The Conservative movement holds a storied place in the history of American Jewry. When its key institutions were created in the early 20th century, its leaders carved out a distinctly American niche. Leaders adopted the movement’s name as a sign that they were “conserving” Judaism — not just by reaffirming Halacha, or Jewish law, but by allowing for change that would allow for Judaism to adapt to modernity.
For much of the 20th century, that formula allowed Conservative Judaism to become America’s largest denomination. In recent years, however, it was clear the center was not holding. The recent Pew study of American Jewry showed that the movement’s “market share” had declined to 18 percent, while 35 percent of U.S. Jews identify with the Reform movement, 10 percent with Orthodox Judaism, and 6 percent with smaller groups like the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. The “center” is always a difficult place to be, in religion as in politics. It makes you vulnerable to critics on the right and left who claim you are either too loose or too rigid. You struggle with issues of self-definition. And America itself has become a much more polarized country.
But Conservative Judaism still matters. Its followers are often the backbone of American-Jewish organizations and philanthropies. Its institutions are fonts of Jewish scholarship and leadership. And its synagogues play a vital role as preservers of Jewish tradition and laboratories for change.
That is why it is heartening to see leaders of the movement calling for a heshbon nefesh — an internal accounting — about what the movement is and can be in the 21st century. At its biennial convention this week (see related story), its leaders called for brave and “disruptive” ideas that would make the movement more relevant to disaffected Jews and more inspiring to its current followers. They dared congregations to be more inclusive and to take Judaism out of the synagogue and into the public square.
Every denomination makes an important contribution to the mosaic of Jewish life. A strong Conservative movement models tradition and change and keeps alive an essential tension between the two. Its leaders deserve a yasher koach as they fight for the vital center.