Jewish Journal article penned by 3 people about the now commonly held view that Conservative Judaism is a failure. That perception is based on the startling survey results of a study on Jews in America by the Pew Research Center a couple of years ago. It showed a massive attrition from all Jewish denominations except Orthodoxy. Which is growing.
The fact is that compared to Orthodoxy it is a failure. That is acknowledged by the three authors themselves. Professor Wertheimer has written several articles explaining why he believes this has happened. Arguing that his movement would do well to emulate some of Orthodoxy's ways. Conservative rabbis would do well to insist on more than just membership in the congregation and emphasize the importance of observing Halacha instead of basically ignoring it in their synagogue members.
But he and his fellow authors take umbrage at the charge that their movement has failed. Compared to other heterodox movements he says it has succeeded far more that any of the others. How so? From the article:
Conservative-raised with Reform-raised individuals in this age group, we find that the former are far more likely to fast on Yom Kippur; twice as likely to belong to a synagogue and to feel that being Jewish is very important to them; three times as likely to send their children to day school; four times as likely to light Shabbat candles usually; and five times as likely to maintain what they regard as a kosher home.
I have to give credit where credit is due. The Conservative Movement has indeed given its members a sense of the importance of being Jewish and in many cases - doing things Jewish. The question arises as to whether it has done more harm than good in this area over the course of its existence. I don’t know that there is an easy answer to that.
On the one hand, that there are Jews that identify proudly as Jews even as they are basically not observant cannot be denied. It is that indentity that has moved many of them to gravitate to Orthodoxy. In fact I have been told many times by Orthodox Jews that were once Conservative that in many cases when one of their members becomes Orthodox, Conservative rabbis consider it a victory. Which they rightly feel is a far better outcome than if they become totally secular. In fact Professor Wethheimer has actually expressed his admiration for Orthodox Kiruv.
I don’t think that NCSY would be as successful as they are if they did not have that pool of Conservative Jewish teenagers to choose from. There are many NCSYers that come from Conservative backgrounds where families do identify as Jews and have homes that reflect some form of Mitzvah observance. Like fasting on Yom Kippur or having a Pesach Seder. Had there been no Conservative Movement, NCSY would have a much smaller pool to choose from. True, they would be able to inspire some secular and Reform Jews too, as they do now. But the pool would be significantly lower in my view.
On the other hand without the Conservative Movement it is equally as likely that some may have stayed in Orthodoxy despite their not observing some important Mitzvos – like Shabbos.
It is pretty well established that a lot of Jewish immigrants that arrived in the US during the great waves of mass Jewish immigration from Europe – came here as observant when they arrived. But the economic conditions made it extremely difficult if not impossible to avoid working on Shabbos. Some very brave and strong individual Jews refused to work on Shabbos and got fired from the many successive jobs they had on Mondays when they didn’t show up on Shabbos. Hard to support a family that way. But they somehow survived and are the parents and grandparents of many Orthodox Jews today.
But the majority gave in – feeling the need to support their families despite their desire to remain observant. They did remain observant in other ways – like keeping a Kosher home. But in far too many cases the children saw the hypocrisy and – desiring to become as American as possible in that melting pot era – they ran as far away from their Judaism as they could.
It was the Conservative Movement that catered to these Jews – welcoming them with open arms ignoring the fact that they were desecrating Shabbos. They even told them it was OK to drive to Shul on Shabbos.
But I have to wonder what would have happened if there were no Conservative movement. I believe that many Jews would have indeed left observance completely – feeling ostracized by Orthodoxy. But with no Conservative alternative, desiring to have someplace to go and desiring to retain their identity as a Jew many might have stayed in their Orthodox Shuls – despite the disapproval of working on Shabbos by their Orthodox rabbis.
I don’t know what the percentages of those leaving versus those staying would have been. But it is not too much of a stretch to say that more would have stayed than is the case with a Conservative movement as an option. That would have meant that their children had a better chance to stay observant because of Orhtodxy’s push toward Jewish education through the day schools. Something the Conservative movement realized too late in the game.
Meanwhile the Conservative Movement looked the other way about Halachic observance of their members. Their children had no peers that were truly observant – and therefore no motivation to be so. Conservative rabbis believed the synagogue could do the job. Obviously they haven’t. Which has produced those Pew numbers.
At the end of the day, I have mixed feeling about the success of this movement. On the one hand, I do believe they serve a function - even from the perspective of Orthodoxy in providing a pool of Jews that actively identify as Jews and perform some of the Mitzvos. While I’m sure Professor Wertheimer and company would vehemently reject the notion that the only thing they are good for is Kiruv, But I don’t think there is any doubt that this is the case from an Orthodox perspective. There are reasons why Orthodoxy does not grant them any legitimacy. (Which are beyond the scope of this post.)
I am not here to gloat. Nor do I want to see the pool of Jews that have even the slightest chance of becoming observant dwindle – as they most certainly are. But sad as that may be - I don’t see things changing.
At this point in time Jews are wildly successful integrating into American society. They are widely accepted – even admired - in western culture. Sadly, this virtually assures a total assimilation at some point in the not too distant future by the vast majority of Jews raised without a decent Jewish education. I don’t see Conservative Judaism changing that tide.