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After my year at Hebrew University, I spent a second year in Israel, studying at an Orthodox yeshiva. When I returned to my synagogue in Montreal, people were certain that I wished to become a rabbi, although I had no intention of or interest in doing so. I began to feel unwelcome at my Conservative synagogue, as many people thought that my religious passion made me Orthodox. I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the formality and halachic carelessness of the prayer and what I regarded as the lack of seriousness and knowledge among the congregants. Having no outlet for my religious enthusiasm at my Conservative synagogue, I started attending an Orthodox one on the Sabbath, although it was a considerable distance from my home.
I am fully aware that my family’s halachic observance and my interest in Jewish study and practice were highly atypical for Conservative Jews. But the Orthodox synagogue that I now attend includes many families in which at least one spouse was raised by one of the few observant families at their Conservative synagogue.
It was from these families of committed Conservative Jews that a new generation of Conservative religious and lay leaders should have emerged. But not only were the children in these families not nurtured by the Conservative movement, too often they were made to feel that they were too religious. Some ultimately became Orthodox, some post-denominational, others nonobservant. The Conservative movement lost many of its most committed youths and was impoverished.
Many people are thinking about how to revitalize Conservative Judaism. This is important, as the world needs a vibrant Jewish religious center. From my experience, I would recommend one thing above all else: Support and nurture the most committed Conservative Jews at local synagogues. Give them outlets for their religious curiosity and passion. These Jews may not write big checks. They may sometimes make the less committed members of the synagogue feel uneasy. But they are the future.
Michah Gottlieb is an associate professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University. His book “Jewish Protestantism: Translation and the Turn to the Bible in German Judaism” will be published by Oxford University Press.