American Conservative Judaism

The Conservative movement is the second largest of the three main religious denominations within American Judaism, claiming 18 percent of American Jews, according to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center. Historically it has occupied a sort of middle ground between Reform and Orthodox, maintaining (unlike Reform) that Jewish law remains binding on modern Jews, but affording far greater leeway than Orthodoxy in adapting those laws to reflect modern realities.

• The movement tolerates a range of religious practice in its commitment to halachic pluralism — the idea that multiple (and opposing) opinions concerning the requirements of Jewish law can be considered equally legitimate.

• Most (but not all) Conservative synagogues are egalitarian on gender issues, and the movement has endorsed religious rulings both in favor of and opposed to same-sex marriage.

• While its rabbis are not permitted to officiate at interfaith weddings, the movement has in recent years made a greater effort to welcome interfaith couples and families into its congregations. One of its mottos has been “Tradition and Change.”

• In the mid-20th century, the Conservative movement was the dominant stream of American Judaism. In some years in the 1950s, the movement was adding 100 new affiliate congregations annually. But by the end of the century, the movement was in serious decline, with some fretting openly that Conservative Judaism was on the road to oblivion.

The movement began as an effort to “conserve” traditional Judaism in the face of the liberalizing tendencies of Reform leaders in the late 19th century. One critical moment of division is often said to be the Reform movement’s famous 1883 “trefa banquet,” when non-kosher foods were served at a dinner honoring the first rabbis ordained through the Reform seminary Hebrew Union College. The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which would become the flagship institution of the Conservative movement, was founded in 1886 — one year after Reform adopted its Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, which explicitly rejected Jewish practices it viewed as inconsistent with modern ideas.

The movement has been defined by its official commitment to Jewish law (halacha ), even as it has staked out positions that entail substantial departures from what was long considered normative Jewish practice. In 1983, the movement began ordaining women rabbis, which prompted some JTS faculty to quit the school in protest. In 1998, the movement’s updated prayer book, Sim Shalom, contained an alternative Amidah text that included the names of the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah alongside the names of the patriarchs. Some of the God language in the book replaced gendered language such as “King” and “Father” with more gender-neutral terms, like Sovereign and Guardian.

One of the movement’s most significant — some would say fateful — innovations was the 1950 ruling permitting worshippers to drive to synagogue (but nowhere else) on Shabbat. Amid the rapid suburbanization of postwar America, this change enabled many to attend synagogue who would otherwise be unable to get there on the Jewish Sabbath, when driving is traditionally prohibited. However, some critics would later point to this shift as undermining the movement’s stated commitment to Jewish law.

In the 21st century, the movement’s long-term viability has continued to be drawn into question. The percentage of Jewish households that identified as Conservative dropped by 10 points — from 43 to 33 percent — between 1990 and 2000, according to surveys of the American Jewish population conducted in those years. By 2013, a Pew survey found only 18 percent of American Jews identified as Conservative, roughly half the number that called themselves Reform. The movement’s synagogue umbrella group, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, also experienced a significant drop-off in affiliated congregations.

The decline is attributed to various factors, chief among them intermarriage. A majority of intermarried Jews who were raised Conservative no longer identify as such as adults, according to sociologist Steven M. Cohen. At least some of those Jews have gravitated toward the Reform movement, which has traditionally been more welcoming of intermarried couples. Others have pointed to the movement’s liberalization over the years, which has turned off more traditionally minded Jews, as well as to the rise of independent minyans, which have attracted many graduates of Conservative day schools and summer camps. Still others have fingered geographic mobility as the culprit — the relocation of American Jews from areas where the Conservative movement historically had a strong presence (the northeast and the Midwest), to areas where Reform congregations predominated (the South and the West).

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But according to Cohen, there remain some encouraging signs for the movement in recent studies showing that among those who do identify as Conservative, metrics of Jewish engagement remain strong. “What Conservative institutions like camps and day schools have been doing is working to build a core group with relatively high levels of Jewish observance, engagement and literacy,” Cohen wrote in a 2015 op-ed for JTA. “If they keep doing so, the evidence suggests that while the overall number of Conservative Jews may still decline, this dedicated core will continue to sustain what was once America’s largest Jewish denomination.”

By 2017, a Pew survey found only 14 percent of American Jews identified as Conservative, roughly half the number (28 percent) that called themselves Reform. To understand that in a broader context thirty-seven percent identified as “just Jewish” with no formal affiliation with any of the big three denominations (big four if you consider reconstructionist).

Sources: Essential Judaism, myjewishlearning.com, Chabad.org

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