Alan Silverstein

A Response to the Daniel Gordis Obituary for Conservative Judaism

I read Daniel Gordis’ obituary for Conservative Judaism with sadness but not with surprise. My long-held suspicion that he had become a detractor of our Movement was confirmed during a summer 2012 AIPAC Rabbis Day of Learning in Washington, DC. After speaking about his latest book, The Promise of Israel, Gordis entertained questions, including his views about religious pluralism in Israel. Well aware that he was addressing dozens of Conservative and Reform rabbis among those rabbinic colleagues assembled, Gordis nevertheless marginalized “the streams” especially the Masorti Movement as “insignificant” to the Jewish State.

Although he lives Israel, Gordis’ dismissive comments indicated his willingness to ignore that the number of Masorti kehillot (communities) have increased from 50 to almost 70 in the past three years alone. He was well aware that NOAM, Masorti’s fast-growing youth movement, now has 17 chapters and over 1,500 official members all over the country, as well as an annual Ramah-NOAM summer encampment for 600 youth. He knew that eight percent of Israeli adults now self-identify either with Masorti or Reform Judaism, a number quite comparable to the 10 percent who identify as Haredi. He did so despite poll data affirming that in recent years nearly one third of Israelis have attended services in either a Masorti or Reform kehillah. He did so without acknowledging the efforts by Masorti Movement leaders to facilitate his visit to our communities in Israel’s hinterland, efforts which he declined. We wanted Gordis to see first-hand just how young, Sabra-dominated and vibrant Masorti has become. Unfortunately, this evidence of vitality did not fit his erroneous “obituary” narrative!

Similarly indicative of Dr. Gordis’ biases has been his scrupulous disregard of the growth of Masorti Judaism throughout the world. Gordis’ columns ignore Masorti’s  80+ kehillot which form the largest single segment of affiliated Latin American Jewry. Gordis shows no interest in Masorti’s ever-growing contingent of dozens of kehillot throughout Europe; in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Scandinavia, Spain, Portugal, Germany and in the Former Soviet Union and Confederation of Independent States.  Dr. Gordis is the founding Dean of the Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Training in Los Angeles.  From this position, one might have thought that he at least would take note of Ziegler’s recent addition; it is now  the ordaining institution for indigenous European Masorti rabbis at the Zachariah Frankel Rabbinical School in suburban Berlin. Regrettably, these upbeat facts too, could not harmonize with a Conservative Movement “obit.”

Now, Gordis’ poison pen has moved on to compose a Kaddish for the Conservative Movement’s base in the USA. To do so, he selectively calls attention to isolated elements within the Pew Survey data. To best discredit Conservative Judaism’s polling numbers, Rabbi Gordis avoids assessing self-identified Conservative Jews on their own terms. He shrewdly lumps them into an artificial “non-Orthodox” category, which includes Reform and Reconstructionist Jews, Unaffiliated Jews, Jews with No Religion, and people who self-identify as Partially Jewish. What sub-group of religious Jews could survive the results of such a “set-up”? Could you imagine the false results of an assessment of Orthodoxy in which Orthodox Jews are lumped into an arbitrary category of all “non-Conservative” respondents? By cleverly skewing the Pew data, Gordis can point to 70 percent rates of intermarriage, less than half of young people “being raised with Judaism as their religion,” and so forth. By implication, Gordis implies that this data is the reality for Conservative Jews as well!

Even more damaging is that Gordis hides from view the many positive facts in the Pew Survey about Conservative Jewish behavior. He does not want people to know that both in the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey and in the 2012 Pew Survey, approximately 1.2 million folks self-identified as Conservative Jews. Stability in overall numbers does not represent growth but neither does it represent demise! He also does not share with the readers that the Pew Survey indicates 29 percent of current American synagogue members are Conservative Jews, down from 33 percent in 2000. This does reflect modest decline, but certainly not time for a “eulogy.”

Gordis also does not want his readers to know that more than 98 percent of self-identifying Conservative Jews 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 currently are enrolled in day school. Four out of ten self-identifying Conservative Jews attend religious services at least once per month. Fifty percent of these Jews are current synagogue members, and 29 percent [higher than all other sub-groups] currently belong to “a Jewish organization.”

Daniel Gordis’ most strident critique is that only 11 percent of “Jewish” young adults (20s and early 30s) currently self-identify as “Conservative.” In other words, he predicts that we have no future! Yet that misleading number climbs right away to 15 percent once “partially Jewish young adults [not raised exclusively as Jews]” are removed from the calculation. Of the remainder, it ought not be surprising that a plurality self-identify as “Just Jewish.” Why? Are they permanently rejecting future synagogue involvement? No! Instead, this is an issue of their “stage of life.” Correctly or incorrectly, Conservative synagogues have been structured to serve families once children arrive. Yet, “non-Orthodox” Jewish young adults are marrying later and later. More than 50 percent in the 25-39 age range currently are single. They are prolonging what sociologist Robert Wuthnow calls the “Odyssey Years”: seeking a mate, a career, a community, the start of family, and so forth.

While very few of these “non-Orthodox” young men and women as yet have the motivation to self-identify with any denomination, as noted by Dr. Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University in a Pew Survey conference call with Conservative rabbis, a substantial number will join Conservative congregations once they marry and have children. “Klal Yisrael” (Just-Jewish) identity is not alien to the Conservative movement. We are the backbone of UJA, AIPAC, Israel Bonds and Jewish communal organizations. Many among the core of our young people who attend Solomon Schechter Day Schools or Camp Ramah, or are actively engaged in USY, JTS, KOACH, or NATIV, self-identify as Conservative Jews. Yet many other B’nai Mitzvah and teens currently within Conservative synagogues regard themselves simply as “Just Jewish.” For this reason, Conservative synagogues will offer them a comfortable future home once they are married couples with children. They will feel reinforced in their “generic Jewish” self-image, committed to Israel, Jews around the world, and to American Jewish communal life.

Daniel Gordis’ assault further implies that modern Conservative Judaism has eroded from its heyday in the prime years of the rabbinate of his revered grandfather, Rabbi Robert Gordis z”l. A comparison of the two eras is in order. Fifty years ago, Solomon Schechter day school education and Ramah summer camping were limited to Conservative movement elites (children of rabbis, cantors, educators, etc.). Today, these are mainstream successes for thousands. A half-century ago, the primary Shabbat religious service at Conservative shuls was a late Friday night for adults alone. Thankfully, in the present era, a shift to Saturday morning and multi-generational prayer has taken hold. Decades ago, only the Cantor and the Baal Koreh led the tefillot (prayer) and/or read from the Torah. Today, cadres of women, men and teens have been empowered with these liturgical skills. In the 1950’s and early 1960’s, few members of Conservative synagogues had been to Israel or taken Jewish Studies courses on campus. Both aspects of Jewish enrichment are now commonplace. Furthermore, in that era, precious few households became synagogue members until their eldest child reach third grade, in time for the Aleph Class requirement toward Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Today, folks routinely join during Nursery School years, and remain members for periods of time beyond the B’nai Mitzvah ceremonies of their youngest offspring.

Rabbi Gordis also points out that some of Conservative Judaism’s most knowledgeable and observant young adults leave for Modern Orthodoxy. While this is true, movement-shifting is not a one-way street. A sizable number of my young adult families who attend Shabbat services on a weekly basis, include those who were raised Orthodox but can no longer harmonize their family’s Jewish life with the perceived “judgementalism” within Orthodoxy. Moreover, the Gordis attack upon the outstanding Rabbinical Assembly volume entitled, The Observant Life misrepresents the objective. This is a collection of essays, addressing “What Judaism Says About…” a wide range of contemporary concerns. Does Gordis truly believe this his own writing in The Promise of Israel can stand-up under flippant scrutiny? His basic claim, that anti-State of Israel global sentiment can be attributed to world-wide discomfort with the concept of the nation-state, belies near universal support for establishing a new state, the State of Palestine!

Gordis faults us for ideologically concentrating upon halachah (law) and upon history. He posits that neither of these subjects is compelling for “non-Orthodox Jews.” Fair enough, but he misses the point! Ideology is essential for any movement’s ability to embed its principles and to galvanize its leadership. Then, he remarkably criticizes Conservative Judaism for our adherents supposed inadequate commitment to Jewish Peoplehood. This is an incredible accusation, indeed! If anything, we are THE Peoplehood Movement par excellence. Our members are the backbone of Jewish communal organizations of all types, most especially those which connect with Israel. In contrast to many 20 and 30-somethings who are “distancing from Israel,” Jewish Theological Seminary Ratner Center data affirmed that 90+ percent of young adults from affiliated Conservative homes feel an intense closeness, Moreover, Conservative Jewish men and women of all ages participate in Jewish friendship networks, Jewish cultural expression, and Jewish advocacy on behalf of any imperiled brethren in North America or abroad. The only other comparable group within the North American Jewish scene is the Modern Orthodox (like Gordis). Regrettably, they comprise only three percent of the Pew Study respondents (other American Orthodox self-identify as “Ultra-Orthodox”).

Finally, on one point, I can agree with Daniel Gordis. The Conservative movement does face serious challenges. As Professor Sarna has written, the modern history of American Jewish religious movements is not linear. At times, the Reform movement, and at other times American Orthodoxy faced the need for renewal. Awareness of the nature of the challenges is always the first step toward moving decisively into new directions. Yes, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Ed Feinstein sought to be provocative in demanding that the United Synagogue act with a sense of urgency. But Gordis (who was not present at the Convention) should be candid in acknowledging to his readers that Ed was but one of over 200 presenters, the majority of whom soberly and with determination advocated steps for moving forward. Here are but a few examples of what might be in order:

  1. To respond to the unavoidable demographic decline in aging neighborhoods throughout North America, the USCJ must embark upon an aggressive campaign of seeding new congregations inside areas of population growth.
  2. The USCJ should join with the World Masorti Movement and the Israel Masorti Movement in creating a global network of Conservative/Masorti collegians and young adults under the banner of MAROM Olami – a vibrant and growing world-wide Conservative/Masorti framework serving an era in which young adults are always on the move.
  3. Since the average age of American Jews (given the huge Boomer population) is mid-50s-60’s, the Conservative synagogue can no longer primarily be directed toward households with young children. Our shuls must become life-long centers of prayer, Jewish learning, Jewish engagement in acts of hesed (loving kindness) and social justice, places of Israel involvement and connection with fellow Jews around the world. All of this effort should be interwoven with Ron Wolfson’s “relationship Judaism” – one-on-one encounters, house meetings, social networks and so forth.
  4. Conservative synagogues must allocate resources and create partnerships to serve the Jewish interest and needs of unaffiliated single sons and daughters of their members, clustering in key urban centers. We should do so without any expectation of immediate or even short-term affiliation. This is an essential investment in building a brighter Jewish future.
  5. Finally, we must truly become a global movement. We are not merely 600+ Conservative synagogues in the USA. We are 800 Conservative/Masorti kehillot throughout the globe. We have 1700 rabbis. We are blessed with dozens of Jewish schools and camps. We have rabbinic, cantorial and educational training institutions in New York City, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Berlin and Jerusalem. We have 20,000 young people engaged in USY and/or NOAM. Nearly two million Jews world-wide self-identify with us. The institutions of Conservative/Masorti Judaism must collaborate more forcefully in promoting growth wherever it best can occur.

In sum, hopefully the disappointment generated by the Gordis “obit” leads us to re-examine and re-double our plans for renewal. Here it should be emphasized that the future vitality of Conservative Judaism is essential beyond our camp. For example, other movements owe to us their periodic rethinking of aspects of halachah. Similarly, Jewish communal life-in-general is indebted to us for preserving traditional structures accessible to many people who would find no other way both to embrace Judaism and the modern world.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”