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Conservative Judaism: The center is holding
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Conservative Judaism: The center is holding

As a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly and the spiritual leader of a large Conservative congregation, I read with alarm the press accounts of the “Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011.” Media coverage stressed both a dramatic numerical decline of Conservative and Reform membership, as well as diminished Jewish engagement by “non-Orthodox” Jews.

The study notes that “the future of American Jewry is powerfully influenced by developments” in New York. “Over the last two decades, both Conservative and Reform household percentages have fallen,” according to the study, “with the Conservative proportion falling even further than the Reform.”

Are we truly witnessing the precipitous collapse of the “center” in the Jewish spectrum? I am relieved to report that closer examination of the data reveals a more nuanced assessment.

First, the New York membership numbers for the three largest movements do not reflect crisis mode. The study finds there are 142,000 affiliated Modern Orthodox Jews (out of 157,000 self-identified Modern Orthodox), 191,000 members of Conservative synagogues, and 160,000 members of Reform synagogues — with many other self-identified within these two movements, but as yet unaffiliated.

With its healthy 2.5 percent birth rate, Modern Orthodoxy has seen modest growth since 2002. As for the Conservative and Reform movements, the study team acknowledged that in many ways the 2002 and 2011 studies show negligible change. “We found approximate stability in the number of Conservative and Reform Jews claiming synagogue membership,” between those periods, they write in The New York Jewish Week.

Second, media reports including everyone other than Orthodox Jews into a single “non-Orthodox” category are misleading. The study affirms that joining a Conservative or Reform congregation makes a huge difference in offering an alternative to assimilation. In terms of active Jewish engagement, the study found “a familiar denominational gradient, with the Orthodox substantially leading Conservative adherents, who in turn somewhat surpass Reform Jews on measures of engagement and attendance.” Thus, 73 percent of affiliated Conservative Jews and 57 percent of Reform Jews rate “very high” or “high” in terms of engagement. In contrast, 72 percent of the unaffiliated “Just Jewish” respondents rank either “low” or “very low.”

Within the “gradient,” Conservative Jews display a high level of Jewish intensity. The study affirms that Conservative Jews are “substantially more likely to attend monthly services” than their fellow “non-Orthodox” Jews. The trend holds true for indicators like Shabbat meals, Jewish friends, talking about Jewish matters, and accessing Jewish websites.

Elevated engagement also is evident in the manner that affiliated Conservative Jews educate their children. Among Conservative children ages 5-17, 34 percent have attended day schools, and 75 percent of Conservative toddlers over time attend Jewish preschool or Jewish day care (44 percent at any one point in time for ages 0-4). In all, 82 percent of children raised in self-identifying Conservative homes receive some form of formal Jewish education.

Furthermore, Conservative Jews are the backbone of UJA/Jewish federation giving. The study identifies the Conservative and Modern Orthodox as the two groups most exhibiting a very “strong commitment to community-wide values and high rates of giving to UJA-Federation” (41 percent of Conservative Jews, 37 percent of Modern Orthodox).

Now, if many factors point to a high quality of Jewish engagement within the Conservative ranks, why does the survey data reveal a numeric decline, from 127,000 to 89,000, among the number of unaffiliated New York Jews who self-identify as Conservative? This important question merits careful analysis. Here are but a few factors to be explored:

First, sons and daughters of Conservative Jews are marrying and having children later and later. During these “odyssey years” (their 20s and 30s), single adults cluster into New York’s urban singles scene. This does not mean that they necessarily will be lost to the movement of their youth. Instead, they temporarily self-identify as “Just Jewish” until their marital and household paths have been determined. At that point, young married couples with tots ready for preschool routinely re-enter the world of synagogue membership and movement identification.

Second, thousands of young Conservative Jews commute to New York from across the Hudson River, drawn to New Jersey by burgeoning communities in Hoboken and Jersey City and convenient rail lines between Manhattan and Montclair, Maplewood, Millburn, and Metuchen. Regrettably, the study did not include these areas, even though these folks clearly remain part of the “New York scene.”

Third, the populations of certain New York neighborhoods have aged or changed ethnic and/or religious composition, especially in portions of Long Island and Queens. Yet the Conservative movement has been far too slow in balancing these predictable membership losses with the seeding of congregations in emerging areas of residence. An entrepreneurial approach to synagogue growth will become a priority for the re-organized United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The USCJ’s Strategic Plan also focuses on elevating the vitality of local Conservative synagogues. The goal is to make congregations more skilled in their retention of empty-nesters, while simultaneously providing more energetic outreach to prospective members.

In sum, a careful reading of the New York survey ought not to discourage the Conservative movement. Embedded within sometimes difficult findings is a context that is considerably less ominous. Instead, the data point to the possibility and hope for a much brighter future.

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