’s standard, and as you yourself said, if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing. The something MUST begin with Torah- and unfortunately it doesn’t. It begins with what the moral (or not) currents are in the US, and then tries to throw in some “Jewish” flavor. This is the case with feminism and everything else as well- and it doesn’t work. The results are in the latest Pew poll.

        This is like the dog running in front of the horse and carriage thinking that it’s leading, when in fact it’s just running in front.

        Obviously we are influenced by our surroundings. Judaism isn’t about cutting ourselves off from the world (as much as many Chareidim would disagree), and of course Rashi, Rambam, and every other great Jewish rabbi took from their surroundings, but with them, the starting point was always Torah as the central pillar. They worked to synthesize the different parts, but always with Torah as the central pillar. That isn’t the case here.

        As to literacy- or lack thereof, I’m not just spouting. I took courses together with these people- today’s Conservative rabbis. In one class in particular (not even a text-heavy class), there were only 2 people who could get through the texts; myself and a PhD. student. The rabbis-to-be couldn’t. Are there Conservative rabbis who can? Of course. Many of them (still a small percentage of the overall picture) spent a year or more in Orthodox yeshivot. Ultimately, once cannot possibly teach effectively if one doesn’t know.

        Look at the vibrancy of the Orthodox and compare it with everyone else: As per the Pew study, even though there are far fewer Orthodox Jews in the US, they have more synagogues than all other groups combined; and more day schools than everyone else combined. Their attrition rates, their intermarriage rates, their birthrates all point to a totally different trajectory than the Conservative movement, the Reform movement, and others; the exact opposite, in fact. Unless there is some radical change, they will be the majority of American Jewry in another generation.

        How will the Conservative movement meet the challenges and turn things around for their own movement? Again, I don’t see it happening; not unless drastic changes happen.


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