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Joel Hoffman
Rabbi, Teacher, Columnist

A Tale of Two Movements: Conservative’s Decline and Chabad’s Growth

The focus of this paper is telling the story of the Conservative movement’s decline and Chabad’s growth through the data of the various studies of American Jewry, as well as the Conservative movement’s and Chabad’s own data.  I will then share my thoughts on the reasons for the Conservative movement’s decline, and my thoughts about its future. Spoiler Alert: It’s not good.  I do not discuss why so many people find Chabad attractive because there are already several published articles which discuss this.

THE BASIC FINDINGS

First let’s start with the big picture. If we format the data of the latest study of the Pew Research Center in 2020 [1], and just look at Jews age 18 through 49, which I feel gives a better snapshot when discussing continuity and trends, 38% identify as Jewish by ethnicity or culture (not by religion), of which almost all this group describes themselves as atheist or agnostic, 33% identify as a Reform Jew, 14% as an Orthodox Jew, 9.5% as a Conservative Jew, and 5% by one of the other movements.  

Additionally, for the first time questions about Chabad were asked in a national study and it was discovered that 38% of American Jews have engaged in a Chabad program in the past year.  Forty percent of this amount–which is 16% of all Jews–are active on a regular or semi-regular basis with Chabad; and 75% of those involved with Chabad do not consider themselves Orthodox.  

Based in this information it seems like demographers need to update their labels for the next study to include: Orthodox but not Chabad, Orthodox Chabad; and Chabad but not Orthodox. Though a wise rabbi once quipped, “labels are for suits.”

THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT

In looking closer at the Conservative movement, its market share across all the age groups combined slipped from 43% in 1990, to 26% in 2000, to 18% in 2013, and to 17% in 2020.  Demographers expect this number to continue to drop over the next few studies because Conservative Jews have the highest average age at 62 years old, compared to 53 years old for Reform Jews, and 35 years old for Orthodox Jews.  An even worse statistic for the movement is, when splicing the data to look at just the 18-29 age group, whereas in 2013 11% of 18-29 year olds considered themselves a Conservative Jew, this number dropped to single digits in 2020 to just 8%. In contrast, 17% of American Jews who are 18-29 years old identify as Orthodox.  

If we look at some of the data on the trending of the Conservative movement’s institutions, we see that the total number of Conservative synagogues in North America has shrunk from close to 900 in its heyday, to 675 in 2009, to 630 in 2013, to 580 just two years later in 2015, and to 560 in 2020.  Similarly, in its heyday there were 73 Solomon Schechter schools (elementary schools and high schools combined), but this shrunk to 63 in 1998, to 43 in 2012, and today only 30-something of these schools are in operation, of which many have reclassified as community schools. [2]  And, of course, the recent news that the American Jewish University announced that it is looking to sell part or all of its 35 acre Bel-Air campus.  

Whereas in a typical year approximately 50+ Conservative synagogues engage in a rabbi search, this year the number is projected to be at least 80, and many synagogues will not be able to fill their rabbi vacancies by the High Holidays this fall. The reason for the rabbi shortage is because of a combination of: planned retirements—similar to its congregants, the Conservative Rabbinate is also top-heavy in age; early retirements (being a rabbi during Covid has been extra challenging); the new phenomena of mid-career rabbi’s leaving the rabbinate for other positions in the Jewish community (it used to be the other way around); and most significant, the downward trend of the number of new rabbis the Conservative movement ordains every year.     

Denominational identity, however, isn’t synonymous with membership or individual religious practice. To look at just a few religious practices, it is estimated that just 25-30% of Conservative Jews keep a strictly kosher home according to Conservative standards, on a typical Shabbat (and pre-Covid) when there is not a B’nai Mitzvah only 13% of the membership attend services (which is better than 4% in the Reform movement), and less than 1% fully keep Shabbat–which includes not cooking, not using one’s cell phone, and only driving to and from the synagogue.

CHABAD [3]

Chabad sits alone on the opposite side of the spectrum as the only Jewish organization of any significant size that is growing.  

Chabad’s official entry to the American scene came over 50 years after the Conservative and Reform movements had already established their first rabbinical schools on American soil and were in full swing. 

In 1929 the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, visited the United States primarily to do fundraising for Russian Jewry; and in 1940, with the help of the U.S. Government, the Rebbe escaped Europe and settled in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.  At the time there were only about a dozen “card carrying” Lubavitch families each in New York, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and Chicago. Within a week of  Rabbi Y. Y. Schneersohn being in the United States he established a yeshiva, and within a few months he purchased the “770” building to house Chabad’s new headquarters.

Parenthetically, 770 was a block away from one of the Conservative movement’s prestigious synagogues, the Brooklyn Jewish Center (BJC).  At the time the BJC had 2,000 members and a pool. Today this congregation is defunct, and the BJC is under the auspices of Chabad and is used to house one of its yeshiva’s and as a hall for wedding receptions. 

Throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s Chabad primarily focused on supporting Orthodox communities. To do so, Chabad periodically send someone to one of the Jewish communities throughout the world, but to only a handful of states at this time, to be a rabbi of an existing Orthodox synagogue, to be a teacher, a shochet, or to open a school. Concurrently, in 1949 Chabad began sending rabbinical students to visit college campuses; and in the 1960s many hippies were drawn to Chabad’s spirituality. 

It was not, however, until 1969 when Chabad opened its first Chabad House as we know it in the United States on the campus of UCLA. This model met with great success, two more Chabad Houses were opened in 1972, and soon Chabad Houses became Chabad’s raison d’etre. Today there are over 1,000 Chabad Houses across all 50 states.

If you do the math, this is an average of nearly 20 new Chabad Houses per year, though in the year 2000, which was the year it was discovered that the Conservative movement’s market share had shrunk over the previous 10 years from 43% to 26%, 51 new Chabad Houses were opened in California alone. 

The 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, was Chabad’s charismatic leader from 1951-1994 who put Chabad “on the map,” and many pundits thought Chabad would flounder after his passing in 1994. However, since the Rebbe’s passing the number of Chabad emissaries and institutions has more than tripled. Growing from 1,100 emissary couples in 40 countries in 1994, to today with over 4,900 emissary couples working at Chabad’s 3,500 institutions in 100 countries.

To highlight just one of the dozens of Chabad’s initiatives, Chabad has always placed an emphasis on education, and in 1998 it launched the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI). JLI has many programs of which its flagship program is a five session mini-course for adults which is offered three times per year. The course topics cycle through the full range of subjects such as Talmud, Jewish History, Kabbalah, Ethics, etc., and most importantly, show how traditional Jewish teachings are relevant to one’s life. The courses are college-quality with a textbook, Power Points, and videos, and many professional associations (i.e., bar, medical, psychological) grant CEU credit for selected JLI courses. By 2014, 137,950 people had attended a JLI course, and today the number is over 362,000 with the course being consistently offered in over 600 locations worldwide. 

Some of Chabad’s other programs which have experienced tremendous growth in recent years include enrollment in its Camp Gan Israel summer camps; enrollment in its Hebrew Schools; participation in its C-Teens youth group which has 256 chapters; Chabad on Campus with 284 permanent centers; its website, Chabad.org, with 52 million unique visitors per year (that’s triple the amount of Jews in the world!); and its JNET distance study partner program with nearly 7,000 participants. Plus Chabad’s publishing house, Kehot Publication Society, has disseminated over 100 million volumes in twelve languages, making it the largest Jewish publisher in the world.   

Additionally, in the area of social services, Chabad’s Aleph Institute provides chaplain services for 4,000 Jewish prisoners and their families; Chabad’s Friendship Circle for children with special needs is operating in 81 locations with thousands of teenage volunteers; plus Chabad runs 19 soup kitchens throughout Israel which feed 3,000 poor and elderly Jews every day; and Chabad runs a rehab center in Los Angeles.

It is estimated that the total yearly cost to run all of Chabad’s programs worldwide is close to 2 billion dollars. 

Chabad’s numbers are not only astonishing, but keep increasing. 

DENOMINATIONAL SHIFTING

The Conservative movement’s decline and Chabad’s growth are not directly correlated. This is because most of the people who leave the Conservative movement join the Reform movement, while most of Chabad’s growth has come from Jews who were raised Reform or unaffiliated. 

A PERSONAL VIGNETTE 

The above data about the Conservative movement actually saddens me. I grew up in the Conservative movement—serving as the vice president of my USY chapter for two years, and have fond memories of regional Shabbatons and International Convention. (For those in the know, my USY years were just before the Ed Ward era.) In my 20s I davened at Conservative synagogues (shout out to Germantown Jewish Centre in the Philadelphia suburbs). I read Heschel for inspiration and I published two articles about Mordecai Kaplan’s thought and ideas. 

Professionally, my first job after getting my master’s degree in educational administration was at one of the movement’s flagship synagogues, Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, PA, as the Assistant Principal of their 460-student Hebrew school. Today Har Zion’s Hebrew school is down to about 150 students. Later I was the principal of a 175-student Conservative Hebrew school for three years in which Rick Recht was our music specialist (it was early in his career). Today this school does not exist.

I left the movement, in part, because I was growing in my Jewish knowledge and observance and I felt it was better for my spiritual growth to be, relatively speaking, a Rasha (wicked person) in the Orthodox world than a Tzadick (righteous person) in the Conservative movement. Never-the-less, as a Jewish educator I support strengthening ALL of the movements, and I have always rooted for the Conservative movement. 

HAS THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT’S LEADERSHIP BEEN SLEEPING AT THE WHEEL?

Despite the disparaging data that was revealed in the studies conducted in 1990, 2000, 2013, and 2020, there have not been any major initiatives by the Conservative movement to try to reverse the trending of the numbers. Please do not mention Synagogue 2000, which was an effort to make synagogues/temples more welcoming, because this was an effort by a non-profit group that worked with all the movements and was very limited in participation. Nor mention that the Conservative movement recently updated their siddur to be more user friendly because so has every movement, and siddur Sim Shalom wasn’t the reason people were dropping their memberships. 

I ask the following questions of the Conservative movement’s leadership: (1) Why were no new Camp Ramah sleep-away camps opened between in the 1970s and 80s when the movement was peaking and had tons of youth? (2) Why has there not been a massive youth initiative?  (3) Why has there not been an adult education initiative? (4) Why wasn’t a website created with scores of inspirational articles and videos? (See Aish.com, my favorite Jewish website, for an example of what could have been done.)  (5) Why has there not been motivational speakers? (6) Why has there not been outreach to the young professional age group?  

The Conservative movement actually went in the opposite direction by closing KOACH, it’s college outreach program in 2013, of which ironically the word Koach means “strength.” Meanwhile, more Chabad Houses kept popping up on college campuses. 

Aish HaTorah and Community Kollels had the wisdom to capitalize on the young professional age group which resulted in many Ba’alei Teshuvah (Jews who become Orthodox).  Now Chabad, it should be no surprise with its surplus of newly minted rabbis, is looking to have more of a presence in this space.   

It wasn’t like the leaders of the Conservative movement were without ideas to try. This is because several op-ed’s were written over the past 30 years with suggestions. For examples of three op-ed’s with great proposals see endnote #4 below.  Meanwhile, Chabad kept launching more initiatives and growing.

In fact, the idea of copying Chabad’s methods (note, “methods,” not ideology) was suggested in a popular op-ed that was penned in 2012 and this idea has resurfaced again in light of the findings of Pew 2020 about Chabad’s success. [5] 

Instead, the leadership in the Conservative movement chose to dispute Pew’s numbers—see the articles by Jack Wertheimer—and operate as “business as usual.” Ask any unaffiliated adult Jew what were his/her two or three biggest “turn offs” and you would likely hear a meaningless Hebrew school curriculum that largely focused on “synagogue Judaism,” and having to suffer through Bar/Bat Mitzvah lessons.  

As a side note, this is why in 2106 I wrote an op-ed which proposes a new Hebrew school model, and an op-ed that propose a model that would be more meaningful than today’s Bat/Bat Mitzvah. To access these op-ed’s, see the links in Endnote #6 below. 

Of course there have been individual Conservative rabbis and education directors who have done out-of-the-box initiatives which have had a positive effect in their community. I applaud those who have been integrating mindfulness into their prayer services; and a shout out for my friend, Rabbi Aaron Philmus in Greenwich, RI, who turned part of his affluent synagogue’s property into a farm with a vegetable garden, goats, chickens, ducks, and a honeybee hive, and he integrates food, agriculture and the nature-connection into his rabbinic practice. His board may have mixed feelings about all of this, and this is probably not the “magic bullet” that can save the movement, but most of the Hebrew school students and young families love it and are ultimately learning that ancient Jewish teachings have relevance for today. I wish more of these successful innovations by individuals were publicized.

As someone who stays informed of the American Jewish scene, I am dumbfounded that the leadership of the Conservative movement since realizing they were not going to be the “umbrella organization” of American Jewry which it’s founders thought it would be, has not articulated a more realistic and clear vision to drive the movement. Guess who has a vision?

Seeing the Conservative movement once thriving but then experiencing decades of poor leadership, I now know how it must feel to be a New York Jets fan!

WHY NO MOVEMENT CAN JUST “DO WHAT CHABAD DOES”

In my opinion, the Conservative (nor any) movement can not successfully pull off copying Chabad which has been suggested. I say this, in part, because Chabad’s success is due to a combination of their organizational structure, methods, and “specialness” of their emissaries.  Specifically:

1. There are not enough Conservative rabbis to fill the vacancies at the current Conservative synagogues, no less establish smaller and more intimate neighborhood Jewish centers.   

2.  Chabad rabbis also come in pairs. The husband and wife are equal co-directors of their Chabad House which means they are co-administrators, co-facilitators, co-teachers, and co-shleppers.  An advantage of this is that men have a different relationship with other men than with women, and visa versa. This full-time Rabbi/full-time Rebbetzin model would be a hard sell to the spouses of most Conservative rabbis. 

3. Chabad rabbis are 100% autonomous for everything they do. They do not have to answer to a board of old men. They also can’t get fired but their life-time appointment is limited to their said location only. There is no getting experience for a few years in a small community and then onto a bigger community. Such a model would be a complete 180 to the mindset of the Conservative rabbinate and it’s lay-leaders. 

4.  Although there are many amazing Conservative rabbis, Chabad rabbis and rebbetzin’s are not trained but bred. Almost every Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin grew up in Chabad families and in the Chabad educational system which imbued in them Hasidic philosophy, a sense of purpose, a mission, as well as interpersonal and leadership skills from the time they were able to speak. The Conservative movement’s Schechter, USY, Ramah, and Nativ pipeline is not producing enough people who want to be rabbis, no less imbuing them with the same “superhuman” qualities the Chabad system develops in their emissaries. I intend no disparagement of any of these wonderful programs or disrespect to any Conservative rabbi, but Chabad rabbis and rebbetzins have a passion and an attraction that only their system can produce, and is a key ingredient in Chabad’s success.  

My list can go on and on, but the above are reason enough. So where does this leave the Conservative movement?  

WHY IT’S TOO LATE FOR THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT TO REBOUND

The statistic of only 8% of American Jews age 18-29 identifying as a Conservative Jew is the most bothersome to me. This is because it’s like starting over in a system that has demonstrated it’s unwillingness to change despite, ironically, its motto of “Tradition and Change,” while at the same time these 8% and the rest of this age group, will be getting pulled by the current trends and Jewish landscape. In particular:

  1. When these 8% marry and have children they will make the decision of where to send their child to preschool or Hebrew school, and consequently which synagogue/temple to join. Many of them will base their decision on convenience rather than ideology, which in most cases will choose a Reform temple because one of these preschools is closer to where they are living.  
  2. Others will be drawn to a dynamic Chabad Rabbi or Rebbetzin. After all, Chabad is now everywhere and hard to avoid!  
  3. Others will be drawn to Chabad because of the lack of the exorbitant price of membership dues which Conservative (and Reform) synagogues/temples charge.  
  4. As the lines that separate the Conservative movement and Reform movement continue to blur, instead of attracting members from Reform, this will give license for those who were raised Conservative to join the ranks of Reform. To ease one’s guilt they’ll tell their Zayde (grandfather): “There’s really not much of a difference any more!” and they’ll be correct. 

CONCLUSION

Due to its demographics, trajectory, lack of leadership, and realities in play today–all of which were discussed above–I see the Conservative movement continuing its free fall and eventually be congruent in the size-range of the other small non-Orthodox movements like Open Orthodox, the Union for Traditional Judaism, Reconstructionist Judaism, Jewish Renewal, and Humanist Judaism. (Are there any others?) Though this does not mean the Conservative movement can not be improved to be the very best for those who affiliate because they see Conservative Judaism as the ideology striking the best balance of simultaneously being authentic and modern. 

The Conservative movement served a vital purpose for many decades in American Jewish history; and the American Jewish community would be way worse off today if the Conservative movement had not existed. Plus, JTS produced a lot of important scholarship. But now Chabad is aligned to take the baton and lead the way in connecting non-Orthodox American Jews with their heritage, and actually already has! 

I’m sure a few readers will write a response to this article in which they nitpick on a point or two. A more productive use of one’s time would be to figure out what one can do to get more Jews more involved in Judaism, and then do it.

Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman has been an educator for 22 years which has included teaching, administration, developing innovative programs and curriculum, research, writing articles, facilitating workshops, and speaking nationwide. Links to most of his 35+ published writings can be found on his Linked-In page at www.LinkedIn.com/in/joelhoffman123 

Endnotes:

  1. Jewish Americans in 2020, Pew Research Center, May 11, 2021.
  2. Most of these statistics were taken from articles in the Forward, Jan. 23, 2012 and Nov. 20, 2015. 
  3. The information and statistics about Chabad were taken from: Sue Fishkoff, The Rebbe’s Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch, 2003; David Eliezrie, The Secret of Chabad: Inside the World’s Most Successful Jewish Movement, 2015; and Chabad.Org.
  4. Joel E. Hoffman, “How to Save the Conservative Movement,” Jewish Journal, Jan. 21, 2016 (https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/opinion/181470); Jeremy Fine, “5 Steps and an Unlikely Outsider Can ‘Save’ Conservative Judaism,” Forward, May 26, 2017 ( https://forward.com/scribe/373134/5-steps-and-an-unlikely-outsider-can-save-conservative-judaism); and Joshua Rabin, “Snark is the Greatest Threat to Conservative Judaism,” eJewish Philanthropy, Dec.19, 2019 (https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/snark-is-the-greatest-threat-to-conservative-judaism).
  5. Steven Windmueller, “A Second Take: What Can We Learn From Chabad?” Times of Israel, June 6, 2021. (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-second-take-what-can-we-learn-from-chabad).
  6. Joel E. Hoffman, “Retooling Hebrew School, Jewish Journal, March 21, 2016 (https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/opinion/183583); and Joel E. Hoffman, Let’s Reconsider the Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Crescent City Jewish News, May 6, 2016 (https://www.crescentcityjewishnews.com/op-ed-lets-reconsider-the-barbat-mitzvah).
About the Author
Rabbi Joel E. Hoffman has been an educator for 22 years which has included teaching, administration, developing innovative programs and curriculum, research, writing articles, facilitating workshops, and speaking nationwide. Links to most of his 35+ published writings can be found on his Linked-In page at www.LinkedIn.com/in/joelhoffman123
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