March 14, 2011
Don’t believe gloomy forecasts on Conservative Judaism
Conservative Judaism is dying, I hear—or at least according to the media. Not so.
Please don’t tell me that because North America’s United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has had its problems, that means Conservative/Masorti Judaism is declining around the Jewish world.
Yes, the number of USCJ affiliates has diminished from its peak of 800 a half-century ago to its current 650. Why? Dozens of congregations have remained self-identified as Conservative, yet have disaffiliated from the USCJ for internal organizational reasons.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, the recently appointed USCJ executive vice president, is addressing the decline in membership, as well as looking to seed new congregations in areas with rising Jewish populations.
In assessing the USCJ’s temporary institutional challenges, let us recall that in the 1960s, a declining Orthodox Union was re-envisioned successfully, while the diminishing Union of American Hebrew Congregations effected a similar about-face in the Reform movement in the 1970s.
In the words of American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna, “As our 355 years on American soil testify, we [Jews] have repeatedly confounded those who predicted gloom and doom, and after periods of adversity, have often emerged stronger than ever before.”
But to get the full picture of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, a wider lens is needed beyond the limited confines of the USCJ, especially to look at the denomination globally. A glimpse into the internationalization of the movement will be evident during the Rabbinical Assembly convention March 27-31 in Las Vegas.
Forty years ago, the USCJ serving North America was the only organization worldwide with which Conservative Jews could affiliate. In contrast, in 2011, Conservative/Masorti Judaism has become a growing and ever younger global movement. There are nearly 60 Masorti kehillot in Israel, plus another 140 throughout Latin America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Australia, Africa and Asia. In the past eight months alone, eight new European communities have affiliated, as have six additional Israeli kehillot.
The active involvement of large numbers of young people augurs well for Conservative/Masorti Judaism’s future. More than 25,000 youth are members of USY (North America) or NOAM (Noar Masorti in Israel, Latin America and Europe). Tens of thousands of students are enrolled in Conservative/Masorti full-day Jewish schools in the United States and Latin America. Nearly 18,000 campers are part of Ramah summer camps in North America or in Ramah NOAM camps. Hundreds of synagogue supplemental schools educate vast numbers of youngsters, as do full- and half-day synagogue-based preschools.
In terms of the rabbinate, in 1960, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City was the only institution training Conservative rabbis for pulpits in the United States and Canada. Over the past half-century, the Rabbinical Assembly has grown by the admission of multilingual rabbis educated not only at JTS but also at the Ziegler Rabbinical School in Los Angeles, the Seminario Rabbinico Latinamericano in Buenos Aires, the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem and a rabbinical seminary in Budapest.
The RA has grown from fewer than 800 male rabbis to more than 1,600 men and women. Its regions now extend to Israel, Latin America, Canada and Europe.
Fifty years ago, only an infinitesimal percentage of Conservative Jewish baby boomers had visited Israel, either as children or as young adults. By 2004, a JTS Ratner Center survey of 1,000 Conservative young adults found that more than 60 percent had been to Israel at least once by age 22.
Such lofty numbers have been increased by the subsequent impact of Birthright Israel. Ratner data also indicate that in contrast to many of their non-affiliated peers, more than 90 percent of Conservative young adults see Israel as “important” or “very important.”
In the early 1960s, few Conservative young men or women enrolled in Jewish studies courses during their college years. Today, substantial numbers of Conservative-affiliated collegians study Hebrew language, the Holocaust, modern Israel, modern Jewish history, Israeli literature and other Judaica subjects.
The quality of current-day Conservative student life on campus far surpasses all previous levels of campus engagement.
In 2011, on Shabbat mornings, America’s campus Conservative minyanim provide a previously unavailable option that is both egalitarian and traditional. Similar thriving has blossomed among MAROM (Mercaz Ruhani Masorti) networks involving thousands of Masorti collegians in Israel, Europe and Latin America.
Supporters of Jewish life should be reassured as to the future vitality of the Conservative/Masorti movement in the United States, Canada, Israel and all parts of the Jewish Diaspora. There are nearly 1 million affiliated adherents globally, with hundreds of thousands of others on the verge of joining more than 900 Conservative/Masorti communities.
With hundreds of congregations and schools, and thousands of rabbis, cantors and educators, Conservative/Masorti Judaism’s glass is more than half full.
(Rabbi Alan Silverstein is the board chair of the Masorti Israel Foundation and spiritual leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in West Caldwell, N.J. He also is a past president of the Rabbinical Assembly and of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues.)