Alan Silverstein
Alan Silverstein

A Response to Gil Troy’s Departure from Conservative Judaism

I carefully read Gil Troy’s analysis of how he grew up in a Conservative synagogue and gradually evolved into an Orthodox Jew (“The Non-Negotiable Judaism My Parents Gave Me,” “Jewish Journal,” March 3). This process of denominational switching is increasingly common, a path followed by a small but significant number of Conservative movement “alumni,” young adults who have become quite observant. Their aim is to be part of a chevra of peers who are like-minded in their shmirat mitzvot, or observance of the commandments.

Seeking a suitable support system is a praiseworthy objective; it’s a pattern we also see among a number of adults in my Conservative shul who grew up Orthodox but now seek a congregation with a more egalitarian peer framework. Such a search led other current members to our synagogue, those who were raised Reform and now want to embrace a more traditional approach to Judaism. Changing denominations ought not be viewed as a problem, as long as affiliation with Jewish life is preserved.

I disagree with Troy’s insinuation that his move into Orthodoxy represents a “loss” or “failure” of Conservative Judaism. I am personally familiar with such denominational shifting. In my family, we consider it a blessing that our talented son became a highly regarded Orthodox rabbi. This was not a disappointment to the Silversteins; his Jewish commitment is rather a point of pride. He was the product of a “mixed” home in which his father is a Conservative rabbi, and his mother is the child of Orthodox Holocaust survivors. My goal as a father and as a rabbi is to guide my children and grandchildren to mature into observant Jews as they follow whichever Jewish path leads them to fulfillment. The 4-5 percent of Conservative Jewry’s young people who seek to become part of Orthodox communities does not signify our loss; when individuals connect to like-minded engaged Jews, it is a gain for the Jewish people.

Prof. Troy also misjudges the positive impact Conservative Judaism has upon the majority of “alumni” who remain our constituents. Yes, it is true that the overall percentage of self-identified Conservative Jews among American Jewry has declined — but it is important to put that statistic into context. Unlike a generation ago, the Pew Research Center’s 2013 “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” and subsequent data show an increased number of American Jews — going from 5.4 million to 6.8 million — by employing an expanded definition to include “Jews of no religion.”

Actual numbers indicate stability for Conservative Jewry. Both the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey and the Pew survey affirm that 1.2 million individuals self-identify as Conservative Jews. Conservative Jews comprise 26 percent of “Jews by Religion,” as well as 29 percent of current American synagogue members (slightly down from 33 percent in 2000).

Regarding Jewish identity among those who remain adherents of Conservative Judaism, the Pew data reveal impressive findings.

  • 98 percent of self-identifying Conservative Jews say they are “proud” to be Jewish.
  • 93 percent feel that “being Jewish” is “important” to their lives; 90 percent regard Israel as “an important part of being Jewish.”
  • 88 percent express “an emotional attachment to Israel,” including the 56 percent who have visited Israel.
  • Close to 90 percent are raising their children as “Jewish by religion.”
  • Thirty percent of eligible children from Conservative homes at some time enroll in day school.
  • Four out of 10 self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least once per month.
  • Fifty percent of these Jews are current synagogue members.
  • 29 percent (higher than all other sub-groups) currently belong to “a Jewish organization.”
  • Plus, the national rate of intermarriage among Conservative Jews is not 70 percent but, rather, 39 percent (varying widely in accord with local Jewish population density).
  • The Conservative synagogue remains an unambiguously Jewish institution.

Additionally, the Pew findings do not neatly divide American Jews into “Orthodox” and “non-Orthodox.” Instead, we see a “gradient,” with increasing Jewish engagement among unaffiliated, Reform, Conservative. Modern Orthodox, and Haredi Orthodox.

In “The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today” (2018), author Jack Wertheimer looks at Pew and asserts, “When we compare specific denominations of the non-Orthodox, we find striking differences in levels of Jewish engagement. In fact, those differences [among denominations] are more pronounced among younger Jews than among their elders….” Wertheimer notes that the most intensively Jewish engaged “non-Orthodox” are self-identified Conservative Jews! For example, Wertheimer writes: Conservative Jews “are the most likely to attend religious services with some regularity, to observe Jewish holidays in their homes, and to put a strong emphasis upon Jewish education.”

In the aftermath of the COVID-19 restrictions, Conservative Judaism will face serious challenges. Will there be a “bounce back” of enrollment in synagogue religious schools and early childhood centers? Will Ramah Camps revive to their full vitality? With late marriage, and increasing out-marriage, will the Jewish nuclear family remain strong?

On an encouraging note, Wertheimer concludes: “[N]or is it true that the majority of local Conservative congregations are floundering…. Unquestionably, congregations [not just Conservative] have experienced a decline in membership [reflecting the aging of baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964]…. [Yet] in the face of these hard realities, energetic [Conservative] synagogue leaders, clergy and board members alike have sprung into action.”

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD has been the religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, New Jersey since 1979. From … 1993 to 1995 he served as President of the International Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Movement. From 2000 - 2005 he was President of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. He served as Chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel from 2010-2014. He currently serves as the president of Mercaz Olami. He is the author of It All Begins With A Date: Jewish Concerns About Interdating; Preserving Jewishness In Your Family: Once Intermarriage Has Occurred; as well as Alternative to Assimilation: A Social History of the Reform Movement in American Judaism, 1840-1930.
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