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While the decline in affiliation was known for years, the recent Pew survey left no doubt about the seriousness of the challenge facing Conservative Judaism. It showed that the percentage of American Jews identifying with the movement has been falling consistently for the past two decades. The 18% affiliation rate for American Jews in general was not the worst of it. In the age bracket of 18–29, only 11% of respondents said they were Conservative.
“It’s a wake-up call,” said Al Kingsley, a lay leader from New York’s Forest Hills Jewish Center who attended the USCJ conference. “We realize that to be around in 100 years, we need to change.”
Counting heads, many speakers at the event said, is not the only measure of a movement’s success. But this argument, frequently invoked by Conservative leaders in the past, has fallen away, to be supplanted by a candid acknowledgement of the movement’s dwindling numbers as a problem, and by attempts to deal with its causes.
“It bothers me when our best and brightest leave our synagogues,” said Rabbi Harold Kushner a popular author of books on spirituality and theology in an October 13 address to the conference. “That concerns me more than anything else.”
Change was the keyword at the conference. But the focus was more on opening the discussion than on adopting specific guidelines or ideas to make the change happen.
“There’s a lot that needs to be fixed, readjusted and tweaked,” said Rabbi Steven Wernick, USCJ’s CEO in the October 13 opening plenary. The goal, he declared, should be to “rewrite our narrative from decline to renewal.” And in order to do so, Conservative Judaism is looking for ways to open its ranks and engage its members.
“Let’s all stand up and stretch,” called out Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminar, the Conservative movement’s rabbinical seminary. “Let’s wake up.” Addressing the hall full of rabbis, cantors and synagogue activists rising from their seats in the conference room and stretching their arms in the air, Eisen tried to use the moment as a metaphor for the direction the movement needs to take. It was all about stretching out beyond the confines that have defined the Conservative denomination, he argued. “We need to stretch our boundaries wider,” Eisen said. “The way to grow Conservative Judaism is to reach beyond us and bring more Jews.”
The perceived narrowness of the Conservative movement, manifested primarily by its response to intermarriage, is viewed widely as a key to understanding the movement’s decline.