One of the most striking findings in the recent Pew Research Center survey on Jews in America is the massive decline of Conservative Judaism. While 43% of American Jews affiliated as Conservative Jews in 1990, just 18% do so today. This is causing much soul-searching in the Conservative movement.
The reasons for this decline are surely complex. I believe that one factor is the failure of the Conservative movement to nurture young leaders from its ranks. I would like to relate my own experience, in the hope that this will contribute to the conversation about how to renew Conservative Judaism.
I was raised in a very committed Conservative home in Montreal. My grandfather had joined the local Conservative synagogue as a founding member in the 1950s, and my mother and her siblings grew up there. My father, a British doctoral student at McGill University, became the synagogue youth director in 1968, and there he met my mother on Shemini Atzeret. My mother’s two sisters both married Conservative rabbis, so I grew up with two Conservative rabbis as uncles.
My family observed the Sabbath. Each week we had Sabbath meals, walked to synagogue and did not drive. We kept kosher at home, and outside we ate only vegetarian food. We celebrated all the holidays.
I was very active at my parents’ synagogue and proudly identified as a Conservative Jew. I went to Jewish schools through the end of high school and attended Camp Ramah. After graduating high school, I spent a year at Hebrew University, where I focused on academic Jewish studies. I later earned a doctorate in German and Jewish philosophy at Indiana University, and now I teach at New York University.
By all rights, I should be a Conservative Jew. Yet, if the Pew pollster had called me, I would not have identified as one.
As a youth, I had internalized what I understood to be Conservative Jewish values by being very committed to Halacha and Jewish learning. But I found that my family was one of the very few in my synagogue that valued these things. While the pews overflowed on the High Holy Days, they were sparsely filled on a typical Sabbath, and almost no children attended. My family rarely went out for Sabbath meals, as few families at the synagogue prepared them.