Baltimore — At the recent centennial celebration of American Judaism’s Conservative movement, the top issue on everyone’s mind was nowhere on the formal agenda.
But then, when leaders of the movement began planning the schedule for their conference months ago, the landmark survey of American Jews, released on October 1 by the Pew Research Center was still in the works.
The survey, which described in clear numbers how their movement, once the largest in American Judaism, now represents just 18% of American Jews, riveted the attention of virtually every attendee at the conference, held in Baltimore from October 13 to Oct 15.
From plenary sessions through breakout discussions to casual water cooler conversations, it was all about the Pew numbers. A festive event celebrating the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s 100 years of activity was overshadowed by the fact that the movement is now at its lowest point.
“We have forgotten to lift up our eyes,” Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, chair of the rabbinical studies at the American Jewish University said in a keynote speech to the conference as he tried to raise the spirits of 1,200 Conservative activists that attended the centennial. “We have become a bit too defensive.” Artson urged fellow Conservative members to “lift up our eyes above the statistics.”
Dubbing their conference as a “restart moment” for Conservative Judaism, the movement’s leaders sought to break with the image of a top-down movement and turn the focus to activists on the ground and those activists’ suggestions for best practices for re-engaging young Jews in the centrist denomination.
“Historically, when Jewish movements were back against the wall, they learned to reinvent themselves,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. Such was the case with the Reform movement that reached a low point in the 1930s and climbed back by re-embracing tradition in its 1937 Columbus Platform, which supported the use of traditional ceremonies.
Similarly, said Sarna, Orthodox Judaism, which was seen as losing the young generation in the 1950s established a day school network and accepted the use of English in studying to win back followers. “There is a lesson here for the Conservative movement that it, too, can transform itself significantly,” Sarna said.