Convening for its centennial conference under the cloud of a recent survey indicating a steep drop in affiliation, the Conservative synagogue movement is trying to use the landmark gathering to mark a fresh beginning.
A hundred years after the group’s founding with an ideal of combining Jewish tradition with modern life, Conservative leaders are hoping to stem the decline pointedly noted in the recent Pew survey of Jewish America.
“This is a great reset moment for Conservative Jewish life,” declared Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism at the opening of the centennial conference convened in Baltimore, Maryland.
Most important, perhaps, was the movement’s willingness to accept the fact that they are in decline and to use the recent Pew survey as a starting point for the process of revitalizing Conservative Judaism.
According to the survey, the movement has seen the biggest decline among Jewish denominations, with its share of affiliation among Jewish Americans dropping from 33% in 2000 to 18% in the current poll.
“The numbers – they’re alarming, aren’t they? Yes, they are,” Wernick told the crowd of more than 1200 clergy and activists. “There’s a lot that needs to be fixed, readjusted and tweaked.”
But while the need is clear, the conference opened with a focus on the questions, rather on answers about the Conservative movement’s path to “rewrite our narrative from decline to renewal,” as stated by Wernick.
The proposals offered by leaders and discussed in plenary sessions and smaller breakout discussions are well known in the organized Jewish world which, as a whole, has been facing declining affiliation. They include opening up ranks to welcome Jews who previously could not find their place in Conservative circles, including intermarried couples, lesbians and gays, and those who do not wish to formally enter the realm of Conservative synagogue life.
The group also seeks to reach out to members beyond the boundaries of the synagogue and to raise more money from supporters for finding the renewal of the Conservative movement.
Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminar, who spelled out these strategic directions, insisted the low point the movement is in should be viewed as a “great opportunity” and that there is no room for despair. He referred to Solomon Schechter, who founded the USCJ one hundred years ago, telling the audience that Schechter “faced much tougher odds of success than we do” and still succeeded in making the movement one of the leading denominations in America.
“We need to pay less attention to the findings [of the Pew survey],” argued Jewish writer and educator Erica Brown, “we are spending too much time on what we are doing wrong.” Brown, who was among the few speakers who enthused the audience, suggested that instead of dwelling on past mistakes, the Conservative movement “leap frog” ahead and dare to break with convention in seeking its renewal.
Her approach was echoed in conference rooms, where leaders of the Conservative movement across the country tried to present their local solutions for the constant bleeding of members from the denomination.
The theme of all these discussions was similar: softening the boundaries of Conservative Judaism in favor of a more inclusive approach and shifting the focus from formal synagogue services to communal activities, from a drive to invite families for Shabbat dinners, to hosting local rock musicians on Saturday nights.
Organizers hope that the conference, themed “let’s talk” will open the discussion on saving Conservative Judaism and lead to a set of ideas that can be implemented in communities.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.